Thursday, 12 November 2009

Although Bordeaux 2009 has drawn to a close, I haven't wasted time in starting with the next project.

As I have said we are moving back to the UK in December as my wife Kaye is to start work again. We are also going to start a little vineyard project of our own, and jump on the successful UK sparkling bandwagon!

For research we took a small trip to Champagne to see an old friend of mine Thierry Lesne. I worked with Thierry in my very first vintage in the Ardèche in 1998, where I learnt how to hunt wild bore and hate Pastis!

We simply went to see how things work, extract as much info as possible, and see what I was getting myself into. It was quite obvious from the start that it is very different from anything I have done before. Some things are the same, for instance the expression of terroir, more so than in any other wine.

Because everyone makes their wine in exactly the same way (they have too!), the defining factors are where the fruit comes from, and how they are blended together. We tried many base wines, and I think lost most of the enamel off my teeth because of the acidity. The differences are incredibly subtle, and the art of blending will probably be the hardest part. I was completely fascinated by it all and am really relishing the chance to make something completely different.

Although one thing I have learnt is that you cannot simply take one production method from one country and export it to another.

Everywhere is different, and each site is specific. Meaning because we are starting from scratch there is no model to follow like over here in France, no rules to govern how we grow the fruit, just lots of questions!! It will be a fascinating adventure and I hope to let you know how it goes!


Friday, 6 November 2009

The end of an adventure!

Last week represented the end of my 2009 harvest, as I pressed off the last tank of Verniotte Cabernet Franc. I had to do it on my own as the last of my vintage crew had disappeared. Not really an issue for most places, but when you are still using an ancient manual ratchet basket press, things take about twice as long. I always say it will be the last year I use it, but when you are making such small volumes it just makes sense. It may take a while but what’s the rush!!

Although this time on my own did give me a chance to reflect on such a wonderful year, that sadly has come to an end. Yes it was a great vintage, but that is not the reason why I enjoyed it. It was the chance to really get to know my vines for the first time, and learn all the little things it takes to grow the best fruit possible. It by no means went smoothly. I must have broken my sprayer about 4 times, and nearly lost the tractor over a small cliff. But this is the only way you can learn.

I am moving back to the UK with Kaye (and Alfie) in December, as Kaye is starting work again. This means I will be leaving the vines in the capable hands of my French experts. Although I am sad to leave these vineyards, I will be back at least once a month to see how 2010 pans out, and obviously make sure the wonderful 2009 Verniotte evolves into the beauty it should. But before that we have the excellent 2008 vintage being bottled in March, which is sure to impress.


Thursday, 22 October 2009

A weekend to celebrate

I have just got back from the UK, where we were celebrating my parents 40 years in the business with a big tasting event at the Royal Horticultural Halls in London.

It really was quite an event, with the chance to meet and talk shop with many a customer, even some who have been catching the blogs and know what’s going in Bordeaux this year. It’s fair
enough spending time making sure we make the best wines, but unless we have interaction with customers and get feedback, then we don’t really know if people actually enjoy it. But from the response over the weekend it seems that all is well and we are going in the right direction. Also have to mention that my Wilson Gunn Bellum 2007 picked up silver (twice) in best wines of the show. But I really have to thank a certain Mr Frazer for doing such a great job in selling it!

It’s quite amazing to think my Dad started 40 years ago in the same village that I am living in now. I met many a customer and producer this weekend who have been buying or selling from my Dad for longer than I have been alive! This I find incredibly impressive, and such loyalty I am sure can only happen through honesty, good service and a natural love for the product. I feel very proud to be associated with such a business and look forward to doing my little bit to keep both the customer and the producers happy and engaged!

While all this was going on I actually missed another celebration – the last day of the vintage. Yep, on Friday we picked the very last grapes of the year, the Cabernet Sauvignon for La Clariere. I called early on Friday to make sure everything was going ok, only to be informed that it was -1 degrees. This is very unusual for this time of year and any frost just kills the leaves on the vines, which meant we really couldn't have pushed it any further this year. In fact, when I returned this morning, I noticed all the vines in the bottom of the valleys had been turned to ruin with the leaves brown and about to fall off. I’ve never seen this before and you can even see the frost line on the hills with brown at the bottom and green on top.

