Monday-Tuesday, Oct. 11-12
First decuvage. For some reason I have always like this process. I guess it is the finality of the harvest.
We pump the free juice out of the cuvée into another cuvée. Then we gingerly open the cuvée's door. As we unscrew the fasteners, the warm baby wine starts to trickle out. I always imagine that it might burst open, covering us with a flood of red muck. Alas it is rather uneventful as we then paw out the gene (pomace) onto out conveyer into the press. Then a gentle pressing and we are done.
Sun in and out today and it's now raining. Fall is here. We are very lucky. Whites look terrific. Reds high in sugar: We will see after malolactic fermentation.
The vines are about as perfect a color of gold as is imaginable. Yesterday's sunset with the reflection on the vines created a luminosity I had never seen before. A bit like splendid wines.
Friday-Sunday, Oct. 8-10
If things seem less glamorous at this point, it is because making wine is about discipline and consistency. As the wines ferment we have a daily drill of pigage or remontage of the reds as we monitor the progress of the fermentations. We also might begin to plan for some chaptalization.
We also check every barrel of white each day to measure its progress and temperature. This fastidiousness is what it is about.
Everything gets cleaned. Bacteria is not our friend, but it loves sugar.
Thursday, Oct. 7
I toured the Côte de Nuits and checked out the status of the semifinished wine we have reserved: Vosne, Chambolle Les Charmes, Clos Vougeot, Échézeaux. I need to get a fix on the vigneron's timing and when he will start his decuvage so I can take our fresh barrels over to him. Most will not start before the middle of next week. Good to check out what is happening. Ca va, pas mal.
Wednesday, Oct. 6
Humidity moved in last night. You could feel it coming. Big drenching rain in the morning. Bizarre clouds. The old saying is right: The rains arrived three days after seeing Mount Blanc.
Good-bye dinner for Will. The big man is off to Boston. The three weeks flew by.
Tuesday, Oct. 5
It's been between 78 and 80 degrees F all day. Beautiful, amazing!
I picked up the last parcel of Chardonnay must from the Hautes Côtes: 10 pieces (1 piece=1 barrel), 11.6 natural -- cannot not ask for more. It was 9.6 on Sept. 14! This is why we work so hard at control. It pays off with hang time.
Monday, Oct. 4
Cool morning. Should be another beautiful day. Pigage and remontage.
Sunday, Oct. 3
Actually quite hot in the sun at 5 p.m. Vines starting to turn color. Perfect fall afternoon.
Took a sample of Savigny 2003 from all of the barrels and served it blind at dinner. Vosne? Échézeaux? When you have 24 hectoliters and 13.5 natural it is easy to make great wine.
In the afternoon I went to check out our last parcel of Chardonnay in the Hautes Côtes. Just picked. Could see Mount Blanc in the distance. They say if you see it in the afternoon you will have rain three days later.
Saturday, Oct. 2
Pigeage and remontage (pumpovers) with the reds. Whites starting to ferment. Red cool. Natural cold maceration. Good sign.
Friday, Oct. 1
Beautiful chilly morning as I go to Pernand-Vergelesses to pick up our last barrel of Charlemagne must. Pure, pure juice. Will be a great one and a great white vintage. The juice is balanced.
Doing pigeage (punch downs) on our reds. Everyone dragging.
Went to the Arbois for dinner with some of the team. A bit bizarre: drinking oxidized "vin jaune" with fondue and coq au vin in vin jaune. It really does work. Delicious. Rustic bread and lots of Franche Compte cheese. Just one hour to the west but another world.
Thursday, Sept. 30
Quiet day. No entries. Sam left last night. Things quieting down.
I toured Chassagne to see what was going on with others.
Sun out, hot in the morning then cooler with some clouds in the afternoon. Dry.
Wednesday, Sept. 29
Up early to bring in the Gevrey-Chambertin as grapes. Leave Beaune at 6:45 a.m. Dark out. Where has the month gone? Fall in full swing.
The parcel across from Lavaux is Les Marchais. Vines are 65 to 85 years old. Old massal selection. Beautiful gnarly plants.
One of the great vendange traditions is the "Casse Crout" snack break (it literally means "breaking the crust/bread") at about 9:30 a.m. after one-and-a-half hours of work in the vines. Call me crazy, but on a cool September morning there is nothing better than good sausage, cheese and a glass or two of Aligote.
