The Vintner Out & About
Ten years on I returned back where my life of wine all started for me. It was ten years almost to the day when I did my first harvest in what I still believe to be the most beautiful part of France - Beaujolais. Those two weeks of rising before dawn, in the vineyards at sunrise, breakfasts of cold meats and chilled Beaujolais, long mornings of picking grapes then a long lunch before back in the vineyards til sunset were some of the longest and most memorable days of my life. It was 'real' work and those first few days felt like weeks! My back felt like it was broken, my hands blistered and covered in cuts. The evening would be a cacophony of drunken noise with sing songs, accordions (so French), guitars round the table and an endless stream of flowing wine, pastis and roll-ups. It was and still is a rite of passage for many French students and it changed my life!
I was always interested in wine but on UK soil, wine circles always seemed a bit stuffy and felt contradictory to my more anarchic ways. My initial trip round the vineyards of France that summer with a friend and a tent and nowhere near enough money was the beginning of my journey that showed me a very different side of wine.
Despite the overwhelming friendliness we experienced in both Champagne and Burgundy (invited to lunches, clubbing with the kids of Beaune!! - that was weird) it was when we were really broke and we hit Beaujolais on the football World Cup final night - July 2006 (where France lost and Zidane was sent off for head butting) It was that night that the world of wine really spoke to me. Despite France losing in such dramatic circumstances there was a massive street party in the tiny village of Chiroubles and it was there we bumped into our new winemaking friends Romuald and his girlfriend Mélanie, over a glass of fizz of all things. We were trying to hitch a ride back to the campsite in Fleurie but for them the night was just beginning! We stayed and drank and danced and partied hard that night (in Beaujolais it happens a lot!) and the next day went for lunch at their newly acquired/ rented winery.
Romuald is from a wine making family and has been making wine since he was a boy but he had just started renting a beautiful winery in St Veran. Those long summer days we spent in Beaujolais were etched in my memory. We would drink a few bottles of wine, make our own epic sandwiches then have a siesta lying outside the church of La Madonne atop of the hill overlooking the village of Fleurie and surrounded by vineyards. It was beautiful! We arrived as strangers and left as friends. One month later I was back there picking grapes. And now ten years later I am back again.
A lot has changed in those 10 years but the harvest hadn't changed at all! It is like it hasn't changed in 100 years. Perhaps mentally I was a more prepared for the hard work but I had asked Romuald if I could take more of a role in the winery too which meant after picking all morning you had to get all the grapes in the tanks before lunch and protected, then the same in the evening leaving the winery spotlessly clean. The days were just longer, even harder and remember I'm older and the body aches more!
It has been a tough year in France this vintage and no tougher than in Beaujolais. As we travelled through the vineyards of Morgon there were waves of vines with brown leaves and zero grapes. Romuald himself has a small prized vineyard in Chiroubles and this year no grapes. It is heartbreaking particularly as his Chiroubles 2015 is a thing of beauty! He claims it is his first natural wine since the grapes from last year were in such good condition they needed minimal protection during the production phase.
It really hits home when winemakers like him who sell out of their wines every year and who are desperate to acquire more vineyards to meet demand and bam, in a few minutes they can lose half their crop to natural forces. This year hail was the culprit and it has left much of France badly scarred. It will be a lean year but the dry August and September has seen the grapes reach high levels of ripeness and what he has looks good.
After a week picking, the Morgon grapes now safely fermenting away in a semi carbonic maceration typical of the higher level cru wines, my back is getting used all the lifting, my French particualrly under the influence is kind of reaching conversational level, my muscles feeling well exercised, all the sunshine and the fresh air, if it wasn't for the wine at breakfast I would be feeling pretty healthy! We move the team from Morgon to the vineyards of St Veran which are north of Beaujolais and the beginning of the Maconnais. Here the grapes have faired better from the hail and are looking super ripe and fit to burst. His St Veran Chardonnay is really his pride and joy and I spent my last day bringing it in before leaving the team and heading home.
One week back after ten years and nothing was more clear why I had gone back. If you have ever drank a bottle of wine on your own then you will know, you need people to enjoy wine. Doing a harvest is about meeting people and sharing a bottle. This time is was great to hang out with my friends Romuald and Mélanie (now married for 8 years, with two amazing children) talk about wine for hours but also to meet the people from all walks of life that for one reason or another ended up at their winery for two weeks to work together. Often they do it every year. People from all over. Anarchic vegans from Croatia (it was tough being in France and being vegan but they struggled through), a girl from Slovenia, a couple from Columbia, a guy from Corsica, some girls from Bordeaux, some film makers form Paris. Both Romuald's and Melanie's parents and aunties and uncles, brothers all turn up to lend a hand too, whether it is cooking to feed the team, or mucking in at the winery and in the vineyards. Everybody working together to bring the harvest in.
Picking grapes in the day, making the wine at the end of the day and then drinking the wine from that vineyard from vintages past in the evening with the winemaker and team removes that metabolic rift that tends to exist when consuming anything. At least for that moment I am a small link of the chain that put that in wine in the bottle. After a hard day in the vineyard through blood, sweat and tears a glass of that wine will never taste so sweet. I implore you all to take that journey and wine will never taste the same again.