Salt & Old Vines

By Richard W H Bray

A real taste of winemaking - true stories about a wine, the people who make it and the place it's made

Food & drink | Travel
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Publication date: March 2014

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Grab a bottle, and a glass. Pop it open. Pour. Hold it up to the light and see how the colour dances under it. See how bright it is, how it seems to generate its own light. Swirl it, and don’t worry if you spill a bit. Everyone spills a bit swirling. Anyone who claims not to spill a bit swirling is a big fat liar.

Have a sniff; get your nose in. Take a sip. Savour it for a moment, let it fill the mouth.

I hope it’s good. I hope you like it. There’s no point in drinking wine that you don’t like. Wine that you like? Wine that you love? Sometimes it’s hard to find a reason not to drink it.

Have another sip.

Wine is a happy accident. Its journey from vine to bottle can be fraught. The people who accompany it on that journey are human; fallible. They’ve been picking grapes since 6 in the morning, or working the press since 6.30. They get hurt, they sweat, they bleed. They don’t finish until late and need a beer at the end of their day.

When I started working in the wine trade, one of the first things my boss taught me was that the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know. It’s an adage that applies to countless fields, but in wine its truth is viscerally apparent: you can even taste it. And it wasn’t until I started making the stuff myself that I realised just how little I knew.

I’m going to tell you a story, a story about wine, the place it comes from and the people who make it. It’s a true story.

Get your nose in there again. Has it changed at all? What’s different? Take a sip, a bigger one. Let it linger.

True stories about wine are few and far between. There are countless texts, mired in diagrams and tasting notes that pay paragraph-service (like lip service, but textual) to 'methods' and 'wine-making philosophies', maps of detailed soil strata and relief lines. No one needs another one of those, though there are some brilliant ones.

So this isn’t one of those. This is about both history and now. About folks who started off as blues guitarists, historians, or selling farm equipment. About a place that has seen crusades, and war, that sits right at the border of countries, land and sea. This is a story of wine, a portrait of some of its people and a biography of the place it comes from.

Finish the glass. The last sip is always the best.


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  • Richard W H Bray avatar

    Richard W H Bray

    After a degree that took somewhat longer than intended, I graduated with an MA in Medieval History. I'd planned to pursue a career in academia, but just two days after I graduated, I started a job with a wine merchant that also happened to be a whisky specialist, and the bug bit me.

    I've since worked as a wine and whisky merchant, sommelier, wine-educator and consultant. I've sourced extraordinary wines from around the old and new world, building some of Britain’s broadest and most interesting lists for some of its most respected restaurants. I blog about wine when I remember to and prefer tasting in the morning.

    Four years ago, I flew to France to work my first harvest - an incredible experience. I’ve returned every year since and am an assistant winemaker at Coume del Mas and Mas Cristine in the Roussillon.

    When not tasting or making wine I tweet too much, marvel at my cat and put off redrafting my novel. Between April and October, my moods hinge entirely on the performance of the Boston Red Sox. There’s a good argument to be made that the whole winemaking thing is just to take my mind off the playoff run.

  • Collioure and Banyuls sit near the edge, literally and figuratively. Spain is spitting distance away. Several of the small roads that cross the border bear no notice that you are doing so. As far as landscape goes, it can be difficult to determine where one begins and the other ends. Catalan is spoken on both sides, though less so these days. Legally, they belong to France. Emotionally, they are Catalan. In the past, they were ruled by both sides and kingdoms that exist now only in history books. They support Barcelona in the football but they play only rugby, union and league. Vines are planted mostly on terraced slopes, though in some places they’ll stick them on any spare piece of land. Higher up the hills, there’s decay, as the remains of the terraces and drywall slowly rejoin the hillside and the vines give way to scrub and brush. The two towns, Collioure and Banyuls, also provide the name for the local wine appellations. While they are part of the greater region of the Roussillon, they have been distinguished as warranting a separate classification. Dry wines from the region are classed as Collioure, whilst fortified sweet wines are classed as Banyuls.

  • Richard W H Bray has written 44 private updates. You can pledge to get access to them all.

    25th September 2018 Vintage 2018 diary

    I went for a walk in the vines above Collioure this morning. It was cool and clear. Autumn arrived properly yesterday. The temperature dropped from 28 to 18 and the Tramontane kicked up, blowing a gale. I've been here just over two weeks. It's gone too quickly. I've not written much. My Instagram stories provided a fleeting view of what was going. The fruit, the reds in particular, have been good…

    23rd August 2018 It's all kicked off (but I'm not there yet)

    They started a week ago, picking the Roussanne for the cuvee "C'est pas de Pipeau". That's always a family affair. The kids are old enough not to slice their fingers off with the secateurs now. The fruit was good and there was quite a lot of it. The heat hadn't done as much damaged as feared, and the late rains in spring, as well as a few timely downfalls more recently, helped. 