Thankfully everything is now in so nature can throw what it likes at us and we won’t care! A lot of the ferments are now finished or coming to an end and this is where we get to really see what we have created. Unfortunately my jaunt to the UK has given me something to take back to France, a stinking cold! So I will have to wait for it to pass before providing you with the first tasting notes of the 2009 vintage!!

P.S. A few customers kindly asked how Alfie the dog is doing after his op! Well I came back to find he had eaten the roof out of our car………. so looks like he’s back to normal!! Arghhhhhhh!

Friday, 9 October 2009

I’ve just taken Alfie for a walk this evening for the first time in about 2 weeks.

Mainly because getting up at 6:30 every morning and then finishing late doesn’t leave much time for leisurely walks with the dog. But we always walk him through the vines and have done so for about 9 months.

I have seen all those vines break from winter dormancy, get smashed by hail in May, re-blossom and then ripen to (hopefully) make some great wine in 2009. Now they all lay bare and are starting to yellow and enter the next dormant phase. I knew I was going to enjoy my first year in the vines, but to see all the seasons and how the vines change has been very inspiring indeed. I can only hope I am lucky enough to keep doing this for many a year to come!

Now I’m trying to not bang on about how great 2009 is, as I’m sure you’ll get an earful when the wine press start putting out the articles in the next few months. Although I’d just like to say that we have now started picking the Cabernet Franc and guess what ... it’s great! I am a massive fan of Cab Franc as I love the finesse and fruit character it gives to the wine. Merlot on its own can be very big with impressive weight, but can also seem simplistic and unexciting.

I am lucky enough to possess around 40% of Franc in my Verniotte vineyards, most of it very old. Sutre said that if I ever re-plant, I should take cuttings from one certain patch of old vines as they are a different clone, and apparently very good. How he can tell this just by eating a grape I really don’t know

We are pumping over like crazy at the moment, and the colour is just immense! When we open the cellar doors in the morning to start work we get this wall of black fruit and plumb air that flows out. I almost want to shut them quick to keep it in!

Looks like we’ll finish the Cab Franc at the beginning of next week and then all that is left is 1 hectare of Cabernet Sauvignon for La Clariere. I really don’t want it to end!


Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Merlot almost done, Alfie definitely done!

It’s a fresh, sunny afternoon out here, after a very hot week, the
hottest I’ve ever known. The Verniotte Merlot is all in, the only
thing left out there is the old vine for La Clarière. This comprises of 100+ yr-old vines that have stood the test of time, and always give very low yields with impressive structure and finesse. Most of this will end up going into our Presbytere cuvée, a 100-case limited release taking the best fruit from the vintage.

It is becoming quite apparent that we are witnessing an exceptional year with incredibly ripe fruit, packed with colour and intensity. Some of the tanks have come to the end of their 7-day cold macerations and are so ink purple it seems to stain everything. This much colour and we haven’t even started fermenting yet!

The other notable events of the week include my wife Kaye’s birthday, and the removal of Alfie’s testicles! (he's our faithful hound, by the way) Coincidentally they happened on the same day, but I assure you they were unrelated! Within his 1st year Alfie has already managed to get hit by a car and break his legin two places, whilst also managing to run away at every opportunity
and slowly dismantle Kaye’s shoe collection. It’s for his own good! As you can see, he's well on the road to recovery.

A lot of my picking crew have now left to go back to the UK, and it is now up to the remaining hardcore group to finish the job. But I would just like to thank Lindsay, John, Willis, Dan, Laura, Scott, Jenny, Phil, Helen, Paul and of course Mum and Dad for all their help. All they get is a free t-shirt but they've worked hard to make it a very smooth week for me and I can’t thank them enough for there help!

Looks like we might see some clouds next week but still can’t see any serious rain on the horizon!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Bordeaux 2009 is going to be special!

Well I’ve finally been able to get in front of my computer after a
week of solid picking, both at La Clarière and Verniotte. We’ve now
probably got about half of the merlot in and it really does look
phenomenal! And to top it off we have had solid sunshine for it all,
and it looks set to continue into next week. I have never known such
wonderful harvest weather!

