Many thanks to James Dunstan and Shoko Nakagawa for spending a few days with us over vintage and for James in allowing us to use his detailed notes .
We caught up with the harvest on Sunday September 9 at Les Clos Perdus in the Languedoc-Roussillon where one of our favorite vignerons Paul Old makes a range of wines well above pay grade. We knew we’d get an education from Paul because as many of you will know he’s a native English speaker, who blends art, science and craft, with his background as a contemporary classical dancer, graduate in wine science from an Australian University, and now on his 15th harvest.for several weeks after, meaning the longest harvest Paul has experienced.
After a normal winter, cold, some rain, the months April to August saw an unusual amount of rain, as well as a heatwave. You may have seen pictures of the Seine river in Paris nearly overflowing bridges and parts of Northern France were flooded.
There were heavy rainfalls in the South, too – though less so in the wine regions in the middle of France, Champagne, the Loire, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Alsace, Northern Rhône. The rain caused serious problems with rot throughout the South of France from the Southern Rhône to the Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. There are two main types of rot, downy mildew (known simply as mildew) and powdery mildew (known as odium). If you practice organic or biodynamic farming, you can treat with Sulphur (in powder form) against odium and with copper sulphate (called Bouillie Bordelaise, a liquid) against mildew. But this year the rain fell almost every week from early April to late June so there often wasn’t time to treat both before and after. Moreover when it rains you can’t always get into the vineyard after because the soil is too wet to move on.
Below is the monthly rainfall recorded in Narbonne (with 2017 in brackets). The truth is more complicated because Paul’s vineyards are scattered up to an hour from his base in Peyriac, 20 minutes south-east of Narbonne and closer to the sea. But it gives an idea.
January 23mm (69)
February 44mm (107)
March 151mm (81)
April 117mm (13)
May 93mm (19)
June 10mm (27)
July 41mm (14)
August 13mm (21)
Today we’re picking two parcels, both an hour away beyond Estagel in the Catalan hills of the Roussillon. Here Paul sources fruit for several wines, L’Année Rouge and Blanc as well as the top of the range L’Extrême Rouge and Blanc.
Up at 05h15 in the dark, there’s time for coffee but not to eat and we rely on last night’s big dinner for fuel. At 06h15, we join Paul outside his winery to leave in a convoy, Paul in front in his old, reliable orange Volkswagen van equipped with 4 wheel drive that gets it up and down hillside tracks. In a van behind, the Spanish vendangeurs.
The first parcel is one hectare of Macabeu planted in 1950 near Montner just beyond Calce on a south-facing hillside of mica schist, which presents minerality and salinity in the wine. The conditions are overcast and around 22ºC, perfect for picking, though not very uplifting for the soul. We pick for an hour and a half. I manage to fill about 3 cases. We have to be vigilant with each bunch picked to make sure there’s no rot. And if there is, we carefully pick it out or just drop the bunch completely if there are not many healthy berries left. 10 of us pick a total of 35 cases. We sit down for 10 minutes to drink a coffee with a croissant before moving on. However, we leave the 35 cases here because the next vineyard is up such a steep dirt track that the 4WD can only cope without an additional load. Bit scary.
Back to Estagel and out towards Maury and just past Mas Amiel in the Mas de Fredas, we leave our car at the foot of the hillside to hop in the VW to go up the slope while the Spanish mountaineers almost run up. Here we’re going to pick a half hectare of Grenache Noir planted around 1900 to 1910 on a very steep south-facing slope on crumbly schist or shale. Despite the age of the vines, this fruit will go into Paul’s inexpensive L’Année Rouge because being south-facing it gets too much sun and heat to develop finesse and complex aromas while retaining freshness. Albeit, Paul has vines on the north side of the slope from which, a couple of weeks later, he’ll harvest fruit for his majestic L’Extrême Cuvées. We spend a couple of hours to pick this parcel for a total of 65 cases. It’s harder work here since much of the fruit is so low-hanging as to be almost on the floor, and much hidden within the inner foliage of the vine. We load up the cases into the van and hop in for a hairy descent for the path seems almost vertical at points, deeply rutted and drops away sharp on the passenger side.
We all head back to the cellar, with Paul collecting the 35 cases from Montner first. We de-van the lot and take a break.
Later we process the two lots in the cellar with a finer level of detail than we’d anticipated.
We tip the Macabeu box by box into the de-stemmer, a horizontal machine that drops the fruit into a crate below while spitting out stems at the far end into another crate. We pick through the crates of de-stemmed and crushed fruit by hand to remove as many bits of stem as possible to ensure the cleanest conditions possible for the ferment. Then we load each crate into the small vertical press. We arrange a mat tailored to the dimensions of the press between layers of fruit and carefully pack around the sides with stems as well as alternate clumps of stems at 12 o’clock, then 3, then 6, then 9 on each layer. It’s a very manual process with obsessive attention to detail. The aim is to allow the press to work very slowly, cleanly and completely without berries getting stuck in the sides of the press or clumping together, as well as to gently oxidize the juice as well as obtain some phenolic matter from the stems that will lend structure and complexity to the wine. Paul tastes the juice every few minutes at the outset to assess its purity, sweetness, length of finish and changes the pressure of the press accordingly. There’s no template whatsoever, every process is adjusted to the condition of the fruit in hand. The juice is moved by very gentle pump into an old barrel that contains Carignan Blanc juice picked 4 days ago and that has just started to ferment. Paul had been thinking to make a pure Carignan Blanc but he ends up putting in the Macabeu we just picked because there’s no other small container into which he can put it – and that’s the pragmatic side of harvest; sometimes it’s just about logistics. So now we have a nice blend – which may yet go into the L’Annee blend depending on how it turns out, or it may turn out to be another micro-cuvee. Harvest is a moving target…
It takes about an hour to process the 35 boxes of Macabeu.
At around 13h30 we take a lunch break and smash down a bottle of Beaujolais Villages 2017 from Domaine Chapel, pure class and pleasure from this excellent new producer, son of legendary chef, Alain Chapel, who produced his first vintage 2016 at Lapierre.
Later, and after the traditional siesta, we process the Grenache Noir. We do this the same way. Through the de-stemmer/crusher, then hand pick out bits of stem. Then it gets interesting. The fruit is added to a stainless steel vat of Syrah picked 4 days earlier from the Frezas vineyard in the Corbières hills, planted in 1985 on soils of clay limestone with some schist and blue marne. It’s just started to ferment and the temperature is rising so the addition of Grenache will temporarily cool the must, stopping the fermentation, and introduce a new yeast population. Fermentation will spontaneously re-start later, and probably a more complex wine result. Pretty cool. And that’s just the entry level wine L’Annee. Paul will treat almost every tank and barrel with such attention and sense of play.
We clean up the winery, take out stems to dump temporarily in the nearest of Paul’s vineyards. And prepare for another early start.