Wine Making

It’s Time: Harvest Tomorrow 5

After a sunny week the balance tipped.   Labour starts tomorrow at dawn. You can hear the tremor in some neighbor’s voices; worry about the weather, scare stories.  A scramble to get the Merlots in as fast as possible.  We spend this weekend quietly preparing the winery, controlling what we can.  Not a tube or tank is left un-scoured. Suddenly, a black cloud passes overhead.  We put down our brushes to watch it move on, thinking we’ve been spared.  But then rain and hail fall from a sky bright with sunlight just a kilometer to the west. Holding our breath we […]

Teeth Gnashing at Harvest Eve

In a good year it’s easy to talk about terroir as a place where Nature and Human work together and bring forth a measure of bounty. What to say in a difficult year? It was the coldest, wettest spring in decades.  We lost about 30% of the Merlots.  The survivors suffer from uneven grape maturity.  But we escaped the devastation of the July hailstorms.  The late blooming Cabernets are doing fine. After many decent years, the local collective mind now gingerly recalls the catastrophic ones. The winter of ’59 when the long freeze destroyed harvests for two successive vintages.  The […]

Bottling Day Vintage 2012 2

There’s something satisfying about putting up 18,577 bottles of freshly corked wine in your garage. Bottling Day, Vintage 2012.  Small scale but super organized. Team in place to man the line. The joy of friends come to help. Christian and Sonia, partners in a small bottling and labeling business, bring machinery and muscle. We always thought that strong and competent Sonia looked young for her age. Found out yesterday was her birthday – no wonder she looks young, she just turned 23! Henri is in all places at once, from front loading to pallet-cages to the pump in the winery. […]

Spring Pruning for “Un Vin de Caractère” 2

An unseasonably cold month of May indeed, but the vineyard gets another notch on the epaulette for steadfastness.  No hail, no frost.  Sunshine after each shower, cool winds to dry things up.  (A pound of salt going over my left shoulder as I write.)  This is our lucky micro-climate. The vines are shooting up fast and bunches of would-be grapes have formed.  Signs of potential over-abundance, so now we walk the parcels for spring pruning.  Most of the work is manual and slow.  Our goal is to remove anything that distracts the plant from correctly nourishing the grapes we intend […]

Signs of Hope 1

This week the vineyard abruptly woke up.  Baby vine buds everywhere. Heart breakingly beautiful.   And so fragile.  The farmers don’t smile at the beauty. They fret about a sudden freeze. Survival at -2 degrees.  -3, no. I can’t think about that this morning. Too full of hope.

Back in the USA 4

All the great mystical traditions speak of the peculiar qualities of grace.  You can’t make demands.  It has a life of its own and tends to show up when least expected. So perhaps it was fortuitous that I had no expectations when I went to the States this month to present the wine in my old hometowns – New York, Washington DC and Maryland.  “Going home” turned out to be charged with more resonance than I could possibly have conjured up under my own steam. First stop, Washington Heights in northern Manhattan.  I hopped off the “A” train at 181st […]

Women in their Vineyards 2

“Go east at the top of the second hill and meet me at the Roman Road.”  All these years and I didn’t know a Roman Road runs from the Romanesque church of the Blessed Mother through the hilltop vineyards and on down to the river.  But I discovered it by hunting for M in one of her far off parcels, yodeling for some sign of life on a silent, freezing afternoon. M and her husband are the 3rd generation owners of an old Juillac vineyard.  They are local pioneers of organic viticulture and their success has been hard won by self […]

Sarments and the life cycle

The vines look a bit of a mess after the taille.  The pruners cut and move on down the row, leaving the sarments (vine shoots) tangled helter skelter in their web. Danté and I woke this morning to a scattering of snow and found that an elf had come through and tidied it all up. The vignerons call this tirer les bois  -“pulling the wood.” (And they move cautiously since it’s easy to poke your own eyes out.)  The job is to untangle the sarments from the frame-wires that the tendrils curled themselves around in the spring.  They are then laid out […]

