October 16th, 2012
The popular (my?), romantic image of the grape harvest involves happy groups of pickers in the vines, singing and joking, and much stamping of the newly picked grapes. Well, after four days of picking biodynamically-grown grenache and syrah grapes at one of “my” producers, Cédric Guillaume-Corbin’s Domaine La Péquélette in Vinsobres, I can tell you from first hand experience that it’s tough. Yes, there’s lots of laughing and banter, but you try spending 10 hours bent at a 45 degree angle and you’ll see what I mean.
The picking team. Cédric in the white T-shirt.
I got sunburnt (it was 30ºC in the vineyard on a couple of days); cut by my own secateurs (twice!); scraped by who knows what sort of devil plant that attaches tiny little prickly buds to everything, including the hairs on the your arms and legs, which you then have to cut off so entangled do they get (the buds not your legs); I thought I would never be able to stand straight again or, once I was straight, that I may never bend; and I was shattered. As wine lovers, we should give thanks every day to the grape pickers who make our favourite wines possible. So why did I go back day after day? Well not for the money – stupidly I did it for free to help a lovely winemaker I admire very much and to “experience” the harvest (how very dilettante of me). And I maybe should have thought again after day one when I was told that picking syrah is easy compared to day two’s lower-growing grenache. But you know what, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world – the team spirit is infectious and as a wine lover it’s exciting to think you have directly contributed to a vintage.
Day 3 - the high vineyards of Vinsobres. Note the stony terraces.
Putting our small cages of grapes onto the trailer. The cages ensure the grapes aren't crushed before they get to the winery, as happens when the grapes are thrown straight into the trailer.
Day three was up on the heights of Vinsobres, in a rock-covered, mountain-goat steep vineyard given over to old vine grenache and syrah. To my untrained eyes the grapes looked fabulous. Cédric, too, was very happy, especially when his œnologist’s technical analysis of the juice confirmed my opinion (I must be born to it). Cédric clearly loves this vineyard and thinks that in years to come it may supply the grapes for a separate super-cuvée. Having tasted the 2005 vintage of his two existing cuvées, “Emile” and “Les Muses”, at a Saturday night pickers’ dinner, I wonder where he can go to top them.
Loading the trailer
My final day’s picking made me wonder whether there is something in biodynamics. I’ve always been a sceptic, happy to acknowledge that there are great biodynamic producers around the world making fantastic wines, but not convinced that the reason for their greatness lies in working with the phases of the moon or applying homeopathic quantities of self-produced plant treatments. And at the same time I can think of plenty of stupendous wines made “conventionally”. The reason for my new doubts? The morning was spent in La Péquélette’s bio vineyards, the afternoon in a conventional vineyard – I won’t say whose, just that they’re not part of the Rhone Wine Tours line up. There had been some rain the day before and at 8 in the morning, La Pequélétte’s grenache was damp from dew but the grapes were healthy and the soil was dry.
Me in the vineyard
Me on the tractor.
In the afternoon we had to abandon picking a plot on the plateau of Valreas. As a picker, it is your job to ensure that only healthy grapes go to the winery. But so many rotten bunches were being dumped on the ground, giving off clouds of mould spores in the process, in the end it wasn’t worth the effort of picking. Those that had been kept were distinctly pinkish – underripe in other words. Despite the strong sun, the soil was still damp and slippery, clay clinging to my boots. The contrast couldn’t have been clearer. And it wasn’t the first time I’d seen a difference between Cédric’s biodynamic vines and conventional plots right next door that showed the same crumbly, dry/slimy, wet difference. Is this a demonstration of one of the foundations of biodynamic winemaking – healthy soils lead to healthy vines and so to good wines? Or could it be subtle changes of “terroir”, or even farming methods such as ploughing between vines or using cover crops to break up the topsoil and thereby avoid standing water? I honestly don’t know, all I can say is that I love Cédric’s wines. Which is good, as my reward at the end of the vendange was a case of the delicious “Les Muses” 2007. It won’t pay the bills, but it certainly lessens their pain.
I will always think of La Péquélette 2012 as “my” wine and thankfully the omens are good for a great vintage. Obviously, it’s all down to me.
Footnote: This is the blog of Rhone Wine Tours
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