Salt & Old Vines
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.
France’s appellation system can be labyrinthine, and while it nominally exists to preserve the identity of the thousands of wine producing regions in the country, it seems mostly to produce endless amounts of paperwork, lab tests, self-sustaining bureaucracy and headaches for winemakers. Their rules range from common sense to the mundane and ultimately idiotic. I’ve never met a winemaker who looks upon their control boards with any sort of fondness or pride. Most importantly, they are boring to write about, read about and talk about. There are numerous wine tomes out there that will help you get a grip with them. This book is not one of them. I shall keep their mention to a minimum.
Vintage begins early in these parts, usually before the end of August. It is one of the earliest harvests in France, and often one of the shortest. It’s dry here, and the sun is hot. Too much rain is never a problem, though too little can be. The first time I flew here to make wine was August 2008. I had been in the wine trade for 8 or so years and when my mentor moved on to winemaking, he invited me over to help out with the harvest.
Just a side note, because sometimes people get confused. Words can be used in perpetuity without a meaning ascribed to them. ‘Vintage’ is one of those words. People seem to take its meaning as the year a particular wine is made, but that’s not the case. Vintage ? year. Vintage comes from the French vendage, which means harvest. So when you see vintage and then year, that was the year the grapes were harvested. I will use the term harvest and vintage interchangeably throughout this book. If you already knew this, then this paragraph probably wasn’t for you. If you didn’t, then you’ve learned something new. Don’t worry, there isn’t a test. I’ve told you to fulfil my own issues with wine pedantry, rather than any mission of enlightenment.
The borders here exist on all levels: physical, national, cultural and geological. The coastal towns sit in natural harbours, bookended by vine-clad cliffs of gnarled schist. The layered stone looks folded, running perpendicular to the earth. The hill peaks are dotted with watchtowers, relics from warlike times. Invasion would be signalled from them by the lighting of a bonfire, which would lead to the others following, the flames travelling over the peaks, warning those below of impending conflagration.
Battles these days come on the rugby pitches. While both the French and Spanish sides are Catalan, there are stark differences between the two. The Spanish side is immensely prosperous. The industrial and commercial capital of the country whose fortunes were so grand that it enraged Franco, and much of the domestic policy under him was set forth to tip the scales towards the rest of the country, Galicia in particular, as that's where Franco hailed from.
The French side does not fare as well. It's, in the traditional sense, a peasant region. Small scale fruit farms and vineyards dot the landscape, while the coast is dotted with small fishing boats. Port Vendre, sat between Collioure and Banyuls, boasts the deepest port and as such large containers of fruit from Africa land their produce there, but for the most part everything is on a small scale. Locals farm and fish, or work in Perpignan. Then there are the outsiders, those that came for the beauty, the lifestyle by the sea. There are artists and ex-pats, folks from all over France who ran away to find themselves here. Having spent a lot of time in Key West, I see many of the same sort of people - folks looking to live on the edge of something. Key West is as far as you can get from anyone in the continental United States, and Collioure, Banyuls and this little coastal stretch of the Roussillon is as far as you can get from French folks and still be in France.
The military is also there, in various shapes and forms. The French marines train in Collioure, whilst there is a not-so-top-secret military base on the Cap Bear peninsula. I've often seen the marines taking their rubber boats out on training exercises. I've never seen any military vehicle leave or enter the Cap Bear installation.
There are plentiful bars and cafés. A good general rule to follow is that the closer they are to the water, the more expensive they will be. That is true whether you're in Collioure, Bayuls, Port Vendre or Argeles.
I've not mentioned Argeles yet. I should do, but it sits outside the appellation, and so it can't just be lumped in with all the others. This is how my mind works now, for better or for worse. Argeles sur Mer is the next town to the east of Collioure. It sits at the very beginning of the Plain de Roussillon. The mountains stop before it gets there. The soil changes. The weather is different; not as windy. The changes between places are at once infinitesimal and gargantuan. Argeles is split in two: the old town, which is just Argeles, and Argeles-sur-Mer, a seaside resort with all the hilarious tackiness that comes with being a seaside resort.
The wines from Argeles belong to the Cotes du Roussillon appellation. This is the largest AOC in the region. I make wines here as well as Collioure (though that winery actually sits between Banyuls and Port Vendres, and the grapes come mostly from around Banyuls).