Pruning the Vineyard in Winter 2

Such stillness, you can almost feel the vines sleeping.  It’s the time of the “taille.” This photo of a parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon was taken in December, before pruning.  Pruning marks both the end of the year and the beginning of a new one.  While the vegetation is dormant, it’s time to cut away what is not useful from last year and establish the possibilities for this year. Far from a metaphor, it’s a task of precise hand labor, and it’s all about making choices. Not so easy. Here’s an example – you can see the principal branch arching from […]

The Parchment Journal 2

“Vers la fin de l année 1761, le Regiment de mont marin dans lequel je servais en qualité de Capitaine, était en garrison a Bordeaux…; il recut ordre de se tenir prêt pour s embarquer sur les vaisseaux du Roy a Rochefort pour etre transporté a l Amerique.” Of all the people who used to come to tea at La Tourbeille, Madame V. was my favorite.  Sparkling and direct, she prefers cheer to gloom and had the best stories about life in this region during the Time Before the War.  I shunned all other conversation to glue myself to her […]

Dressing the Bottles

I love it when people talk about la robe of a wine; it’s one of my favorite faux amis.  While they mean color, I’m seeing a dressing gown. Which is exactly what we were up to on December 7th.  Dressing the wine in pretty robes and hats and setting them in their carriages – the “garnet girls” were shipping out for their Debutante Party in Paris Wednesday night, our first official tasting.   We gathered the same team with their machine on wheels.  Henri and Sonia catch the bottles as they emerge     and lay them in their boxes with a heavy duty […]

Pressing October 31st

John looked like he’d thrown on a wacky Halloween Costume – a baggy, hooded wet-suit and a pitchfork.   With a little imagination, the crushed berries could be taken as blood smears, and he’d get best prize for scary.  The huge, ambulatory press machine arrived at sunset.  John had just opened the top lids and bottom hatches of the tanks after moving 120 hectolitres (12,000 liters) of juice into the receiving tanks.  With the juice gone, the marc falls to the bottom and carbon dioxide fumes emanate powerfully, so at every pressing someone brings a story about a death caused by […]


8 days into fermentation.  Once again the chai has taken on that pungent aroma of fermenting grapes, reminding me vaguely of a raisin bread bakery.  For the first days we kept the tanks cool to allow the grapes to macerate at a low temperature and for the fermentation to start gently. Our work at this stage is to carefully “move” the juice, morning and evening, to bring out the best of the fruit.  The “closed pump-over” maneuver pumps the juice in a closed circuit from the bottom of the tanks up to the top. Here it enters via the “chinese […]

Harvest Day 2012

After much deliberation – will the weather hold? will the grapes be ready? – we pushed our luck hoping for higher maturity, and pushed Harvest Day back to October 6th. The team gathered in the winery before dawn, and at first light Denis set out on his harvester.  Wilfred, our good friend from Chateau Carbonneau followed with his tractor, and in a half hour returned with two tons of luscious grapes. The first load is always the most frenzied as we figure how to coordinate our tasks. While John and Wilfred attended the arrival,         Genevieve managed […]

Lab samples before harvest

Sunrise on the hilltop to take samples.  Walking one row from each candidate parcel, we pick grapes according to procedure – half blind – so we aren’t biased to choose only the pretty ones and skew the results.   Back in the kitchen we squeeze the juice into small bottles and rush off to the lab; we’re eager to see the probable alcohol level as well as acidity so we can choose harvest day.  It has been a complicated year, but a warm, dry August and September are bringing a richer, more concentrated fruit than we had dared hope for. And […]

Rolling through the Vineyard

There is nothing like a bike ride up and down the hills of Juillac. I wave to my neighbors in their fields, the poignant September light reminding us that summer has ended and harvest is near. I always finish my tour with a roll through the vineyard for a quick, reassuring check; pluck a few warm, fat, juicy grapes to quench my thirst.

