A brief Harvest reflection

Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru "Les Feusselottes"

Just got done placing everything into barrel besides Le Chambertin.

It is always a time of having mixed feelings for me personally. You go from looking at the bare vines to getting excited about the developing grapes, and veraison strikes. The maturity of the grapes increases and the anticipation just builds. I’m never anxious, just excited. Things go from being pretty sleepy around here to dizzyingly busy with trucks and tractors carrying loads on the main streets and side roads. The noises seem to escalate, much more tourists and people working in the vineyards are seen everywhere. The places I visit during the year worrying about having a less wrinkled shirt now see me drenched in rain, grape juice, muddy shoes and usually a beard and cut, wine stained hands. Beer disappears off of shelves everywhere. Everyone seems to ask you about the harvest, asking when we will ‘attack’ and even the most shy of my neighbors wants to speak with me about the growing season and the upcoming weather.

It is a beautiful time, something that I really wish I could somehow capture and save.

The once decently-cleaned courtyard here in Nuits is littered with beer bottles, random grapes that rolled away from one of us (most likely me), well-used fruit cases and usually some wine soaked clothes that got tossed into a corner somewhere. The feeling that you get from having visitors come to help you, interested in being a part of the harvest has a way of creating lasting friendships. Each vineyard that we visit during the days before harvest are inspected, spoken about and studied. Within a few days we are back in the vineyards and helping with the field sorting, lifting up fruit cases onto tractors on the steep vineyards, and moving cases to the end of rows as well. Filling up my truck with the fruit cases always fills me with a curious feeling. I’m of course happy, but I feel as though I am taking away a parent’s child. With this feeling, I always think, ‘don’t screw the wine up’. Its not that I’m not confident, but there is an obligation. The grower’s want their fruit to be purchased, sure. But, they want and more to the point need for great wine to be the result of their terroir and hard work. To fail in this wouldn’t be acceptable.

Once the fruit is brought to the house in Nuits, I begin with setting up the sorting table which is not much more than a laminated piece of wood placed and drilled onto a small, cheap, wooden table from Ikea. Three to four empty fruit cases are placed around the table to hold the discarded fruit. A de-stemmer is placed just after this table, with the entry point being roughly one foot above the height of the table. Two Fruit cases are placed under the de-stemmer to catch the berries, with another two placed at the other end of the machine to catch the discarded stems. The tanks are given a hot rinse (to clean) and then another cold rinse (to cool back down) just prior to being filled.

One full fruit cases are emptied onto the sorting table and spread out so we can see everything well. If berries are laying on top of each other it will be too difficult to notice the transparent berries that we want to toss out. At any time whether in the vineyards, while placing cases in to our truck, or at home, we will toss anything that doesn’t look like something we’d like to eat. All of the fruit that we wish to keep get tossed in by hand into the de-stemmer. Everything else is tossed or swept off and into the fruit cases resting new to the table. This method ensures that we touch each cluster and makes sure that we aren’t seeing one side of a cluster that looks flawless, only to miss an issue on a hidden side as it moves along a conveyor belt. The downside is certainly that the fruit is heated up with touching so much and if there is too much sun, the heat is even more of a concern. With all of this considered, I (and those helping) preferred the idea (perhaps not the extra work) of the manual table.

The fruit cases filled with de-stemmed fruit are hand carried to the short wooden (a few new additions meant renting some stainless steel versions as well) fermentation tanks. The smell of wooden tanks and fresh grapes is something that really needs to be experienced to be believed. Just lovely. Also, this is a good time to just smell and check how things are smelling. Once the tank is full, a bit of ‘odorless’ so2 is added. (During harvest, this has been the preferred version of the so2 products. Once in barrel, regular so2 is used.) It is important to note that I don’t have anything against sulphur. So, I use it. No punchdown is performed, the conical shaped tanks are covered with vinyl lids which keep in a fair amount of humidity and also hold loads of condensation which drops down onto the cap which will form over the next few days.

Over the course of the fermentation, three punchdowns will be performed by entering the tank and manually punching down with my feet. In doing this, no seeds are crushed.The first punchdown is performed once the temperature is near 31°C. While entering the tank, all doors of the cuverie/garage are opened and if co2 levels are high enough, fans will be brought in to aid in ventilation. Being inside of the tank with the wine is one of my favorite parts of all. There is an intimacy in being inside of the tank. The days leading up to this point have brought smells of fresh fruit throughout our home and into the adjoining courtyard. Once in the tank, the perfume is intensified. While the tank is generally warm, there are pockets within that are warmer or cooler than others. In treading inside the tank, these pockets are moved towards each other to create a more even temperature and hopefully ensure that cool areas do not persist. The berries are mainly unbroken, but as the fermentation has begun, they have swollen increasing the mass in tank and also releasing sounds similar to popping plastic shipping bubbles between your fingers. I can’t be sure why, but taking one in my hand and popping it always makes me laugh. As you stay in the tank, the co2 can be daunting, so it is wise to have a spotter with you, or wooden planks to straddle. I have my room ventilated well enough, and my tanks are short enough to not cause my to me too submerged that I am fine without much besides one to two people watching once I am in the tank. While punching down, it is important that other nearby tanks are covered to decrease the chance of ‘sharing’ between tanks, though it is in some way inevitable. If I need to punch down more tanks, I make sure to shower well before jumping into the next tank.

