Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to know a handful of European winemakers fairly personally, and I’ve on occasion observed that the majority seem to know very little about how the wine business works in American markets. (Why would they? It’s not their job.) Of course, the winemakers I’ve gotten to know are producing on quite a small scale in the grand scheme of things (I imagine corporate wineries are a bit more savvy), and several of them do understand a fair amount about the US market, but I maintain that most of these guys don’t have much of an idea of what happens to their wine once label approval is done, the trucker picks it up to take it to port, and the bill is paid. (This is part of the reason – for example – that some great winemakers stick it out with mediocre importers regardless of the sub-par representation they receive in the US.)
By extension, I began to wonder if my impressions of how wine is made were as theoretical and off base as my winemaker friends’ impressions of the process of importing, distributing, and selling wine in markets abroad. After all, there are so many complex links that bring the grape to the consumer’s glass, and one could hardly be expected to be intimately familiar with all of them. Still, I wanted first hand knowledge of how wine is made, and so the notion of going to the Jura to work in the vines and winery for a few weeks was born. (As an aside, lots of people here ask me why the heck I chose Arbois, and my response is generally that Jura wines are quite fashionable at the moment, that for me they’re a personal specialty, also that quite a few styles of wine are made here; I wanted to observe the decision making of an expert vigneron in a place I love.)
Like many in my particular circle, I believe that great wine is born in the vineyard through organic farming, working the soil, and essentially treating your vineyards as you’d treat your garden. Unfortunately since I’m here for harvest, I’m not seeing such crucial aspects of vineyard work as pruning, plowing, vine-training, etc … What I’ll say, however, is that having now spent a few days picking grapes, I’m incredibly happy I’m working for someone (Stephane “la vie est belle!” Tissot) who farms without chemicals. Harvesting brings you very close to the soil, the vines, the leaves, the grapes; there’s ample opportunity to cut yourself or someone across from you with the clippers, and frankly I wouldn’t want to do the job if it meant putting myself in close contact with herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, etc …
So far, I’ve found that picking grapes is fairly mindless, though physically strenuous work. I’d say the greatest lesson I’ve learned about picking is that it’s best to start early since the day’s recolte has to be dealt with before the folks in the winery can go home for the day. Everyone starts promptly at 7am; there’s a coffee break at 9, lunch at noon, and by 5pm the pickers are drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in the courtyard, while the winery workers are going until 7 or later dealing with the last tractor load of grapes to come in.
While you always harvest with a particular wine in mind, some wines require sorting in the vineyard, such as vin de paille, which requires perfect bunches of grapes, and you’ve got to make a selection. I was both touched and humbled when Steph’s father Andre came to give me a lesson on picking for vin de paille “touch them gently; turn the bunch before clipping it; look for rot; leave all but the best.” As always, it helps to take care and pride in the work.
Working in the cellar is certainly more interesting than harvesting grapes, though since I’m not an oenologist, I tend to hover waiting for the tasks that don’t require much skill or knowledge such as scrubbing the de-stemmer with Marc du Jura to disinfect it, or holding a fat hose in the tray under the press to siphon the juice into its proper tank. (Incidentally, the winery is full of tubes, hoses, buckets, and brushes.) A few days ago Tonio, Steph’s Portuguese right-hand man in the cellar, thought he’d give me the easy job of climbing into a fiberglass vessel to clean it. He realized his mistake when he couldn’t get me out and had to turn the tank upside down to allow my escape. (Everybody laughed a lot.)