    Grenache for ros…

    5th October 2017 Vintage 2017 diary iv

    We sat in the Irish bar in Argelès after the harvest party and nursed pints of Guinness. The boys played in the lounge section, drinking Orangina with a dollop of grenadine. Andy, Kirsten, Julien and I chatted about the party, about the drunk folks and the really drunk folks, and the few who overstayed their welcome. It was a good day, not without hitches, but overall a good day. The night was Irish…

    21st September 2017 Vintage 2017 diary iii

    Well, the snow's all melted from the Canigou, and it's warm again (though cool at night). All the grapes bar the Carignan have been picked. Quite a few of the ferments are done, and cleaning has begun. Morning's feel easier this year, though I'm not sure why. It might have something to do with accelerated coffee intake as much as anything else. 

    Venus sits high and bright above the pale glow that…

    16th September 2017 Vintage 2017 diary ii

    There's snow atop the Canigou already. I've never seen it there so early, before all the fruit's harvested. It's all the more remarkable as it's been our earliest harvest in years. The mountain looked regal yesterday, snow-capped with the late afternoon sun turning the clouds clinging to its lower peaks to whisps of gold. They shone bright. It was a lone moment of beauty on a day that reminded me…

    13th September 2017 Vintage 2017 diary i

    I’m on a plane. It’s not the plane I was supposed to be on, thanks to striking French air traffic controllers, but it is a plane, and it’s going to France. It’s going to Beziers, to be precise, which isn’t the closest airport to where I need to be, but it isn’t the furthest away either. 

    Last year I left for harvest two days earlier, on the 11th. Picking had started, but there was still a solid…

    6th January 2017 some writing elsewhere

    Hello. Happy New Year. All the best for 2017 and all that. This is a very brief post to let you all know that I'm blogging about wine again. It's only one post in, and it's not terribly specific, but January is good for not terribly specific blog posts. So check it out here.

    I also updated the shed for In Cathedral's Shadow with a more detailed post about New Years and stuff. Why is it in that…

    21st November 2016 fond memories of sunnier times

    My hands are clean now. It took about three weeks for the last of the tannin stains to wash off. I kind of miss them. 

    Aside from two lingering aches, the physical impact of harvest has all but departed. The discomfort and early mornings are fading now. Overlapping and blurring into the years before. Every year is different and the same. 

    It's been raining in London for the better part of a…

    19th October 2016 Vintage 2016 diary epilogue

    I got back last Thursday. I returned to a strange £5 note and a Marmite shortage. It felt colder than it was. The rush and beat of London didn't seem to have slipped or skipped in my absence. 

    My hands are still stained and sore and swollen, but most of the other aches and pains have subsided. The cuts healed and the scabs faded to pink. It took a few nights, but I no longer dream that I'm in the…

    7th October 2016 Vintage 2016 diary part ix

    The grapes were all in by lunchtime Saturday, which meant the harvest festival on Sunday really did celebrate the end of harvest. The last fruit was beautiful Carignan, some of which will go into Red Socks 2016. All the ferments that need to have started have started, and quite a few have finished. The pickers have all gone back to their normal lives, but we winemakers still have a lot to do. Twice…

    30th September 2016 Vintage diary part viii

    A couple of days ago I needed 800mg of ibuprofen washed down with coffee and a croissant to face the day. I'm not going to fib, lifting 2-3000 kilos of grapes every day hurts after awhile. But in spite of the aches, the fruit is good and the ferments tick along just fine. A few of the barrels are going slow, but then a few of the winemakers are too. Harvest fatigue hasn't hit just yet. The plan at…

    24th September 2016 Vintage diary part vii

    The reds started on Tuesday and haven't stopped. In the pauses between truckloads, we've fortified the Muscat (Andy stayed at the winery until midnight, when the density hit 1043 - sort of like trying to get the Delorean up to 88mph), racked a lot of white, assembled the 2016 rosé, deep-cleaned the presses, and drunk a few beers. 

    For something new and different, I've been given the task of tasting…

    19th September 2016 Vintage diary part vi

    We drove to Spain on Sunday for lunch. The coast road hugged the cliffs and the car never got higher than 3rd gear. The Tramontane was blowing hard and white horses, les chevals blancs, covered the Med. As we passed Banyuls the vineyards approaching Cerbère had been scorched by wild fires, and many others had been abandoned. The town of Llançà sits on the Med. We had a bad lunch there some time ago…

    16th September 2016 Vintage diary part v

    The storms left and took the summer with them. It’s cold in the mornings now, especially before the sun rises. Everything’s crisper, and the light more golden. Autumn’s here, regardless of the date. 