Going from east to west, it's Argeles, Collioure, Port Vendres, Banyuls and Cerbere. I will most likely never write about or mention Cerbere again as it is an utter shitehole and the most interesting thing I can think of to say about it is that we once blew out a tire there on the drive back from Spain. We'd gone to Spain for lunch, because we can do that in this neck of the woods, and had one of the truly worst lunches I have ever willingly eaten. Ever. Blowing out the tire was better than the lunch. I don't think anyone present that afternoon would disagree with me. If you ever have the chance to meet Andy, Kirsten or Jonny, feel free to ask them. Theo was there too, but he most likely won't remember, what with being 6 months old and all.
Harvest moves from west to east. It starts in the vines around Banyuls first, with those around Collioure following about a week later, and Argeles another week after that. From there it spreads both east and north, moving as the vines and the grapes on them reach their full ripeness. Why does it move that way? Temperature and sunlight, mostly. The berries form in the late spring. By July, veraison sets, where the fruit reaches its full size. From there forth, the grape ripens. Photosynthesis feeds the leaves, which put most of their energy towards making sure the berries are packed with as much sugar as possible. Sunlight = sugar. People talk about warm temperatures all the time, but heat and haze is difficult. The result on the growing season is remarkable. We discovered in 2011 that heat without direct sunlight can be disastrous. Bunches do not ripen evenly, with some grapes being laden with sugar and others barely registering on the refractometre. You want to make wine with evenly ripened bunches.
At Coume del Mas, the winery near Banyuls, we start checking the bunches in early August. It's a simple process. You wander around the vineyard with a wee ziplock sandwich bag, picking grapes from a random selection of vines spread out across as much of the plot as possible. Then you scrunch the grapes in the bag, crushing them and smooshing them until it's all a big wet, gooey mess. Then you pour the juice onto the end of the refractometre, a nifty little cylinder that looks like a weird telescope. You hold your eye to the non-juiced end and the light passing through the grape juice bounces differently according to the level of sugar. This is important, as the amount of sugar translates directly as the amount of potential alcohol you can expect from the finished wine. Boozey spyglasses are one of the many fine toys you get to play with as a winemaker.
So that's it, right? If there's loads of sugar in the grapes, they're ready to pick, obviously. Not so fast, boozey mcboozehound. Sugar is all well and good, but if that were the only important thing we'd all be wrecked on cachaça. For every grape you put in your ziplock baggie, you also pop one in your mouth. Boozey spyglasses are all well and good, but while they can tell you how much sugar is in something they can't tell you anything else. They can't tell you how acidic the grapes are. Nor do they whisper in your ear the texture of the grape skins. And most importantly, they don't tell you what how they all work together, how the acidity balances the sugar and how the texture of the skins bursts to show you how it all comes together. Tasting grapes is a serious business, and while sugar levels give you a literal translation of ripeness, it tells you nothing of harmony.
Plenty of wineries pick entirely based on sugar ripeness. I've met some high level winemakers who see no reason to otherwise, but we use it to provide a rough window. With dozens of different vineyards to pick, the final decision is down to taste.
Vineyard holdings down here are piecemeal. The idea of long stretches of singularly owned vines is nice, but not applicable in these parts. The terraced vineyards that dot the hillside display a patchwork of different ownerships. I don't think any of our vines sit next to any of our other vines. If they do, they're in the minority. The vines around Banyuls stretch right into fontierland, outside of civilisation. Wild forests, cork forests, armies of boar, decaying farmhouses and the occasional hippy are all that you're likely to see in these parts. The roads that bring you are one lane, and rarely paved. The stream beds are dry, as they are for most of the season. They run freely in the spring, swollen and fast. But now their beds are raw with stone and dust. These valleys trap the sun, and in the heat the vivid green of the foliage hangs in stark contrast to the arid schist soils that hold the vines.
And what is schist? Schist is old rock formed from older clay. The name's evocative, onomatopoeic. It suggests shards in my mind and that is what you see all around as you wander the vineyards, shards of rock, sometimes terribly brittle. Good wine grows on Schist soils, some far more famous than the ones here. The Douro valley, famous for Port, boasts schist soils, as does the Spanish region of Priorat. Both regions feature rough terrain and precarious terraces on which their vines are planted. Both Port and Banyuls produce profound fortified wines whilst both Priorat and Banyuls make great, dry Grenache based wines. One of my favourite wines is named Schistes, in honour of the soil from which it comes, and shapes its character in ways that we still don't entirely understand.