Sun out around 11 a.m. Beautiful warm fall afternoon as we bring in our grapes for the Chardonnay Cuvée Prestige from the Hautes Côtes. We wait around for one-and-a-half hours for the picker to start on our parcel. I take a half-hour nap. Lovely.
Our supplier is a real character and every year loves to wrestle with me over the count of the boxes, weight, vineyard surface area and the final volume. This year our conversation went something like this. I'll call it "A variation on a theme by Henri":
Henri: "Alex, 66 boxes is enough for 6 barrels. Your boxes are 32 to 33 kilos."
Me: "No, Henri, our average weight is 28 to 29 kilos and with 66 boxes we will make 5 to 5.5 barrels. We need to take a minimum 71 boxes to get the volume."
Henri: "Alex, no way, blah blah blah …
Me: "OK, Henri whatever you say."
Voila: We ended up with 5.5 barrels exactly. When we send him the volume, he will go nuts. I will report back on this ongoing cinema.
Tuesday, Sept. 26
Things slowing down. Cool, clear day.
Bourgogne Chardonnay towards Volnay brought in as grapes in the afternoon. About 4 pieces. Oidium is a strange beast. Certain parts of certain rows are a mess and other parts totally unaffected. The picking team did a great job. Infected bunches left behind.
Our supplier's father is a real interesting bear of a man. He left school at 14 to work in the vines. Very smart and reflective. Former mayor of Volnay. As we leave he asks the ladies: "Can you give the ex-mayor of Volnay a bise (kiss on the cheek) before you leave?"
Monday, Sept. 27
Beautiful morning. Moon phase change. We should have good weather for the week. Picked up Charlemagne as juice: 3 pieces. Impeccable. Supplier is another pro and a pleasure to work with.
Simultaneously another team in Chassagne is getting more grapes. Pro encore. A pleasure to work with people who know what they are doing and we do not have to fix things. This has taken a long time to get to this point. However ...
LESSON: WHAT I GET PAID FOR:
I went right after the Charlemagne in Puligny to get grapes from two parcels (five barrels each in grapes, about 55 to 60 cases at 30 kilos per case) of old-vine Bourgogne Chardonnay.
As I arrived the supplier said to go to the vineyard across the road. I said, "Across the road? We were going to pick the parcel next to the village first, the other parcel second." "The parcel next to the village? Oh I forgot, I picked that on Saturday," he said. "I will sell you the must though."
I want to say, "I was born at night, but not last night." After checking to make sure he actually had picked the grapes from the vineyard, I declined the must and we picked the agreed upon vineyard in the afternoon. (By the way, there was a written confirmation/contract specifying the purchase as grapes.)
Overcast throughout the day but the sun came out as we were picking the grapes. Quite hot and beautiful late September day.
Dinner: Mac and cheese and chicken and cream sauce. Does not get much better.
Bottles from my cellar at dinner:
Jobard Meursault Genevrières 1992
Monthélie-Douhairet Volnay En Champans 1990 in magnum
Giroud Beaune Marconets 1989
E. Guigal Hermitage 1990 (still a baby)
Sunday, Sept. 26
We picked Chassagne Blanchots in the morning, followed by Maltroie. Both vineyards impeccable. Two trips to Beaune.
Next is the Bourgogne Pinot Noir toward Pommard. Grapes good in places but triage needed. Strange: same owner, same vineyard work, same age (40 to 50 years old) but one plot across the road from another and you have very different conditions. Some bunches in great shape others we jettison. Final parcel toward Volnay terrific. Took all the boxes back to Beaune and retried everything a second time! We are nuts.
In the evening we picked up Bourgogne Chardonnay must from a supplier in Meursault. He is a real pro. Cuts and presses the parcel we agreed upon that is sandwiched between Meursault village. He is more expensive but then people ask me why our base Chardonnay is so good? Same old story: you get what you pay for.
A bit cool at night, sprinkles then full moon comes out.
Saturday, Sept. 25
Cold morning and bit of a shower last night. Fall is here.
