Meet Maria Elena Lugea - the new JN apprentice who beat more than 100 applicants to become the second person to secure a trainee position with James Nicholson Wine Merchant. Maria Elena who is 24, hails from Newcastle, Co Down and is a graduate from Queens University impressed us with her her palate and passion for wine during a series of interviews that included a blind taste test.

Maria Elena joined us in August and will learn all aspects of the business over the next nine months. As part of the programme, she recently travelled to Tuscany to work with Rocca delle Macie on their vintage and has sent us regular updates about her experiences there.

Maria Elena's Diary from Tuscany

September 30

Rocca's oenologist Luca took me and the other oenology students on a tour of the whole premises today, giving us a full description of the whole process, from when to grapes arrive from the vineyard to the boxed bottles that leave by lorry. I have learned a lot over the past few weeks from working in the various areas but this was very helpful in filling in a few gaps and answering a few questions I had.

Today was my last day of work! We're going out for a meal tonight with all the employees I have worked with. It's been fantastic here, I have learned so much and really enjoyed working with everyone. Looking forward to getting back to JN and putting the past few weeks' experience to use!

September 28

Now that he has a bit more time on his hands that the vendemmia is over, Rocca's agronomist Alfio took us round the vineyards to explain the different varieties of grapes and soils. This man is hardcore Toscana - he has the regional symbol, the black rooster, tattooed on his arm! It was interesting to hear the history of winemaking in Tuscany from someone who is so passionate about it!

In the afternoon the cellar guys were emptying this huge vat after 1 week of fermentation. The liquid was pumped into another vat for the next stage of the process, while what's left of the grapes was being transferred to the press to extract any juice remaining. Then the leftovers of that stage is used to make the famous grappa, Roca’s own is strong stuff!

Tomorrow is my last day of work, it's gone too fast!

September 27

Today I was doing some baking on a huge scale! We were adding yeast to the vats of wine to help the fermentation process along, yeast converts the sugars in to alcohol. Here I was mixing the yeast with warm water using a huge hand blender before pumping it in to the vats. I've also attached a photo of one of the many cellars Rocca has for ageing the wine. One of these huge barriques holds 1300 bottles of wine! The sheer scale is very impressive!

September 26

I did some travelling this weekend, went to Florence, the nearest city from here, it is stunning, as you can see from the photos.

The first one is taken from a piazza high above the city, the others from the bridges that cross the river Arno. I also went to Torino in the north; here I went to an amazing place called Eataly, a huge store that was a supermarket as well as an eatery. It focused on organic and speciality food, celebrating regional and seasonal cuisine. They also have an enoteca which had an incredible selection with tastings, advice, and plenty of info! I tried the Dolcetta D'Alba, lovely!

September 22

The sun going down on the last day of the harvest! 25 days in total, hats off to these guys who did the whole lot, after only a few days my back is broke! Really enjoyed it though. The work doesn't end here though.

The cellar lads here doing the daily task of 'remontage', the grapes and pulp float to the top of the vat so they are pumped out and pumped back in at the bottom to ensure maximum extraction of taste, colour and tanins.

September 21

Today I was back at the winery. The photo below shows me taking samples from the huge vats. With these samples you can do many tests but today we were testing the must (not quite wine yet). This can help us determine how fermentation is coming along.

Of course it is not all work, last night we went out for dinner with Andrea Rinaldi (president of the UK Sommelier Association) and Salavtore Calabrese (celebrated cocktail mixologist). The food was amazing and the wines - even better!

Ciao Maria Elena

September 18

Had an early start this morning. We were picking by 6.30 am. The weather was fantastic and the work was tough but fun. I was with Sharon and a team of interesting people both young and old. The older ones leading the way and showing us what to do and what not to do as we picked.

Every so often the tractor comes around and collects the freshly picked grapes! This signals a welcome break and a chance to relax for a few minutes before getting back into the picking. Today we picked prodominately cabernet which is slightly smaller and sweeter than sangiovese which I was picking earlier in the week.

Back at the winery the grapes just keep coming in from various picking teams throughout the farm. At this time the winery guys carry out certain tests on the juice from the grapes making sure it is up to their requirements.

Sent on 13 September 2011

Hi!

First of all what a place, so beautiful, and everyone was so welcoming when I arrived, and a fridge full of ham, tomatoes and vino!

So today I was in the various vineyards taking samples of each grape type and in the lab analysing them, I didn't realise how much science was involved! It was really quite interesting, measuring the level of sugar and acidity, and also the level of alcohol of the wines that were already in the process of maturing. Tomorrow the real work starts, vendemmia at 7am!

Attached are a few photos, Patrick (above) who was with me taking, the samples and in the other photo Sharon (below) (who is an Oenology student doing her placement) and Rosanna, the head chemist!

I'll email again in a few days Hope all is well with you M-E

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