The Vintner Out & About
As we careered into Alsace on a rather stormy Friday morning, the driest wine region in France was looking decidedly sodden. Nearing the end of November there are still some grapes on vine, slowly concentrating and waiting to be picked for 'Vendange Tardives' (late harvest) wines...
A very different vintage to the warm 2015, the new releases possess a much more classic style of claret that we have not seen for many years. If 2015 was a vintage for Merlot then 2016 was without doubt superior for Cabernet Sauvignon.
In a whirlwind visit last month, we tasted our away across the the appellations and were very excited at what we found. From the Médoc to the Graves and over to Saint-Émilion, we tasted our way through hundreds of wines to truly understand the vintage and find the most attractive offerings for you.
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.