I got the hang of being helpful relatively quickly when grapes started to come in to be pressed for Cremant. This is an exciting time. A masterful forklift driver named Florian lifts giant crates full of grapes from the tractor’s barge and dumps them into the press, which looks like a huge cylindrical tube with a funnel on top and a tray beneath. Two people stand on a platform behind the press guiding the bunches into its cavity and pressing them into the sides and corners of the cylinder. When the press starts to get full, the two people manning the press close it up and turn it a few times to make room for more. There are two presses at Steph’s winery. I don’t know the exact sizes, but one seems to accommodate about six crates of grapes, and the other about ten. Pressing takes three hours, and when time’s up, juice is in the tray beneath, and stems, seeds, and skins are in the cylinder. Here’s a moment to add some sulfur (or not), and sulfur additions, which are extremely minimal chez Tissot, are carefully documented on a dry erase board by the presses. The juice goes into a vessel (generally a massive stainless steal tank), and the stems, seeds, and skins are packed away to send to the distillery. Then you rinse everything, and do it again!
Of course many of the operations we’re performing are distinct to Steph’s winery. I’m reminded of this quite often while in conversation with my new friend Katherine, who is a third generation oenologist and business woman working for her family’s winery, Brown Brothers, in south Australia. Brown Brothers owns 480 hectares (Tissot has – I believe – just shy of 50). Though Katherine’s an oenologist, at this stage she works in marketing for her family. Last year she released a Moscato and Sauvignon Blanc blend, which is available in a handbag bag-in-box for easy toting. (Really. She showed me a picture.) She drank her first Jura wine about a week ago. We have lots to learn from each other, and I’m as amazed by her knowledge of winemaking processes as she is by my familiarity with Jura growers, vineyards, and terroirs. At any rate her explanation of how a particular thing might be done radically differently in her family’s winery, or in one of the various other places she’s worked in Bordeaux and Champagne, leads me to understand that we are in a very low tech, “natural,” and unique winery, despite its large size relative to other Jura Domaines.
Yesterday we began to make the cuvee called “DD” named after Andre “DD” Tissot. Grapes started to come in at around 3pm. We dished them out onto a sorting table and began to pick through them for grapes affected by the “picure lactique,” a nasty little flaw that comes along in wet vintages. Though the team had sorted quite well in the vines, Stephane wanted to do another sorting at the winery. From the sorting table, the grapes went to a hand de-stemmer, where bunches are rolled around until all the grapes have fallen into a crate below. Trust me when I say that if you’ve – say – given your fingers some little nicks while wielding the clippers, you’ll feel them as soon as you start sorting and de-stemming. The crate is periodically dosed with carbonic gas, and I had fun listening as Toto, an old winery buff who disapproves categorically of Poulsard vinified using carbonic maceration as he dosed the crate. “It’s not good the Poulsard made using carbonic – Trousseau, maybe – but never Poulsard. The only French cepages that should be made using carbonic are Syrah and Gamay Noir. That one we had at lunch (2013 Tissot Poulsard Sans Soufre) was not good.” As we’ve noted before, French people have intensely strong opinions, and often don’t harbor the concept of subjectivity. However in spite of his strong opinions, Toto is a gem; he remembers the weather in every single vintage since around 1970.
Once the crate was full, we covered it and Steph fork-lifted it over to its destination, a little old chamber on one side of the cellar. “Now! You’re really going to see the bordel!” We formed an assembly line and began to heave buckets full of whole berries and juice up to the top of an ancient foudre. All in all we made about five trips from the de-stemmer to the foudre, and at one point I had the pleasure of straddling the foudre and dumping the grapes in through a funnel, legs, arms, hands totally drenched in sweet Poulsard juice. “It’s archaic!” Steph shouted as he pushed the final few buckets of grapes into the foudre. More carbonic gas was injected into the barrel, and then it was sealed up for three to six months to ferment. What can I say? I first read about carbonic maceration about eight years ago, and it’s always had a technical ring. I’ve probably tasted hundreds of wines that are made along these lines (without – bien sur – the prehistoric foudre), and yet I was absolutely tickled to take part in my own demystification.
Tomorrow I think we’re going to make some Trousseau in Amphora, though maybe not. Steph doesn’t seem to plan more than a day in advance. It’s supposed to rain, and we may have the day off to sleep in past 5:45 am. We’ll see …