    We only pressed twice yesterday. Beautiful Grenache Blanc and Gris. I cooked lunch for the winery team and we drank some Provençal red. Andy then gave me the afternoon off, so I went for a short run…

    15th September 2016 Vintage diary part iv

    The rain didn't stop yesterday, so when the racking and cleaning was finished, we jumped in a car and drove over to Banyuls to taste some wines. Les 9 Caves is a consortium of nine different producers who share space and a general 'natural' winemaking philosophy. It's a cool spot with a wine bar and shop. We sampled a couple of whites and a couple of reds. Mark Antoine, one of this year's stagaires…

    14th September 2016 Vintage 2016 Diary part iii

    The storm hit at three am, with thunder so loud and lightning so bright it woke me up. Out the window of my room the skies above the Med raged. The rain didn't just fall; it battered as though it were hurled down by a vengeful god. It was not really weather to sleep to. I tossed and turned and looked out, wondering if I should get my camera, to try and get a shot. But I wasn't really awake, I wasn…

    13th September 2016 Vintage 2016 Diary part ii

    It was easier this morning, though the coffee was still awful. We got to the winery as the pickers were leaving and set to racking the Macabeu into barrel. The juice was clear and beautiful - which is usually a pretty good sign. Another good sign was several bags of croissants and pain au chocolat left on the table in the winery. A good pain au chocolat can make bad coffee bearable.That was my excuse…

    12th September 2016 Vintage 2016 Diary part i

    The flight was easy. I got to the airport early and grabbed a beer and a bowl of nuts. The endless refurbishment of Stansted seems complete, and the departures lounge is now perfectly designed to extract as much money from passengers as humanly possible before they get on the plane.

    I landed and we went straight to the winery to rack some settled Muscat. Then we went to the pub. Collioure seemed…

    9th September 2016 Vintage 2016 prologue

    I fly out to Perpignan on Sunday morning. Considering the work ahead, it's quite funny that my main cause for concern in the lead up to harvest is how best to get from my small corner of West London to Stansted. I visualise the route and assign each section (tube, Stansted Express, bag drop, security, whisky purchasing, snack at the least shite airport food stall) its own bit of time in order to work…

    12th August 2016 Being Mankind

    I have quite a few updates semi-written at the moment, and in less than a month I fly to France for Vintage 2016. However, this shed post has nothing to do with any of that. It's actually about another book. And not an Unbound book (sshhhh...). It's a book, and a project, called Being Mankind, and I was lucky enough to be asked to be a part of it. It is a collection of stories, essays, poems, by some…

    26th April 2016 beginnings remind me of the ends

    I can't imagine there are many winemakers for whom the beginning of baseball season makes them think of harvest. It doesn't make any sense, really. In the northern hemisphere, you're just getting bud break. There's hail and frost and then heat and rain and drought to worry about. In the southern hemisphere, you've just finished harvest and don't give a shit about baseball anyway. 

    I can think of…

    10th April 2016 a little photographic update

    I've already been to France three times this year, almost all for work (there was a decadent meal involving lots of truffles, as well as a Burns Supper involving whisky...). As the wines settle, it's becoming more apparent that 2015 is going to be quite an excellent vintage in the Roussillon. As usual, I dragged my camera along to snap a bit of the story (click the images for the full-size, prettier…

    8th February 2016 Winemaking in January part 1

    I’d never flown to Beziers before, but it was the only airport in the region that I could get to from London at this time of year. Like the houses around these parts, this corner of France closes its shutters in the winter.

    The flight was full, but no one told the airport that, and the door to get in was locked. A sheepish looking lady ran to unlock the entrance to the terminal as the border guard…

    23rd December 2015 in good company

    The other morning started much like any other Thursday morning in December. I ignored my alarm for as long as possible before emerging from bed and stumbling downstairs to fix my breakfast and take my pills. Sat at the table in my kitchen, scrolling through various social media, a story grabbed my eye. I blinked and did a double take. Something about Barack and Banyuls. 

    "Oh yeah", I thought, …

    18th September 2015 Abergavenny Food Festival

    Delighted to say that I'm off this afternoon to Abergavenny to take part in their Food Festival. You can catch me Saturday 19th September from 1230 - 130 at the Homes of Elegance venue. I'll be reading from the book, talking a bit about winemaking, and will have some Mas Cristine for folks to taste as well. Afterwards I'll be signing books. If you happen to be in the neighbourhood, you should pop…

    8th September 2015 one morning on the walk to work

    Have quite a few notes to type up in order to get my vintage diaries up, but I wanted to share a shot I took walking to the car to go to the winery the other morning. The sun rose over the Med and the old Catalan sailboats in Collioure harbour framed it beautifully. I was tired. I don't even think I'd had coffee yet. But I grabbed this and thought this might be the best place in the world to work…

    30th August 2015 Vintage 2015 diary part 1

    I got here Thursday but this is the first chance I've had to write. I've been trying to keep mental notes as the days go by, bits and pieces that I think would be nice to mention on here, but it's to little avail. It's all sort of blending into one. It's the whites and rosé that we're making at the moment, pressing and chilling and racking. The fruit's good and so's the juice. The Roussanne's started…

    25th May 2015 images from the Roussillon

    I was down in Collioure in February, to help blend the 2014 whites. It was a good trip, but as usual, it seemed a little short. I wasn't stuck in the winery the whole time - Andy and I headed out into the vines to see how the pruning was going. I brought my camera along to see what was worth seeing. 

