by Colin Lamont
I expected September in Roussillon to be about grapes; I knew we were booked on a wine-tasting course in L’Hérault; and I hoped there would be a wine fête or three to enjoy in Roussillon.
But driving a wee red tractor between rows of vines gathering in crates of grapes had not been part of the plan. Yet there I was, only two days after flight FR936 had brought us to Perpignan, astride a red Fiat tractor, in a vineyard, hoping that I could recall the skills of reversing a trailer.
It all came about by getting to know Jonathan Hesford (pictured) who is in his first year as a vigneron in France.
Jonathan studied oenology in New Zealand and has several years experience in New Zealand winemaking. He has bought a number of hectares of vines and a large winery in Trouillas which he is naming Domaine Treloar, Treloar being the family name of his wife Rachel.
Now you might think it was a wise move to be friendly to a vigneron in the hope of being in line for the odd tasting of a fine wine, but do you have to go as far as to agree to his request to drive his tractor? Well why not, I thought? Just call it a learning experience, an opportunity to get to know the process from grape to glass.
Maybe the end product will taste all the better for having laboured, even briefly, in the vendange?
Languedoc-Roussillon is one of the largest areas of vines in the world with a history of some 2,500 years of wine-making.
Nowadays, there are machines and a whole science of wine-making to help the vigneron, but has the process fundamentally changed over these two and a half millennia? In the essentials, maybe not: grapes are grown, harvested , gathered in to some central point, put in a container and left to ferment.
But in the detail, much of course has changed and developed and it will be for Jonathan himself in a later issue of PO Life to get technical about such matters.
Beyond knowing how to open a bottle and drink the stuff, my only knowledge is limited to the impecunious days of my youth when I made my own “wine”. The outcomes ranged from my elderberry wine (deliciously port-like) to my carrot wine (viler than anything you have ever tasted from your medicine cabinet) – but that’s another story better not told.
This therefore is but a beginner’s record of what he saw and understood from a couple of days helping in a vineyard. Another time, I will tell you the tale of the long weekend that followed in Languedoc learning from an expert, meeting some independent vignerons and tasting a variety of exceedingly tasty wines.
Firstly then to Jonathan’s domain. Most of his grapes are hand-picked which meant he had already recruited his squad of vendangeurs and completed the inevitable paperwork.
Indeed, the week before I appeared on the scene, his Grenache was harvested and performing its magical transformation in a cuve.
Picking is an intensely physical business, with much stooping to find and harvest the bunches of grapes under the canopy of leaves. It is hard on the hands anyway, but the less skilful (and yes, I was one of them) are more liable to close their sécateurs on a bit of finger as well a stem.
Each picker fills a bucket which is then emptied into crates to be collected and lifted on to the trailer. In some vineyards you will still see the traditional cone-shaped hods carried on the back (try one empty and it’s heavy enough!) and in some you will also see the grapes being put directly into a trailer which can then be tipped out at the winery.
Jonathan prefers to crate his grapes so that they are not crushed by their own weight as they are when loose in a trailer. All this bending, stretching, lifting etc is going on under an unremittingly fierce sun. This is no easy job, I realise.
As the picking continues, I trundle my way along a row collecting the crates. As soon as the trailer is full, I am off down the tracks and the road to the winery. Under the Roussillon sun, with stunning views of Canigou, it is a remarkable feeling to be involved in this ancient ritual of harvesting grapes.
I cheerfully acknowledge the smiles and waves from passing motorists (even the ones I am holding up!) and the bonjour from the occasional pedestrian, and sense I am part of an ancient but still vibrant culture.
At the winery the crates of grapes are emptied into an érafloir, a de-stemming machine which strips and separates the grapes from the stalks.
The bunches of grapes are passed into a drum where paddles knock the fruit off the stems. The separated grapes fall through a grid perforated with round holes into a container below.