Great team day. We could not have done more. One of the fun parts of the harvest is bringing in "stagaires" -- the term we affectionately call the "slaves" who help with the harvest. We have had a cast of characters over the years. Here is this year's cast:
The Rookies: Samantha "Sammy Baby" Capron from the U.K. and a writer for Wine International magazine. Sam was a trooper -- got buff and she never thought she could haul those 30 kilo boxes. Way to go Sam!
David Rosenthal, aka "George Michael," with his beard, hair and bandana. He assures us he will clean up his act before he returns to the Breakers in Palm Beach.
Kenny Koda (our Marine) who is at Harmon's in Telluride, Colo. Kenny became a urban legend this year when he blind-tasted and nailed at dinner our 1998 Mazi Chambertin. Bravo Kenny!
Megan Downsbrough and Diana Williams: The accounting and sales side of our U.S. efforts. Hauling boxes, cleaning boxes and masters at the sorting table.
Dr. Henry "Alain Ducasse" Talbert: Chef de cuisine direct from Boston. Henry is my good friend and my dentist and a heck of a cook. He cooked for eight days. What an effort.
Will Bissonette, third year. Shaves his head for the harvest, called "Game day head." One of my night owls. Resident at Silvertone in Boston. Best mac and cheese and meatloaf in Boston and great wine list. All the foodies and wine lovers go here. Wines are only $10 more than cost. Beat a path ...
Matt McClune, fourth year. Ex #9, B&G Oyster and Upstairs. Now living in Beaune as our resident painter and sous cavist. Matt and Will took charge this year. Merci!
Sophie Laronze. Serene -- holding sales, the office and us together. Our legend from 2003 when she was pregnant and due in a week and nailed in a blind tasting a magnum of 1991 La Chapelle from Jaboulet.
Jungi Hashimoto: In between checking on the baseball scores in Japan and the states on the Internet, there is no one who is crazier, works harder and keeps us laughing so much.
Fabrice "Zen" Laronze: Makes us all look great as he starts planning for grapes, juice, barrels, vinification and connerie months ahead. There is no one better.
Me, "Alex! Just don't touch the pump" Gambal who kind of watches with fatherly pride my brood go at it. Frankly a pretty amazing show, considering we started from scratch just seven years ago.
The day: Savigny Old Vines, 60 boxes in the morning. Find out the harvest team is six people plus two children. Are you kidding me? Bordel. Matt, Megan and Diana to the rescue.
I went to pick Bourgogne Pinot Noir in Volnay: Circuit with boxes to Beaune and back to Kenny and Dave who are sorting in the field. Lot's of triage in the vines. Slow work.
I handed off the boxes of grapes, rinsed the boxes, raced to Chassagne St. Jean for grapes at 2 p.m. Grapes perfect. 12.5 percent alcohol and perfect acidities. Wow!
Dinner: steak and potatoes. Life is good. We are all beat.
Friday, Sept. 24
Beautiful morning as we drive to Fixin to pick our vineyard. The juice is great but there are no grapes. Grapes come in at 12.2 natural. With the yield, this is not surprising. After all the work in the summer and now just 2 pieces.
Thursday, Sept. 23
First grapes. A bit overcast and a couple of drops at 8:30 a.m., which cleared up into a nice day.
At 8 a.m. we brought in our Puligny-Montrachet from 50-plus-year-old vines. Sweet but traces of oidium. Major triage in the vines and we do it again in the cuverie on our sorting table. Will make four pieces, threw away four to five cases' worth of bad grapes. Juice falling clear and looks good.
Wednesday, Sept. 22
Prelevements throughout Chasagne and St. Aubin. Grapes getting sweet.
Tuesday, Sept. 21
Cool, cloudy, rain around 6 p.m. -- a quick but heavy shower. Ground the next morning is dry.
I'm beginning to stage the vendange dance. Figuring out who will be where and when, and if we have enough trucks and cases to transport everything. We work on the edge of our supplies and time, trying to shoehorn everything in.
We will get going on Thursday. I expect the weekend to be crunch time.
Weather's good. Some clouds and a bit overcast at times. Cool and dry.
Thursday, Sept. 16
L'ete Indian: Perfect day.
I toured Clos Vougeot, Échézeaux and some of the nooks and crannies of the Vosne hillside with a terrific grower from Vosne from whom I get some Vosne and Clos Vougeot. We toured at around 6 p.m. and the weather and light was about as beautiful as it gets.