Throughout the fermentation, there seem to be really different fragrances that come from the tank. This is a good time to be observant as off odors could signal issues in the fermentation. Once fermentation is thought to be finished, the wines are allowed to rest for two to three days prior to placing everything into barrel.

The barrels are set up in their proper locations in the cave below our house. Using a few hoses attached directly to the tanks, the wine is filled into the barrels below using nothing but gravity, the hoses and a pistolet. Adjusting the hoses up or down here and there speed up, slow down, or stop the flow from above. Filling up barrels can fly by in 2 minutes if the line is smooth enough. Once the free juice (vin de gout, also known as gout de mere in older times) is emptied out, the 95 year old press is rolled into position and the wooden cage is assembled. There are three pieces to the cage. Once the cage is set up, I dive into the tank with the marc (left over grape solids which still contain wine) and begin to shovel out using nothing but a bucket and my hands. Someone stands besides the tank while catching scoops of marc into a fruit case. After being filled (or too heavy to continue holding) it is brought over to the press, and lifter over and into the cage. It is important to test the fitment of the wooden planks which will rest on top of this bed of marc before it gets too heavy. If it is too heavy, it will require massive efforts to align the press properly. Failing this, the boards which press down and onto the bed of marc will not fit. In other words, this needs to be done right or nothing will work.

As you are shoveling out the marc, the co2 levels can become intense. There is a noticeable difference in the oxygen levels that you have once you are nearing the bottom of the tank, but you press on, filled with adrenaline. Due to my low count of punchdowns, there can be noticeable reduction in the lowest bit of the tank’s contents. This has happened twice, and in this situation, I have tossed out perhaps 15 kg of marc which normally could have been pressed. At this time, a special fruit case is fitted below the spout of the press. This fruit case was something I came up with. It is basically a fruit case with a ‘macon’ type/size valve (the same as all of my tanks) fitted on one end. With the weight of the marc that is piling up, this fruit case begins to carry a good amount of wine. The hose which was attached to the fermentation tanks is then attached to the collecting fruit case and the valve is opened, filling the next barrel with press/free run juice. My press is a common style from around 1920. There aren’t any electric parts. The fruit is placed into the cage, and once filled, the fruit will need to be leveled using plastic shovels. If this is not done, the wooden pieces that will come later will be off center resulting in an uneven press. The 8 thin boards go directly on top of the fruit, conforming to the interior of the cage walls. On top of this platform, there is a screw which rise up 10 feet that holds the press ‘bell/head’. Wood is stacked on top of this platform which yields more wine exiting the berries before turning the press. The wood is placed in a cross-hatch formation, with two pieces of wood at each layer. After four to five layers (depending on the quantity of marc being pressed) of wood, the top wooden blocks are placed just below the press bell.

A large iron handle connects to the press bell. Turning this handle clockwise moves the bell and wood onto the platform pressing down the marc releasing wine into the modified fruit case. It sounds difficult to turn when you see this old piece of machinery, but it is actually quite easy to turn, even when the pressing is at full pressure. It can be done with one to to people, as we have done the last two years.

With all of the wines in barrel besides Chambertin, I’m left with mixed feelings as I described above. I feel a sense of accomplishment in now seeing the names of the different appellations written on each barrel. And, to be able to see that in one spot of my cave there is a full year’s expression of a vineyard is nothing short of amazing. But, each time this happens, each stage that moves the wines forward, I feel some sort of loss of intimacy with the wines. You go from being in the vineyard to taking in the fruit, diving into a tank filled with nothing but wine to being completely hands off for the rest of the wine’s life. Knowing that those moments of closeness, tiring effort, frustration and accomplishment are fleeting, it makes me appreciate each step that I am a part of and wanting to be a part of more.

Of course, I understand that this may be one of the most boring, drawn out posts on my blog, but it was something that I felt compelled to express.

Thank you again for your patience in reading this



PS Final Numbers

Volnay 1er Cru “Robardelles” 4 barrels
Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru “Les Chaffots” 3.75 barrels
Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru “Monts Luisants” 4 barrels
Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru “Les Corbeaux” 1.25 barrels
Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru “Les Feusselottes” 1.25 barrels
Mazoyères-Chambertin Grand Cru 5 barrels
Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru “Aux Charmes Hautes” 8 barrels
Le Chambertin Grand Cru 5 barrels

Here are a few shots from the harvest taken from Philippe Shuller, Darren Brogden and myself

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8 thoughts on “A brief Harvest reflection

  1. I don’t know why, but this post reminds me of the feelings I had when leaving after putting “Le Chambertin” in tank with you and the guys!

    Barreling of the 1ers was great fun, and everything looks in order at the moment… All the best for the 2011s!

  2. Ray,
    Thoroughly enjoyed our description of some of the elements it requires to make wine.
    Love the attention to detail and dedication to creation of a living ,breathing substance.
    Dr. Bob Sweeney

  3. I’d love to be able to buy some of your wine, but can’t seem to find where to have my name placed on your mailing list ….

  4. Well Hello Ray,
    We are sitting in Paris reading this incredible, intimate piece about your work…Bravo!!
    Thank you,
    Barbara Bernier
    June Little

  5. Thanks for the update Ray and I can sense your melancholy running all the way through! It was amazing to be part of the experience but sorry to have missed out on the barreling.

  6. It is a real pleasure to read in close detail your step-by-step process of turning grapes into wine. Not boring or tedious at all.

  7. Thanks, Darren! You were exceptional this year. Thank you for your effort, energy and of course, camera skills! And, yes, I’m always a bit hungover once harvest ends

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