From there they are pumped through a pipe to the the press, if white, or directly into a cuve (the vat in which fermentation takes place), if black. The ejected stems go back to the vineyard for later return to the soil.
For all this is a modern machine, the screw principle for moving and pumping the grapes has been around a long time: its invention is often ascribed to Archimedes, although there is a possibility it was invented even earlier around 600BC.)
The white grapes we picked are pressed immediately. The modern pressoir allows the vigneron to choose the nature of the pressing – length and pressure, for example.
The juice is collected below the drum and piped off into a cuve for fermentation. The cuve might be an older type concrete tank (béton) or could be more modern and made of fibreglass (fibre de verre) or stainless steel (inox).
There is also the possibility of fermenting the grapes in oak barrels.
One thing I have learned is that there is a vast number of choices available to the vigneron throughout the whole process of growing grapes and making wine.
Our white grape pressing is piped into a stainless steel tank. Although the white grapes have been pressed and their skins are therefore not in the juice, there will still be many solid particles in the fermenting liquid which will, of course settle to the bottom.
The vigneron will stir these up from time to time to impart flavour. The temperature is carefully controlled during fermentatio
On my second day of toil, we are picking Syrah a black grape. A day of lifting, shifting and emptying crates of this richly coloured fruit left t-shirt and shorts beyond rescue!
These grapes went straight from the de-stemmer into a concrete cuve. Black grapes are not pressed till after fermentation: it is the skins which impart colour and flavour to red wine.
During fermentation, the skins will rise to the top of the juice and form a tough crust. To ensure the maximum taste is gained from the skins, it is necessary to break this crust and maximise the contact of skin and juice.
This might be done, for example, by physically breaking up the crust and pushing it down through the liquid or by drawing off the juice from the bottom and piping it back up into the cuve so that it will filter down through the skins.
As I said, Jonathan chooses to harvest his grapes by hand, but exceptionally brought in a mechanical harvester to take in a block of Muscat grapes which were being sold to the local Cooperative.
You may well wonder, as I did, how bunches of grapes can be harvested mechanically.
The solution is a machine which straddles the row of vines with two vertical rows of batteurs which hit either side of the vine and shake the grapes off their stems.
It works, but it is of course indiscriminate: it cannot distinguish between a good bunch of grapes and one which a human picker would reject or cut poorer bits off; it picks the grapillons which are small round clusters of more bitter grapes which form differently from the main bunches and which are not picked by the human harvester; and it treats the plant itself rather brutally.
I understand these machines have not been around long enough to assess fully if they do any permanent damage to the vine by shaking its roots but there are concerns.
As I tried painfully to unkink my spine before creaking to the next vine in my row, I watched this huge beast clear a whole row in no time at all. Whatever the argument about quality and potential damage, it is certainly a tad quicker than I can manage.
I only had two days’ help to offer, but the intensity of the work, the heat and the sheer physicality of it all made it seem like more.
I averaged 4 litres of water a day plus a couple of beers, but surprisingly for one who cannot pass a bowl of grapes at home without scoffing the lot, ate only about half a dozen grapes in all.
I realised that this had been great foundation for the course we had booked on in Languedoc to learn more about wines, wine-making and the grape harvest. But that, as they say, is another story. My two days had been great .
Men and women have harvested grapes and made wine in this part of the world for two and a half thousand years: just for two days I was part of that tradition.
Un petit vocabulaire
le vendange – the grape harvest
un(e) vendangeur(euse) – a grape picker
un raisin – a grape
une grappe (de raisins) – a bunch (of grapes)
un érafoir/un égrappoir – a machine for separating grapes from the stems
un pressoir – a wine press
une cuve – a tank for fermenting the wine
une barrique – a barrel
un tracteur – a tractor
une remorque – a trailer
la benne – the tipping part of a truck/trailer
un vigneron – a winemaker
le cépage – variety of vine
l’élevage (m) – the production of the wine
l’évolution (f) – the development of the wine