After our tour, as is our habit, we had to taste. I hate to make it seem like I have too much fun, but one must do some research from time to time. From the 2003 vintage, we tasted Nuits-St.-Georges, Nuits-St.-Georges Premier Cru Les Boudots, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanée, Échézeaux and Clos Vougeot. Then we tasted all of the 2002s and a bottle of 2000 Clos Vougeot.
As the tasting started to unfold, the winemaker's brother-in-law, aka the "Master of the Universe," from whom I get our Échézeaux and old-vine Vosne showed up. The 2004 vintage will be his 51st and 61st vintages, respectively. Needless to say they get my attention. Over two hours we discussed vintages, winemaking fashion, the press, stupid politicians and pseudo intellectuals.
Around 9 p.m. one of them asked when the preharvest meeting was, so we could discuss with the "lab experts" how to make the 2004s. (I was afraid that this might happen -- the two of them are real hell-raisers.) I said it was tonight and the meeting was about over (I figured I could learn a lot more from them, drinking and discussing wine, than I could from some techno guy.) They said let's go and (the French equivalent of) "give 'em hell." I said, "Guys, how about leaving me out of this; I still have to operate in the neighborhood." They said, "Don't worry you can come in behind us." Great.
Luckily the meeting was breaking up as my two charges were getting ready to storm the gates. (I checked on them this week 10/7 and they both are having a ball with the 2004 vintage -- still doing the punch downs and muttering how easy it is to make great wine.)
Friday, Sept. 10
Plenty of prelevements as we began to really focus on the potential sugar and acid levels of the grapes. This rather simplistic process of taking a random but thorough sample of a vineyard's grapes allows us to chart on a 4 to 5 day basis the ripening process. We can then begin to plug the vineyards into the beginnings of a harvest schedule. We share our research with the growers so that we have a positive and collaborative effort. It has taken 5 to 6 years to get to this point, but it is one of the final touches that adds to the quality of the harvest.
Wednesday, Sept. 8
A Chambolle day and we checked out our Charmes supplier. Some hail damage but as luck would have it their best and largest parcel is planted east-to-west, so when the hail came (from the west) the vines and grapes were spared, as the hail hit the top and in between the rows and not the sides of the vines.
Tuesday, Sept. 7
Perfect encore. I checked out our Gevrey-Chambertin sites for grapes and focused on an old-vine (65 to 85 years old) site across from Lavaux St. Jacques. Terrific. It'll be the first time we bring in Gevrey as grapes. There are plenty of Gevrey grapes to be had but to cull out something exciting is rare.
Monday, Sept. 6
Vent du Nord with sunshine. Incredible. I found an additional source of grapes of Bourgogne Chardonnay from the Puligny area. Old vines. Looks terrific.
Sunday, Sept. 5
Broken record: perfect day. Summer beach day.
Checked out our Fixin Blanc. The owner's worker did not treat for oidium, so we cut off the affected grapes during the summer. There will be a tiny crop, perhaps 2-3 pieces and not the normal 7-8 pieces. What is left looks great and is very ripe. Should be able to harvest this in a morning with 8-10 people.
The pear tree in the vineyard is full of pears. A great fruit year.
Saturday, Sept. 4
Perfect day, no clouds, 85 to 87 degrees F.
I checked out our Chambolle-Musigny and Bourgogne Chardonnay Cuvée Prestige parcels. Oidium (powdery mildew) is a real problem this year but with the proper treatments one can keep it under control. It took rigor in the vines to do this.
Oidium is a fungus (think mushrooms) that grows on the grapes and exists in cool damp weather. It broke out in March with the first shoots and thus one needed to treat it early and then every 10 to 12 days as the vines grew. Just treating it early in the season does not eliminate it, though. Rigor throughout the season is required.
Oidium when not treated turns the grapes grey/silver and finally black. Fairly nasty stuff. The grapes also never get ripe or there will be a funk to the taste of the juice. Pas bon.
As an aside, this spring was one of the best seasons in my memory for morels and other mushrooms in Burgundy. Nature has a funny sense of humor.
Thursday, Sept. 2
Beach day. Another great day. 85 to 87 degrees F. Beautiful! Hot, tanning day.
Saw my accountant. A good visit and report from the principal.
