Cleaning the inside of a wine tank is fairly straight-forward. Pull on a t-shirt (definitely not your favourite one), grab a brush, climb inside and get to work. Imagine doing this during harvest time. You’re inside, dark, confined and you’re scrubbing away with only a head torch to guide you. The empty tank adjacent to yours slowly starts filling with fruit, thud… thud… thud… Then it gets quicker: thud, thud, thud. Then it becomes a downpour of grapes all super excited to be turning into wine. Now you scrub harder for all your worth when… silence, a hatch opens above your head flooding your senses with daylight and the realisation that… it’s your tank next!
Here we pick up the story of what it’s like to work a vintage in the Southern Rhone. The Terrasses Rouge is one of the wines we now pour at Tredwells and is the wine I was very nearly part of!
Château Pesquié, based on the slopes of Mt Ventoux was home for two weeks back in October 2014. In winemaking terms that’s not such a long time ago and it is indeed the 2014 we’re pouring so it seems fitting to talk about it.
Day one and reports are coming in of severe weather moving up from Montpellier to the south adding pressure on us to get fruit picked. The race of time vs fruit quality begins. One of the best parts of the day was around 9pm when a selection of bread, cheese and charcuterie was neatly arranged in and around the various tools, hoses and machinery we were working with. To accompany that we had a small glass of wine drawn straight from the tank we were leaning against. When I arrived this morning these people were strangers, now we’re friends.
On a near daily basis we did vineyard inspections. Botrytis was a real issue – an airborne bacteria that loves humidity and moisture made famous in Bordeaux for creating Sauternes. It is undesirable here and massively affected what the guys could pick. To that end we visited many sites where countless rows had bunches affected. The very blunt answer is that nothing can be done and the vineyard is lost, an early defeat. It’s crucial that we now get the best out of all remaining healthy fruit.
Back at the winery: top up time in the barrel room. Over time, wine naturally evaporates, therefore you need to top it up. Being in the barrel room is completely different to the winery floor, it’s a very calm and contemplative space to be – the only process happening is wine maturing methodically and slowly. Topping up itself requires a head torch and a head for heights as barrels are stacked floor to ceiling. Method as follows: remove the bung, pour in wine until there are no gaps, replace the bung and clean the outside of the barrel, easy right? Just around 300 more barrels to go.
The main part of my time involved manning the crushpad to crush fruit (in just one day alone I crushed a total of 3 steel tanks worth of Grenache and Syrah). Luck was now on our side as we had a window of near perfect conditions – hot but crucially dry and the northerly Mistral brought crisp refreshing air meaning any moisture on the fruit would be quickly whisked away. Visibility was good – the lunar-esque summit of Mt Ventoux shone brightly in the autumn sunshine. Everything was set: fruit primed, kind weather, an eager British man in charge of many thousands of euros worth of equipment.
This was a job of two halves. Crushing fruit up top and de-vatting tanks below. Then clean and prep them to receive more fruit from the tractors already queuing to get in. You have to act fast, if the fruit is ready, it’s ready – you can’t wait any longer or until the next day, coffee and floodlights being regularly reached for and switched on. These four days were highly productive and working with the guys to get everything done under great pressure was hugely rewarding.
At close of play we were at 80% capacity with around 5,500hl of fruit sitting comfortably in the winery, good for nearly 750,000 bottles. The weather can do what it wants now. My final job was to clear the decks with a hose, brushing away any remaining grape skins and seeds from the winery floor. All that remained was to sit down with the guys and crack open a cold beer, job done.
That’s the story of 2014. In all honesty looking back the best part for me was just being able to make a tangible contribution and it’s of great comfort to know you’ve helped create something that will bring happiness and enjoyment to people all over the world. That surely is a beautiful thing.