It used to be thought that certain soil characteristics were directly passed from root, to vine, to berry, to wine. There are still some that cling to this, though scientific study disproves it entirely. A Chablis may tastes chalky, and soils it comes from may be composed of mostly chalk, but chemically speaking, there is no chalk in the wine to speak of. The research is conclusive in that regard, but it leaves more questions unanswered than answered, as much good science does. In my head, the soil's impact on good wine is much like a sculptor's chisel. The finished sculpture bears no obvious mark of the chisel, nor is the chisel seen in the final work, but its effect is pervasive throughout.
I have no research to back this up but thousands of wines tasted, and the anecdotal measure of my palate.
When I arrive for vintage, I fly into Girona, a small town in Spain about an hour's drive from Barcelona. Andy, my old friend/former boss/mentor picks me up from the airport and we catch up along the way. I'm tired from travel but giddy with the sunshine. The car smells a bit of sulphur and farm gear. The stereo pumps out one of his mix CDs and he brings me up to speed on the harvest so far: what's been picked, what's next to be picked, how big it's looking and where I'll be staying. The team changes from year to year, with the stagers - interns from oenology school, usually Bordeaux - and the vendagers - migrant pickers from as close as Spain and as far afield as French Polynesia - rarely coming back. The core remains the same: Philippe, resident genius, director, winemaker, viticulturalist, geological expert and head honcho; Julien, the vine grower and Catalan native who knows literally everybody, has played rugby with them and who they all undoubtedly owe a favour; José, the retired Spanish banker who now 'runs the vines', which is a lot more difficult than it sounds, and the senior picking team, including the improbably named Igor and the grumpy dude with a goatée who thinks I'm crazy for coming back every year.
We drive straight to the winery. Time is limited at harvest, and unpacking and getting settled are luxuries not afforded to anyone. I've learned this and have my boots and work clothes right at the top of my bag. I find a private corner of the cave and slip into my tattered shorts, stained t-shirt and a battered pair of hiking boots that, at this point, can be used for nothing but winemaking. This is my uniform for the next month or so. I will maybe have three days in thirty five that I don't don some variation of this kit and get very, very messy.
The village of Cosprons sits between Banyuls and Port Vendres. It is famous for artisan Banyuls vinegar and the ruins of one of Alfred Nobel's first dynamite factories. A dry river bed runs next to the village, so long barren that rows of Mourvedre vines now grow where the water used to flow. Vines rise up the banks as well, some terraced and some slopes gentle enough not to require it. Just before you get to Cosprons, coming from the main road, is a small dirt track descending down towards the river bed. There is a battered white wooden sign that marks the road, saying simply 'caves'. Caves is French for caves, but also for winery. This particular winery is Coume del Mas, though there is nothing to indicate that this is the case. There's no sign above the large barn doors. There's no street number. I'm not even sure the dirt track has a name.
The building is large and simple, with a sloped roof and sloped concrete floor that allows liquid, be it wine, water or whatever to drain into the central gutter. The two large wooden doors open inward, revealing an open plan winery with a cool room in the back. That's where the barrels of white live. Above the cool room, in the attic, lay barrels of fortified wine, ageing in the warmest part of the winery. Some of these will become 'Rancio' style Banyuls and some 'Grand Cru'. To the left of the main floor sit five large stainless steal fermentation tanks, shiny, numbered 1-5. To the right is a massive, 4,000 litre ancient oak foudre (massive barrel) and next to that is a 5,000 litre brand new oak fermentation vat. In front of the foudre is a glass display shelf, with dummy bottles from old vintages, a few tasting glasses, and a nice wine thief. A wine thief is a massive pipette used from taking samples from a barrel. In the back is a ratty looking plastic wine thief - that's what I use when I have to get samples out. The customers get the pretty wine thief.
The view from the cave is stunning: the old river valley below and ahead, nestled between two cliffs, the Mediterranean spreads out into the horizon. Early mornings made far more bearable by the ghostly dawn that grows over the sea until a tangerine sun rises from the deep blue. Everything goes quiet for the sun rise, even though the work doesn't stop.