Friday, Sept. 3
Parfait encore! 85 to 88 degrees F. Had lunch with my "master of the universe" who supplies me with our Échézeaux. Discussed harvest and vinification techniques.
Wednesday, Sept. 1
I looked at our Volnay Santenots parcel. Trashed by the hailstorm on Aug. 24. Amazing the damage hail can do. No leaves, no photosynthesis and slow-to-no ripening. We will not make the Santenots this year. A real tragedy. The vineyard was in a perfect condition.
Otherwise the weather is perfect. Not a cloud in the sky. Close to 85 degrees F. Amazing.
Tuesday, Sept. 31
Random thoughts about terroir:
I thought a lot on the plane ride back to Burgundy about the notion of terroir. Over the summer, I was fortunate enough to engage in some very interesting conversations on the subject. The notion of terroir, or place, is not a unique one to France. I liken it to that of a voice; there is an unmistakable recognition to a familiar voice just as there is to a wine.
As a participant at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon this past July, I was able to share my wines with some terrific young winemakers from Burgundy. Allen Meadows, aka "Burghound," was the moderator and over two sessions and many tasting and conversations, the idea of place finally seemed to come clear in my head. I tried to explain a bit of this at the conference, but it was only after the fact that I could distill my thoughts with more clarity.
In order to understand terroir, we first must deconstruct wine. What is it we are trying to do? Wine is a vehicle to express a place. This is not an abstract concept. It is as real as Einstein's theories but it is just as difficult to grasp. Why is this? Thus the need to deconstruct.
To see terroir, and the operative word is "see," there are five elements that must be performed by man (a human) so the terroir is not obscured:
1. Viticulture. Man must train and control the vine. The vine is a reproductive machine. All it wants to do is make grapes. Without training, control (reasonable yield), respect for the soil and nature and harvesting at the perfect moment, one will never "see" the place. We must remember that 80 percent of winemaking begins and ends in the vineyard. Romance must be pushed aside to realize that this is farming of the highest order; farming as art in order to express the soil.
2. Vinification. No amount of great vinification can make great wine if one has average grapes. Inversely, poor vinification will destroy great grapes. Thus, if one has great grapes vinification is easy; the wine often makes itself. Man must be noninterventionist. It is hard work to do nothing, but with a light touch one can have wine of grace and purity.
3. Élevage. If the élevage is bad or poor the terroir is obscured further. Sloppy élevage, dirty barrels, not topping off, not knowing one's wine and cellar and how the wines develop in it will result in a tyrannical wine, not unlike a tyrannical child. Remember: "élevage" means "to raise" in French. Lack of attention to detail and consistency results in a unpleasant child that will never be a pleasant or an engaging adult.
4. Mise en bouteille. Put the wine in bottle when the wine is ready, not when it suits you. Respect nature, the tides, the moon; use nature as an ally to enhance the finishing. It is there. It only takes attention to detail and the commitment to the time.
5. Shipping. As a winemaker, the rigor we have to make our wines with is often lacking in shipping. After 18 to 24 months, an attitude of "what, me worry?" does not work. I alerted an importer this June that their dry container was leaving with my 2002s in 35 degree Celsius heat and the interior of the container was at least 40 to 45 degrees Celsius. Winemakers must maintain the vigilance to protect their investment so that the client has the perfection in the bottle that the winemakers try for.
The theory of terroir is an elegant one, a perfect one but in many ways unprofitable. How do you sell a theory? How do you sell perfection in a bottle when perfection by definition is not possible or, at best, elusive? You do this with the above rigor and knowledge that it is the effort to achieve perfection, or to paraphrase Galileo to "put light in a bottle." That is what is important.
Voila -- enough of my ramblings. The weather was great and we are making very good wines. As I wrote early in September we were having a 2002 Part Two Indian summer.
Wednesday, Sept. 15
A perfect fall day. Big billowy clouds, strong wind from the north. Checked out our old vine parcel of Gevrey this afternoon, across from Lavaux. Terrific. Grapes look good. The wind sock in Nuits St. Georges is filled from a northern wind. The evening was beautiful with a fall chill in the air. On the weekend of Sept. 24 and 25 everyone will attack.
The weather men say things will be good for the next 10 to 14 days. People will work to get their grapes picked before the full moon on Sept. 28.