    This is a piece of schist, the dominant soil type of the region, quite perfectly layered. It…

    19th May 2015 dwelling here and there

    It might be the chillier-than-normal May, but I've found my thoughts of late drifting towards the warm, late August sun in the Roussillon. The salty tang of slurping oysters with a chilled glass of Petit Gris; stiffly lifting a beer to my lips after a long day in the winery; hot and spicy merguez cooked over a BBQ of old vines, slathered with homemade aioli and washed down with Mas Cristine Rose.…

    27th February 2015 Shed upkeep

    Hello, all. I'm terribly sorry about the lack of updates here. I didn't even post that some crazy folks gave me an award for the Best French Wine Book (UK). And I totally forgot to mention that Salt & Old Vines made two year-end top 10 lists of best books about wine. How could such things slip by? What happened to the rest of my 2014 vintage diary? 

    Well, I've been quite busy, you see. I've written…

    29th December 2014 Year's end

    As the recycling bags burst with crumpled wrapping paper and the curtain draws to close on 2014, my list of thank you notes to write grows longer. Rather than stain my fingers with ink I'll bash some keys and hammer out some manner of awkward 'ta' in the shed. 

    Perspective on such a year is difficult to maintain. The dizzying peak of publishing my first book sometimes obscured by the low-hanging…

    25th September 2014 Vintage 2014 part 3 (dancing to imaginary spiders)

    Leah didn't expect the lizard to be on the sorting table. Neither did Vincent. The lizard, whatever its expectations may have been, probably didn't either. But there it was, stood among a mass of sticky Grenache grapes, vibrating away on the mistral, looking a bit dazed. Somehow it survived the rapidly spinning batons of the destemmer, and had not been discarded among the stems, but instead was selected…

    12th September 2013 Vintage 2013 Part I

    Think of this as like the bonus section on a DVD. It's stuff that doesn't make it into the final cut (because it's too late for that) but not without its own merit. 

    It's almost a year to the day that Salt & Old Vines launched on Unbound. It's now fully-funded, written, rewritten, edited, rewritten again and in production. So it's out of my hands.

    I'm back in France at the moment. I flew into…

    1st July 2013 Tasting in March

    Video shot at a tasting earlier this year (held at The Society Club, Soho in March).

    9th May 2013 home stretch

    The shed is looking a bit dusty, I'm afraid. You see, I don't spend much time in here. I should do - sheds are a lovely space to shut the world out and focus on putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard). 

    The book is very nearly finished. In fact, by this time next week, it will be in the hands of some of the nice folks at Unbound so that they can get a clear idea of just how unfinished…

    20th February 2013 working away

    The days get longer and the sun shows up for a wee while and then an easterly rips on down from the Steppes and you chill right down to the bone marrow and all hope for spring is lost again. 

    My mind turns to Collioure and Banyuls moreso now. The memory of muscle pain and sweat stinging the eyes is welcome. Feeling the burn of the light on my neck and forearms as I wait for the grapes to come in…

    8th February 2013 Why yes, that is me at the bottom of a fermentation vat.

    It's been far too long since my last shed update. You'll be happy to know that I've been filling that time with writing and tasting wine in almost equal measure. I've also participated in some fantastic Unbound, Live! events. They're so good they have an exclamation point. So this photo of me doing a Jack Nicholson at the bottom of a vat of mourvèdre, eh? What's that all about? Well, that's a…

    2nd December 2012 the routine

    The following is a diary entry I wrote September 3, 2011, towards the beginning of harvest. I was living in Banyuls that year:

    My alarm sings the marimba at 530 in the morning and I fiddle about trying to turn it off. I avoid 'snooze'. The snooze button is not allowed during harvest. 

    By 630 we're at Coume del Mas, rinsing and assembling the press and loading the first comports (big plastic tubs holding…

    23rd November 2012 electron microscopes

    I wrote this piece soon after I finished working my first vintage in the Roussillon. In a lot of ways, it was writing this that the first ideas for Salt & Old Vines came to mind. I thought it would be good to share and give a taste of what's in store.

    I honestly don't remember the first time I saw an image taken by an electron microscope. If I told you a day, a situation, a tv show, a class, an idle…

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