We make a bunch of different wines: red, white, rosé, sweet, dry, fortified, unfortified. Most of our wines fall within the local classifications as either Collioure (dry) or Banyuls (sweet). Then there are some weird and wonderful cuvées that don't necessarily fit within the narrow confines of appellation law. These tend to be small batches from small parcels that show something a little bit special. Maybe they've ripened slower, and need a bit more time on the vines, and by the time we harvest them, they warrant a separation.
We meet in the dark, in an old parking lot in the centre of Banyuls. There are maybe 20 of us in total, winemakers and pickers. It's mostly pickers. Nobody is awake yet, bar Philippe, the founder of Coume del Mas, winemaker and viticulturalist and in many respects a genius. There's no list of the top winemakers in the south of France that doesn't include him. You wouldn't know it to look at him. He's diminutive, with a mop of dark hair that seems to accent the look of constant problem-solving on his face. There's not much written down at the winery. There's no rule book or game plan or even floor plan. It's all in his head. I've never seen him puzzle too long over a decision.
In the dark, around 530 in the morning, he lays out the day for us. We're told where we need to be. It's all in French and my stunted linguistic abilities leave me searching for some sort of signal. I usually know, though, that I'm going to the winery. The pickers are going to the vines, usually with Philippe going with them.
The pickers are a mix of known and unknown. The locals run the crew. They're young and still look on me like some sort of alien. I don't envy their task. The migrant pickers are a cocktail mix of hippies and hipsters. Some come from Spain, some from elsewhere entirely. We've had the odd Brit on gap year, but they never last long. The chasm between the romantic ideal of working in the vines and the reality of working in the vines has no gentle bridge for them to cross, and so usually they get sent packing. The hipsters and hippies seem a bit better suited for the work. They need the money, so they do the work. They don't know much about wine, but that's no problem. They bust their humps from the early hours of the morning to the late afternoon and then go home with some label-less co-op wine we keep just to reward their hard work.
The first vines picked are white. We pick them before the pickers arrive. It's a family affair, with Philippe and his wife, Natalie, taking their girls up to the Roussanne vineyard that sits high in the hills above Banyuls. Roussanne tends to ripen early in these parts. It's a grape made famous in the Northern Rhône, gaining popularity among those who like big whites but with perfume and a bit of spice. We grow it in both appellations. These grapes get blended with Vermentino to make one of our smallest cuvées. It's for local customers only, though on occasion it travels as far as Toulouse.
This small family ritual heralds the harvest. I've never arrived early enough for it, but there's no shame in that. Vintage is long and family time is scarce in the meantime. To welcome it with family is a good thing. The cuvée label bears the names of the family members who pick the grapes. Even though I don't pick the grapes, I always smile when I analyse the barrel. Every year, regardless of the harvest conditions, those vessels of fermenting grape juice mark the beginning of a new year. No matter what order everything else comes in, those are the first. And when so much relies on the weather, and the fickle ripening habits of grape, it's nice to have at least one thing you can count on to be constant, year in and year out.
There are only 13 independent wine producers in Collioure and Banyuls, an area that covers only 330 hectares of vine. Quite small by most standards. A hectare, by the way, works out at about 2.2 acres, and is essentially a hundred metres by a hundred metres. The more vines you plant per hectare, the more wine you get (in theory). The problem is, round these parts, is that the hectares aren't flat. They're steep. It's also incredibly dry, so the vines are subjected to what we call water stress. Meaning that they're stressed that they can't get very much water. This has huge effect on the wine. Less water means more concentrated grapes. Fortifying wine originated in these parts, for good reason, as wine made from very ripe grapes could be inherently unstable, due to high sugar levels leading to re-fermentation.
Most 330 hectares worth of vines would boast a lot more than 13 independent vignerons. Throughout the rest of France, it may be as many as 10 times that number. Those 13 independent vignerons (ourselves included) account for only 15% of the production. The rest of it goes through the enormous co-operative in Banyuls. Co-ops are just what they sound like - consortiums of grape growers that group together their individual parcels of grapes, split costs and share revenues. If it sounds like a socialist ideal, that's because it is. Except for the attempts to make profits. That isn't terribly socialist. The hideous state of management and internal bickering is, however, and is enough to make a Fox News anchor drool.
Morning starts at Coume del Mas before sunrise. The winery door opens to the dry river bed and the sea in the distance. We move slow, but with purpose. Sometimes the truck is sat outside, waiting with grapes in its refrigerated container. If it is, we set up quickly.
