I’m not sure when we decided to pick at the weekend but I think it was on the Friday morning. A few calls to Guy, who rents and drives the machine, and it was all booked. Mind you, it’s lucky we’re happy to harvest at a ridiculous hour at the weekend, because all his normal weekday slots were getting booked up by neighbouring chateaux.
It’s also lucky that he’s based here on site at Bauduc, with two machines, another driver, fuel, cleaning facilities and a rather unattractive caravan (below, left). We’ve yet to let his tyres down on the way to another customer but you never know.
It was the last weekend of September and the final week, after a mixed fortnight, was dry and sunny. This had certainly helped the white grapes ripen. The acidity had dropped and the sugar levels, the flavours and aromas had developed well. We do look at the numbers from the analysis of the grapes but the taste, with a bit of experience, is the important thing.
Then, with rain and sweltering humidity on the Friday, we had to pick before rot set in. We could see in the bunches that within a few days the rot would spread quickly, like a blackened banana in a bowl of ripe peaches. The weekend could make all the difference. Time to act.
One thing I’ve learnt is that nature doesn’t stick to a five-day week, so we don’t think of weekends any differently during the harvest. We also like to machine pick early in the morning – for freshness – and we’re lucky to have, in Daniel and Nelly, two tireless workers who don’t worry about the time of day or the usual Monday to Friday routine. They have been with us from the start, including the first five harvests which were all by hand.
Machine harvesting works, I think, because the machine has a built-in de-stemmer and sorter, and any part of our vineyard is no more than two minutes by tractor from the winery. We want to maintain the freshness for the white and rosé and reduce the risk of oxidation.
The same can be achieved if you pick by hand into stackable shallow crates, called cagettes, and then de-stem in the winery. But you need the right kit and a lot of people – minimum wage €9.43 (£8) per hour – who are available at the drop of a hat.
The difference with white and rosé, compared to red, is that the skins will be in contact with the juice for a very short time. With red, they may be in the tank for up to a month, so any rot must be sorted and discarded first. It does seem odd that some Crus Classés harvest their reds by machine in a rot-strewn vintage like 2013 but that’s their call.
The grapes go straight from the vineyard into a chilled ’skin-contact’ stainless steel tank. We then run off the cold juice from the tank, press the remaining juice from the skins in a pneumatic press – a big, 5000-litre drum with a sort of air bag compressor thing – and settle the juice in another chilled tank. Once it has settled, we let the juice warm up a bit, add yeast – we use several different types – and start the fermentation.
Naturally, we taste and analyze along the way to make sure we’re not going to turn the whole lot into vinegar. The lab is just at the end of the road, literally, and since 2006 we’ve been working with a top oenologist who advises us at each stage. (Actually, we’ve been working with two, quite separately, but one of them doesn’t know.)
I’ve managed to write thus far without mentioning the hail, dammit. The truth is, we’ve had to be fairly pragmatic about it. The grapes in some of the parcels were never going to ripen properly: bunches had been bashed (pictured), leaves had been ripped to shreds, and the vines had temporarily gone into shock. They’ll live to bear fruit another day but for this year, those blocks would be harvested to make wine that would be sold off in bulk.
With 10,000 hectares of Bordeaux hit locally, there is a market for it, we believe.
In 2013, you have to take it on the chin. There’ll be a small yield and we’ll have worked hard to get it. The wines will be alright but it won’t go down as a good year for reds.
It is, though, fairly promising for the whites. Worth getting up for, at least.