We started on Thursday with Verniotte and as usual I had my picking
crew over from England, consisting of friends and family who have helped me out most years. They themselves cannot believe the quality and health of the fruit this year. Not one berry with botrytis rot……..not one! Even in the great 2005 we had at least some!

On Saturday I decided to start La Clarière picking at 6am in the morning so we could use the cold fresh nights to get the fruit in as cool as possible to aid our cold maceration in tank. Picking under the stars and then watching a blood red sun come up was incredible. The fruit came in at 10 degrees, which was perfect. We could then keep it there for a week and pump over to extract colour before fermentation starts, whilst also conserving aromas and freshness.

Each bunch and berry that comes in goes through a complicated array of sorting tables, vibrating tables, escalators and finally gets into the tank in perfect condition. Here people usually sort frantically to remove any rotten or unripe berries before they reach the tank, but this year is so clean that we just stand there and admire these delightful little balls, full of sweet rich flavour. I’m getting a bit excited now!

Sutre came this morning and did his usual tour. He always writes a
report and faxes it through in the afternoon, detailing what to pick
next. In the comments section he simply wrote: “ Belle Vendage,
sanitaire impeccable!” - beautiful havest, impeccable health! Which
pretty much sums it up.

The vineyards have done their bit this year, it’s now up to us to make sure we make a wine that really shows what a wonderful gift mother nature has given us this year!


Friday, 25 September 2009

The Fog!

Since the rain fell we’ve had a permanent cover of fog that I thought would never leave. There was no point in starting to pick as I couldn’t find my vineyards!

Thankfully though, today it cleared in the afternoon just in time for another visit from the master of grape eating … Mr Sutre! Today I would find out what effect the rain had on the vineyards. After doing the tour it seems like the vineyards on the plateau have sucked up a touch of the rain but this has not really affected the flavour, just simply diluted the sugars a bit, which in the long run is good as they were beginning to get a bit too high!

The La Clarière vineyards at Le Bourg seem to have taken up more whilst also showing some astringency that would need time to disperse. The word from Sutre is that my Verniotte vines on the top of the plateau are ready to go … maintenant! If I leave it too late then I risk losing aromas and overcooking the grapes.

One thing I have learnt from these walks with Sutre is how to assess the finer flavours in the fruit. In cool years, it is often the case that the longer you leave it the better the grapes will become, despite unfavourable conditions. In hot years such as this, the hardest thing is to make the call to pick early to preserve finesse, despite the sun continuing to shine. A lesson I learnt with the very hot 2003 vintage.

So after a few phone calls we are going to start my vineyards tomorrow and Friday and then start La Clarière on the Saturday. The weather looks fine for at least 10 days and we should really aim to get all the Merlot in before the next rain as that would for certain start the dreaded rot!

So the plan of attack has now been decided; we’ll soon have our first grapes in tank after 9 long months of tending to these vines. Jusqu’au demain!


Monday, 21 September 2009

Serious Rain!!

Took Alfie (the dog) for a walk this morning after a weekend of storms and torrential downpours. I found my neighbour Jean Marie in a ditch trying to unblock a drainpipe that has filled with earth. He told me that his meter read 60mm!!

That’s quite a lot of rain. My first thought was that we’re probably going to have to push back our first day of picking to the end of the week, maybe even the start of next week depending on what Mr Sutre reckons tomorrow. Parents won’t be happy as I told them to get out here for the beginning of the week and they arrive tonight! But that’s vintage for you. Things change very quickly.

Back in August, I told all my friends and family to come out on the 26th. By the first analysis I thought I’d got this wrong by about a week, but it turns out I was pretty close ... never thought I’d be thankful for rain!!

The ground is very saturated and still very humid, but looking at the forecast it looks like we’re in for a week of brilliant sunshine, so this should dry things out quite nicely! Well, at least my Verniotte cellar is clean and ready to receive.


Friday, 18 September 2009

A Walk with Sutre!

Monsieur Bertrand Sutre is our vineyard consultant. He advises us on the growing season and basically what to do in the vineyard to get the most out of our terroir, and keep our vines as healthy as possible. He works with many great Chateaus in the region, most notably Chateau Ausone of St Emilion. So he must be good!