If the grapes are white, we get the press ready. A press is a giant cylinder with a bag in it. Well, our press is. It's called a bag press. The grapes go into the cylinder and then we inflate the bag. Half the cylinder is grated, allowing the juice to pour through it. The juice pours into a tray attached below the cylinder, and then pumped from that tray into an old milk tank to settle over night. The first time I saw a press, so much dawned on me. As a piece of kit, it's a great reminder that all you're dealing with is grape juice. The grapes get squeezed, their juice comes out, you put that juice into a tank and then it ferments and becomes wine. I knew that on an intellectual level, obviously. But there's a big gap between the knowledge of something at an intellectual level and truly understanding; truly 'getting' it. Watching torrents of sugar water drip off of stainless steel, knowing that that's what your working for. The continuing work of years and the immediate work of the last ten or so months, vineyard management and pruning and pulling out weeds and ploughing, all of that for that steady stream of juice dripping into a big plastic tray. It's remarkable and simple all at once.
The grapes are stored in comports. A comport is the modern version of a peasant's wicker harvest basket. They're made of plastic, hold about 50 kilograms worth of grape bunches, and are designed to fit together like a child's building blocks, so that they can be stacked atop each other safely. There are two types that I've come across: red comports and fucking bastard comports. Red comports are molded from a single piece of plastic, are watertight so that you don't lose any juice, and have rounded handles that provide comfort to whoever has to lift it.
Fucking bastard comports are yellow, brown or grey. They're prone to snapping in odd areas. There are plenty of holes for grape juice to piss out all over the poor bugger dumping its contents into the press or de-stemmer. Their handles are squared, ensuring that they cut deep into the hands when carrying any weight over 2 or 3 kilos. I'm quite sure that fucking bastard comports were designed by a vengeful teetotaller whose heart was broken by someone unloading grapes off the back of a lorry.
You should not lift a comport on your own. You frequently have to, but always try to find someone to help first. Standard practice is one person on each side, each holding a handle. You then count to three and lift as one. The first comport is the easiest, as you aren't sticky and slippery yet.
You only harvest grapes when they're properly ripe. Grapes that are properly ripe are juicy and bursting with sugary goodness. It's important that this is the case, because without that sugar there will be no booze, and without that booze we're wasting a lot of time and energy making smoothies. Supermarket fruit and veg aisles may have dulled most folks to what proper ripe fruit is, when it's grown properly. Ripe fruit explodes. Ripe grapes burst from within like nothing you've ever seen. Their innards are sticky, viscous, globular fleshy lumps of what is essentially one of nature's very own candies. And as they are nature’s very own candies, the entirety of nature seems to want to munch on them. In the vines they bring down wild boar from the hills, who have destroyed whole tracts of our syrah vines. In fact, the boar are so fond of the syrah that we've actually named a syrah after them.
At the winery, processing grapes brings its own menagerie. Wasps, hornets, earwigs, spiders, daddy longlegs and strange white/translucent arachnids all seek the grapes' nectar or, in the spiders' case, those seeking the nectar. Winemakers are not immune to arachnophobia, and I've yet to meet someone not a little unnerved by a 3 inch hornet, so there is the odd flailing and freaking whilst shifting comports.
So as we shift these great plastic baskets of explodingly ripe grapes, our grip gets steadily worsen, slicked with must. Must gets everywhere. Grape innards get everywhere. You bend down and look at your loading partner, waiting for the nod to lift and upturn. It's important to nod, to know what the other is doing, as by this point the trailer is slick and dangerous. You press down on your feet, to make sure they won't slip. And then you lift and tip, upending comport after comport into the press. After awhile, it's the momentum alone that keeps you going. If it's fucking bastard comports, your fingers begin to lock in shape - it's best to leave them like that until the truck is empty.
As the press fills, you need to take breaks and spread the grapes evenly in the cylinder, to fit as many per pressing as possible. At Coume del Mas, we press in small batches - 18-20 comports per pressing. At Mas Cristine, it's a bigger press, and we'll try to get as many as 40 comports in. So 2000 kilos of grapes. We'll run the press three times a day when all the whites are coming in. So that's 6000 kilos, loaded by hand, before the day is done.
