Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

Archive for August, 2011

Harvest – home-style

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

I marvel at the tenacity of Portuguese grape pickers who, after a day’s gruelling work, are prepared to stamp up and down for two or three hours before bed, in a lagar, crushing the grapes. I have no wish to join them.

But faced with the tiny crop spared by the wasps and hornets from my four little Sauvignon Blanc vines I decided that foot crushing might just be the best way to release enough juice to enable me to make a bottle or two of Pineau (de la Haute Vienne  – just).

I scrubbed my feet, filled the washing up bowl with grapes and began to tread. I was amazed to discover that after just a couple of minutes I was up to my ankles in juice.  The skins and uncrushed pips floated free and were easy to remove. A quick squeeze of the ‘marc’ over a plastic sieve was all that I needed to do. Very little mess.  They only hitch is that I need to buy more cheap Cognac than I’d estimated. I’ve left the juice, which tastes delicious, in the fridge to settle overnight, then I’ll do the simple maths to work out the proportion of Cognac to add to finish with a drink at 17%abv. It may even be ready for Christmas. Whether the family are prepared to go anywhere near it is quite another matter.

Harvest – in full swing

Monday, August 29th, 2011

We didn’t start picking Henri Jammet’s grapes last Monday – the weather was  far too hot, but began on Tuesday at 7am sharp. I’ve written a full report for The Journal (to be published this coming Friday).

Apart from the record-breaking beginning to the harvest is that 2011 indeed looks like being a year of fairly low sugar and sometimes very low acid levels in western France: even at this early stage it’s not unreasonable to predict that, with a large harvest, there’s going to a lot of soft, easy-drinking wine around.

Henri’s Chardonnay – the same plot last year was picked on 20 September – will not make much more than 12.5% alcohol, but the acid levels have been falling very fast. The grapes seemed to have achieved full phenolic ripeness and tasted delicious, but on a relatively sheltered site, rot was a bit of a problem.

Other growers – I’ve spoken to folk from Cahors, Touraine and Bordeaux over the last few days all tell a story of low acid and relatively low sugar. And more rain in the latter half of last week has increased worries about berries swelling and splitting. Those who have well-drained soils are less concerned – the July rains far less effect and some are quite excited by the relatively high proportion of skin to pulp. As ever, the story is never  simple.


Sunday, August 21st, 2011

As soon as I’d posted my last blog I realised that I’d probably need to qualify it almost immediately. The July rains did not make all the berries swell in the vineyards of  South West France as I discovered when I saw Pierre Carle yesterday at his Chateau le Chabrier in Saussignac. On the almost bare limestone, cultivated organically, the bunches were tight and grapes small. He told me that at the other organic property he manages: Croque Michotte (Saint Emilion) the berries are also small, with a high proportion of skin to pulp. Acid levels are dropping alarmingly quickly, but sugar levels have not gone through the roof. Harvest will probably begin early next month.

If the weather is not too hot (and it very well might be) harvest is due begin at 7am tomorrow on Henri Jammet’s amazing high-density (10,000 plants per hectare) vineyard at Saint Sornin in eastern Charentes.  I’ll be joining the team picking Chardonnay – the grapes tasted utterly delicious on Friday.

To be continued …

This funny season

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

The miserable cool and wet weather that has plagued Britain for the last six weeks has not spared France. The season is still advanced, but not as much as it might have been.  The bunches on my own little Sauvignon Blanc vines are nevertheless nearer to ripeness that I’ve seen in twenty years. The consequence for commercial growers of Vin de pays Charentais – the nearest are 20 minutes drive to the west of us – is that the rain swelled the berries. My vines unusually, are free from mildew, and so are the commercial vines, but rot is becoming a concern, especially for thinner-skinned varieties. The crop still looks large.

In Gascony last weekend the crop seemed very healthy indeed – not a hint of problems, but again, the berries were large.

I supect that 2011 may just turn out to be a large, healthy, not terribly concentrated vintage in much of south west France. I doubt this prospect will bring much joy to the good folk of Bordeaux. But the weather might change … a few weeks of cool, bright, dessicating sunshine with brisk breezes might do the quality trick – but who apart from wine growers would thanks their lucky stars for that? It is indeed turning out to be a funny old season.