Tuesday, Sept. 14
Great weather in the early a.m., then clouds with rain threatening all day. A brief shower in the Côte de Nuits but just a few drops on the grapes. Nothing of consequence. Prelevement in Savigny, Chardonnay Cuvée Prestige, Chambolle and Fixin Blanc. Looks good. Rains hold off but not a pretty day.
Monday, Sept. 13
The weather is beautiful with sun and big clouds. In the vines, we're doing the prelevement (picking grapes at random to test for sugar and acid). It's a perfect early fall day. A pleasure to be alive.
Sunday, Sept. 12
Today the weather was perfect, after last night's storm front. On my bike ride through Savigny and Pernand, then through the Haute Côte and then down into Bouilland, it was a perfect, dry, early fall day. I get the sense that summer is over and that we could have some brilliant sun-filled days with cool nights to come. Interestingly the small stream that runs from Bouilland to Savigny is basically dry. Even with last night's rain the stream was desiccated. Curious, but the reality is that we have had sporadic storms throughout the season but no real drenching weather. Thus, if the dry north wind weather holds we could achieve something interesting because of the relatively low water table.
The grapes have concentrated a great deal in the past 13 days. I have done a full tour and the whites look good. Chassagne looks terrific and the Maltroie and St. Jean are already very sweet and concentrated. There's virtually no oidium and the leaves are very green. They look spectacular, even if you do not place them in the context of the growing year.
The flowering vine on the wall of our piece of Chassagne Clos St. Jean is blooming and fragrant. This time of year it is always one of my signs that the harvest is close. Bees swarm the flowers and the smell is exotic and alluring; not a smell of early spring but more deep and intense and almost thick. On Friday, I believe I finally figured out why our St. Jean is always a bit over the top; the smell of the flowers is infused in the wine and gives St. Jean its exotic and -- at times -- tropical nuance.
On a more tedious theme, oidium (powdery mildew) was rampant this year from early in the season. The best growers treated early and systematically and today their grapes are virtually free of oidium. Those who were not as rigorous or "bio," literally will not have any grapes. It will be very interesting to see who puts what spin on things. I have covered ground from Fixin to Chassagne several times in the last couple of weeks and I know. Some of the local grower associations and the IANO are being very rigorous about doing self-policing and are not going to let (or so they say) certain growers harvest grapes that are useless.
Red grapes in certain sectors are having a tough time because of hail. There was a serous storm at during the night on Tuesday, Aug. 24 that hit Pommard, Volnay and Beaune very hard. This is the second time in three years that Volnay was hit but this time it was the premier cru vineyards. (The village parcels and adjacent Bourgogne Pinot Noir vineyards look great.) We will not make Volnay Santenots this year because our parcel was completely ravaged. Our supplier worked his tail of all summer, got the vines down to just 5 to 6 bunches per, aerated and spaced bunches. I could not do better vineyard management myself, and in minutes -- poof -- not a full leaf left. No leaves means no photosynthesis and slow-to-no ripening. It is that simple.
In the Côte de Nuits, there was also some hail through the band of grands crus, but it was more sporadic so one must not jump to conclusions. You can look at one parcel and 10 meters away there is no damage. This will be a year of triage, triage and triage. The next 10 to 14 days are the trick.
Saturday, Sept. 11
If this was a movie, it would be titled "Miracle Weather 2002, Part 2." If the weather holds, it will make Moses' parting of the Red Sea seem like Little League. Since Aug. 31 we have had perfect weather of 28 to 32 degrees C with a north wind. Absolutely no humidity or a cloud in the sky.
Up until Aug. 31 we have had a variable summer. One day nice, then several cold and overcast. Not great. Basically a low-pressure system was stuck over France for most of the summer. When I left for a trip back to the states on Aug. 11, everyone was morose. Some grapes were just beginning to turn color while others were not at all. Projections for the harvest were (and still are) a full month or later this year than last year (which was around the 25th of September).
Last Friday evening while I was drinking draft beer in Chassagne with the "Chassagne Mafia" (more on this later) we finally had a brief shower that barely wet the ground.
Saturday was beautiful until the evening. We had a good shower about 5 p.m. and then some hard rain around 9 p.m. The long-term forecast is for good weather because of an "anti-cyclone," i.e., a high-pressure system that is making the weather great.
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