Once the press is full, we slam the door shut and make sure everything's in place. Then we plug it in. You never fill the press when it's plugged in. It's not so much that there's a risk of you falling in and the bag inflating and pressing you in with the grape juice, though that is indeed the stuff of nightmares. It's more the relentlessness of something as simple as rotating the cylinder. It could snap off a limb and shatter bone. And so it sits unplugged while we fill it.
We set some manner of programme and it twirls around, the grate facing down and a wash of free-run juice pours forth. This is the liquid that needs no coaxing, only gravity, that comes from the weight of the grapes upon themselves and their own vitality, that they were already at bursting point and just needed a little push to share. Press programmes work in stages, starting at lower atmospheric pressures and gradually increasing over the course of a few hours. The juice from the lower pressures is the purest; the fruitiest; the sweetest. As the pressure increases and the liquid left over decreases, the contact with the skins and stems and pips leads to more phenolic juice. We call them secondary flavours. You don't want too much late press juice. Have you ever chewed on a stick? The last presses are basically squeezing juice out of sticks. We taste at every phase to make sure the juice is still balanced and tastes in no way of sticks. When it starts to taste of sticks, we switch tanks, and save what’s called the ‘press juice’ separately. The sound of hydraulics and pumps hammers around and then there is the shriek as the bag deflates.
The press is thorough. It rolls around, allowing the fruit to distribute evenly, and then the bag slowly inflates, squeezing the berries against the walls, their juices pouring forth. The bag then deflates and once again the cylinder rotates, mixing the pulverised berries around before it it stops and the bag starts to fill again, this time at a higher pressure.
As the press does its job, we do ours. Comports need to be cleaned before they go back into the truck for more grapes, so while the press works, we use a pressure hose to rinse all the skins and bugs and must off of the plastic baskets. Grape must untended in the sunshine can be dangerous. It can start to ferment or oxidise and contaminate new grapes coming in or juice pre-ferment. It's not guaranteed to happen, in fact it's a longshot, but the chances of it happening become a lot higher if you don't practice good hygiene. I'm probably going to mention this a lot, but much of winemaking is cumulative; it's about good practice and repetition. If you have great soils, climate and fruit, most of your job is done for you. Intervention with the wine should be kept to a minimum. But intervention can come from man or microbes, and to prevent the latter everything has to be kept clean. Grape detritus gets everywhere and must be cleaned away. It's not quite operating theatre level of clean, but it's a close as we can get under the circumstances.
As the tray beneath the press fills with juice, we hit the pump and it sucks the liquid through and into a tank. All the whites go into tank first, even those that will eventually go into barrel for their fermentation. It allows the solids, or lees, to settle to bottom, leaving remarkably clear juice. Gravity is incredible.
Wine hoses are plastic reinforced with coiled metal, and the valves at either end are stainless steal. We fasten the hoses to the tanks with a supply of tattered bungee cords whose elasticity has all but faded. A badly secured hose loses wine. Losing wine is the ultimate sin. Personal injury, though discouraged, is preferable to losing wine. Everything bar a broken bone or the loss of a limb should be sacrificed for the sake of grapes and wine.
While I'm talking about personal safety, it's important to remind those beginning to get romantic thoughts about wine-making that there is nothing cuddly in a winery. The materials are steal, oak, hardened plastic, epoxy and sometimes concrete. The edges are sharp and hard. Something as simple as the steel end of a hose banging against your shin can wind you with the pain. Quite a lot of the work is done at the top of a precariously stationed ladder. Your safety is very much your responsibility. If you hurt yourself, make sure it isn't serious. If it is, tell someone, if it isn't, shut up and deal with the pain. Because everyone is hurt. Everyone got their fingers caught between loaded comports, or pulled something trying to lift something, or smacked their knee on the metal end of a hose. Everyone is bruised somewhere and bleeding somewhere. No one got enough sleep and the coffee is utterly revolting. The taste wakes you up more than the caffeine does.
Pumps are a pain. Frequently you flip the switch and the direction is wrong, pumping air into the wine you're supposed to be pulling through. At Coume del Mas, there's a set of power plugs that somehow inverts the default direction of everything that gets plugged into it. So the grape escalator (which is exactly what it sounds like) goes down instead of up, and you have to be savvy when using the pump as the plug turns it all into opposite day.
The grapes define the day. You work until most are processed - you never want to leave too many in cold storage overnight. Ideally, none at all.
