Most people envisage a wine harvest, or vendange, as a romantic scene; rolling landscapes washed with glorious sunshine, enjoying wine at a grand chateau in the evenings. In September 2008, sitting in Dublin Airport I had such expectations. Bearing in mind this was my third week working in the wine trade. A bona fide novice. And an apparent lack of judgement.
Touching down for my very first time in France, I had landed in Bordeaux. Met by Basaline Despagne (who now runs the family business alongside her two brothers), she drove me to Naujan et Postiac where the Despagne Family have been making wine at the picturesque Château Tour de Mirambeau for over two centuries. Here I was met with a group of New Zealanders, a South African, a Brazilian, Australians, Russians and a Bulgarian, all qualified wine makers keen to experience a ‘Bordeaux Vendange’. Geared up for my first working morning I appeared in the winery, to be promptly told off that flip flops were NOT appropriate attire. Handed a size 7 pair of boots (3 sizes too big) it was sinking in that perhaps I wasn’t destined to be knee deep in grapes dancing in a barrel. Sigh.
Picking at Tour de Mirambeau
Harvesting at Tour de Mirambeau
Instead I was introduced to Joël Elissalde, the winemaker at Ch. Tour de Mirambeau. He drove me through the vineyards, stopping every so often to explain the different soils and terriors. The Merlot still needed to fully ripen but the Sauvignon was looking good. Back at the winery I spent a few mornings perched up at the sorting table with a charming French lady. We watched the freshly picked grapes roll by, picking out snails, lizards, and grapes that didn’t make the grade. Once I had mastered the precise art of sorting, I moved onto the vineyards for some hard labour. It was sticky business, and so the offer to see machine harvesting was a welcome break. The presumption that I would be observing promptly evaded me as I was given a leg-up into the cabin. I can’t emphasise just how massive these machines are and perched high above the vines with the noisy harvester attached at the rear, I set off at a leisurely pace with red arrows telling me to steer left a bit, right a bit. Other activities included washing grape skins out of the pneumatic press, filtering wine and giving a hand at the on-site bottling line.
I soon discovered to be at most use in the laboratory. With a biological background, it was great to be surrounded by pipettes and test tubes. Every morning I would help record the temperature of the thirty or so cuvees, and take must samples back to the lab to produce reports from analytical testing of grapes and unfermented juice. It might surprise you to realise how useful science is to the art of oenology. For hundreds of years the only instrument required to make good wine was a good palate. This still holds true today but combining this knowledge, especially in difficult vintages like 2008 can prevent a crop from infection and accurately indicate when grapes are at the optimum ripeness for picking.
The wines of Ch. Tour de Mirambeau boast fantastic quality. Not a surprise after you realise how much care and precision goes into making them. My favourite is the white Grand Vin. The barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon is a food friendly complex wine. I became well acquainted with it over many long lunches in the Chateau. Another must have is their unoaked Sauvignon Blanc; completely refreshing with a palate bursting with green apples and ripe citrus fruit. Sadly it was time to leave, and due to the unfavourable weather, the red harvest had been pushed back. Perhaps I will work another Vendange in the future; next time donning something other than flip flops…