It’s Next Year Already

When we poured that bright pink juice from the spigot on Harvest Day a year and 11 days ago, next year seemed a wonderfully long time away.  There was everything ahead of us to experience for the first time. End of a long summer, we were just letting down our guard, the “garnet girls” nicely tucked in for their beauty sleep so they may refine their aromas for sale this winter. And suddenly we’re pregnant again. Sunrise after a cool night, vapors rising from the river. It’s a few weeks before harvest and we’re up on the hilltop again, walking […]

New Wine Vats – July 2012

With great optimism, and of course after the pleasing results of Vintage 2011, we’ve decided to expand.  From the day the grapes poured into our first (set of) tanks, we were conscious of the risk.  With no back up, should something go wrong during vinification, an entire vintage could be lost. We’ve chosen custom made stainless steel tanks again from a family owned company in Monbazillac.  The owner came with his young apprentice to install the vats himself and John added some elbow grease.  I was the amazed beneficiary of their acrobatics show as they settled these enormous vessels into […]

12,500 Bottles 1

For most folk bottling day is a lot of heavy lifting and sore shoulders. But when it’s your very first, celebration trumps. The amazing  little bottling machine on wheels spun into place at 7am.  While Sonia and Olivier set up shop, Julien and Henri helped move the thousands of stranded bottles into place.                   From the pallets into the wine dispensing machine, a delightful contraption right out of Willy Wonka’s Factory. Thank heavens for our wonderful friend Norbert, maitre de chai of a large vineyard down the road, who took a day off […]

Stranded Dolmens of Bottles

Murphy’s Law. Whatever might go wrong, will. The ground was soggy this morning so the truck with the bottles got stuck in the mud. The driver had to unload 12,000 bottle hither and yon as best one could.  This afternoon the man did a last minute deal to buy a rusty forklift without a guarantee to get them inside before nightfall. Bottling Day starts at 7 am tomorrow!

Tasting after Filtration

All good! Francoise our oenologue smiled as she examined the color: Ca “brille” maintenant.  The wine is now “shiny.” (When there are too many particulates in suspension, the color looks “troubled.”)  Upon tasting, we agreed the filtration had been modest and correct: body and soul are intact. Further judgements: “Nez nickel, fruite cassis, boise leger, bonne equilbre, longue en bouche.”  (Nose intact after filtration, full fruit, nuanced cassis, light hint of oak, good balance, lasting finish.) We will have one more tasting before the “mise en bouteille” on June 13th. Our nomad children are flying home to pitch in. Picnic lunch at […]

Zooming toward Bottling Day

And a million details to confirm.  Corks, bottles, “capsules” (the shiny foil wrapped around the top,) back and forths with the tax man under visions of the guillotine, (every seal needs a tax stamp and woe to ye who’s got it wrong) plus frenzied last minute revisions to the label…   Just choosing the corks was like a dinner discussion of the French Presidential election – even the sanest go slightly mad in their shameless partisanship.  (Don’t get me started about screw caps.) It’s also become obvious why the Bordelais economy is so dependent on winemaking. Jobs. There’s a huge […]

Spring Cleaning the Wine Vat

Spring is here and time for our first, post winter sous tirage. The farmer warns it must be under a black moon, and not on a stormy day (beware atmospheric pressure.)  The deep cold was a boon, taking care of most of this filtration process naturally so we haven’t added chemicals, or fiddled with extra interventions that increase the risk of too much oxygen in the wine (oxidation). In fact, we had a visit recently from an American importer and he was pleased to discover that the young wine already exhibits the unique flavor of our terroir, and could tell […]

Words for Our New Girl

My first taste of wine was poured from a picturesque bottle of Mateus Rose. Two points off for the plastic cup, but it was the best my college roommate could rustle up for French Club Night in our favorite professor’s garret office.  A little wine (even Portuguese, I suppose) was supposed to liberate our tongues so we’d opine about Literature like natives.  As it turned out, my French was still rubbish, but the wine had turned a 1st trick – flowing ideas despite bad grammar.  Then a further challenge: describe this novel beverage as it rolls through your mouth.  But […]

Tastes of New Wine

6 months ago it was a stroll through the vineyard munching on grapes after a hot bike ride through the hills. 3 months ago we were in the rows checking sugar levels with a spectometre, biting the grapes carefully to explore the pink pulp.  11 weeks ago was harvest, juice so sweet it hurt our teeth. Talk about learning curves.  A custom wine tasting crash course not offered on the night class circuit – daily dipping into infant wine, childhood wine, adolescent wine… You taste each day but she’s a girl in motion who fools you at every turn. Big wardrobe, […]