Lunch comes when it can. Sometimes it's early, sometimes it's late. The pickers have to eat, as do the winemakers, though the pickers tend to eat first. The winemakers process their last load at the winery and then, if all's going well, the winemakers overturn comports, making them into stools, and out comes bread and cheese and wine and paté and water and saucisson and salad. We rinse the wineglasses with the pressure hose and pour glasses for everyone. Nobody drinks too much wine. A glass or two. I always try to drink as much water as I can. We sit and talk about the grapes coming in later that afternoon, or how the ferments are going. At Coume del Mas there's a local guy who brings us his homemade sausage made from pig's head. I try to be daring with my eating, and this paid off, as it's delicious. Philippe has family in Roquefort country, and during the 2009 vintage he brought down some artisan Roquefort cheese, wrapped in foil stamped with 'Not for Sale, for the manager only'. We ate it on the loading lift of the refrigerated lorry, smearing it on baguettes and adding pig head sausage to it, washing it down with some good Bordeaux from right-bank satellite appellations. We drank a little more wine that afternoon. Jonny, my partner in crime that vintage, said it was one of the best lunches ever. I couldn't disagree. The cheese was perfect; sweet, creamy, musty and decadent. It would have been the centrepiece of a cheeseboard in any number of Michelin star restaurants, and yet there we were, stained, caked in grape guts, smearing great chunks of the stuff on baguettes whilst waving the flies away. Time stops for a lunch like that, and even though we know we have to get back to it, for a minute or two we could be anywhere and nowhere else. It's not about making wine, but working hard and rewarding that with more than just a sandwich and a can of coke.
It's tempting to stuff your face, but as soon as you've refilled, you get back to the inevitable. Leftovers are squeezed into the fridge between half-empty bottles of wine and various bits and pieces. Glasses are rinsed with the hose and put somewhere they hopefully won't get broken.
Getting back into it after lunch is harder than starting in the morning. It takes a good hour to work off the food drowsiness. I try to make myself useful doing things that do not involve heavy machinery or precision. Sadly, there's nothing at the winery that doesn't require one of those things or both.
Most days there will only be one more lot of grapes in after lunch. The heat in the Roussillon makes it foolish to pick too late. Once those grapes are pressed or destemmed (white or red), then comes the everything else. Remontage for the fermenting reds. I like remontage. That's when you attach a hose to the higher valve at the bottom of a tank to a pump, and then take another hose and bring it to the top of the tank. It's called a pump over in English. It's like stirring a stew, and you do it for a lot of the same reasons. When wine ferments, the yeast is respiring, creating a huge amount of CO2. That gas pushes all the solids - the skins and few stems that avoided the de-stemmer - up, separating it all from the fermenting liquid below. That solid mass is called the cap. Being separated from the liquid causes the cap to dry out, and so what we do twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, is pump the wine over the cap to get it wet. This serves many purposes. Dried caps begin to smell awful. While CO2 is protecting the wine, the cap is more exposed to the elements, so if it could start its own little bacterial ferment and start ruining the wine. Running the wine through the cap extracts more colour and secondary flavours from the skins. It also helps to aerate the wine, softening it somewhat and bringing out more elegant aromatics. Some wineries do five pump overs a day. We do two. Our style is what's called 'reductive' which can mean a lot of things , but for these purposes it can be read as anaerobic. We carefully control the amount of air the juice is exposed to, in order to preserve the freshness of the wine.
One of the other jobs while waiting for fruit is taking the density readings of all the wines fermenting. This should be done every day. It's a long, tedious job. I remember hearing about one stagér in Burgundy for whom it was their only job; barrel after barrel, sample after sample, morning until evening. It works like this: you take a 250ml measuring tube, a wine thief and the most fragile, breakable thing in the winery, the hydrometer, which is basically a weighted thermometer. You draw a sample from a barrel with the wine thief and pour it into the measuring tube. Because the wine is fermenting, it's fizzy, cloudy and foamy, steadfastly refusing to settle down. If it's muscat, then it's also covered in muscat scum, because that's what happens when you make muscat; you get covered in scum. You then dunk the density meter into the foaming tube and try to read what the temperature is and what the specific gravity is. The higher the SG, the more time the ferment needs. The higher the temperature, the faster you run to either Andy or Philippe and ask them what the fuck you should do.