He walks down the rows of each parcel, tasting, chewing, thinking and then writing scores for each element of the fruit composition. The first time he went through my vineyards I was quite nervous; I felt like a school child who was awaiting his exam results, he might turn around and say ‘zis tastes like rubber!’

Thankfully he didn’t, and it turns out I have bought some pretty damn good vineyards ... Hooray! But anyway back to the analysis and it looks like that little bit of rain on Tuesday has held the sugar levels, and also helped to develop and release more tannins, which will need time to soften.

Although everyone is talking about a band of clouds coming in on Saturday that could yield more rain. Apparently it's something to do with the September equinox that always brings a period of rain this time of year! If we get too much rain (over say 25mm) then the vine tends to re-circulate its polyphenols, some of which are located in the leaf and stems. These can be astringent and make their way into the berries, which can then take a good 5 days to soften and disperse. So how much rain we get on Saturday will dictate when we start picking next week! It’s getting close.


Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Happy Birthday to me!!

Yes 29 today and once again a birthday in France. I much prefer late vintages like 2008 as it means I can get home and celebrate with family and friends, instead of spending 12 hours cleaning crushers and sorting tables!!

It is really starting to feel like autumn now. Night temperatures have dropped and we are getting fog in the mornings. When you step out of the house, you get that smell of leaves and mushrooms. It is by far my favourite time of year out here as you get cold mornings but it still heats up during the day so that you can sit outside for lunch.

I am still amazed that I haven’t seen one harvesting machine yet, as usually there’s always one person who cracks first!! Maybe everyone is learning to hold out until the last moment - no one wants to be the first to jump!

Today is the first day of real rain for quite a while. It will be very interesting to see how the vines react to it when we do the analysis tomorrow. If they are at all water stressed, we should see a change in polyphenol make up (tannin, colour) and maybe a reduction in sugar concentration. Will let you know!


Monday, 14 September 2009

Well it’s almost the middle of September and I’m sure some people are wondering how the 2009 Bordeaux harvest is coming along?!

Well I can sum it up in one word – glorious!!!

We’ve had an exceptional summer ... well as far as I can see! I’ve never spent a whole year in France before but July and August have been very hot with hardly any rain. The difference between the UK and here has been very notable. The only downside was we had a large hailstorm in May which wiped out nearly 2000 hectares of vineyard in Bordeaux. Luckily we escaped any serious damage, but many of our neighbours lost up to 80%.

So overall everything is looking exceptionally healthy, and the sun just keeps on shinning. I don’t want to count my chickens yet, but I reckon it’s already in the bag ... whoops!

This year I have focused on looking after all my new vineyards (Verniotte), whilst also taking over winemaking at my father’s place - Chateau La Clariere. Running the two side by side has helped me learn how to look after vineyards with the help of the La Clariere farmer, Olivier. I can also impart some of my experience in their winemaking areas.

So overall we are heading for a fantastic year, and everything is in place to make some exceptional wine!!


Friday, 4 September 2009

Today is an important day! The bottling of the very first Laithwaite Pere et Fils, vintage 2007.

This is a wine that we have wanted to do for a while, ever since I became interested in the same area where my father started 40 years ago ... Castillon. It brings together parcels of fruit from growers who my dad has known for many years, such as the local Mayor’s son Fred and Jean Pierre Seguinel, the man who kindly sold me his best vineyards at the beginning of the year.

The fruit was fermented at my Verniotte cellar in Ste Colombe, and we paid particular attention to maintaining its character by using the natural yeast to ferment, and techniques such as hand plunging to keep the wine soft, supple and very approachable. 2007 was not a year for big tannins, so perfect for this style.

Bottling is one of those processes that sound simple, but it is often where people can undo all their hard work in one fell swoop. Having heard bottling horror stories, I was extra careful to make sure the wine was perfectly prepared for its trip into glass format.

We use a local bottling company who do all the Chai au Quai bottling and have proved to be a real success. They turn up with their truck with everything on the back; fiddle around a bit, stick a hose on to my tank and off they go!! Talking as a man who has done countless ‘hand bottling’ operations with my very first wines, this was almost too easy!!