Thursday, 29 September 2011

Adventures in Wine Land 3

I write this section on the Sunday morning (notes) bathed in warm sun…. A good sign for the potentially hectic Monday but a bad sign for the workers as the 4 of us visiting workers could all do with a rest. Dark clouds gather on the horizon to windward and it does not bode well. As strange as it sounds to the British the weather forecasts here are usually very accurate, they call for rain today, cloud tomorrow and fine bright days Tuesday and Wednesday. This would be great for the pickers as the 3 of us leave on the Thursday, we need to get as much done as possible. It is a long drive back and now that I am settled here I am not looking forward to it.

With the addition on Saturday of some friends from Paris and some local friends (who are our cuisinieres) the place takes on the felling of a kibbutz. I don’t know who is being paid and if so with what (wine or money rather than kind) but there is the distinct impression that most of those of us around the table would work with no more payment than the beautiful roof over our heads the delicious meal provided and of course the fine company of Bruno Duhamel and his family, not forgetting of course the joy of his wine. At this point I know that I would come back for next years harvest but and absolutely determined to have a much greater command of French as still the conversations occasionally have to broken down for me and the rhythm of the meal stops dead when I am asked something as my response rather than in stuttering French is usually in English.

The next few days pass much the same as the previous- fixing stuff, rewiring stuff, and always the grapes come in to the shed and begin their sacred journey towards wine! However this presents little to blog about- there was a cultural exchange of sorts where the French guys display a stunning level of highly specialised vocabulary in joke telling and I turn am able to entertain- as many of you might know I am marginally funny at best but can gesticulate with the best of them luckily France is the country that brought the world Moliere and mime so I was ok as the less funny the words spewing aimlessly from my mouth the more exaggerated my miming became and laughs are shared a plenty.

So that’s it, done. 10 days in the Gironde, 10 days of 530 starts and 7pm finishes, 10 days of great food, wine and company. My body is broken and I’m so tired I could sleep for the rest of my life, but I’d be lying if I said I was happy to be leaving. I love wine as I love meeting new people and the enjoyment of their company all are here in abundance! I have learned- genuinely learned, how to make wine from earth to bottle and have tried all of it! I cannot thank Bruno, Christine, Michelle and Harvey enough for their hospitality, but you can help me by buying loads of Bruno’s wine (from me). I have learned to tame the beast, harness the giraffe and mend big boy. I can fix a tractor and some French electrics and yet tail speak far too little of the language! Still booze is universal.

For more info on or to request tastings please contact me via the site-

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Adventures in Wine Land 2

Apologies that these Blogs are so fractured and slow to come out but I am sure you can appreciate that it's a little difficult to remember through the haze and even harder to read the notes I made at the time!

Day 3 - I hurt. A lot. My hands are shredded, my career as a hand model is over. Holiday? Despite starting before dawn and finishing well after sunset I am getting a real perverse pleasure out of this. However if you were thinking of a middle aged, middle class holiday tilling the good earth etc in a The Good life meet A Year in Provence- think again. If however you enjoy 16 hours of manual labour in ferocious heat and the constant stickiness of a wham bar in august come on over! Another must is to enjoy the works of Lily Allen. These guys love Lilly Allen, don’t get me wrong I love Lilly- petite girls with a wicked look in their eye and bags of attitude- I’m there, bit 6 hours of the same album got to be a bit much- they seem to enjoy ‘fuck you’ more than most as Bruno explains- the concept is universal and easily translated! So I take control of the music in the shed… Soul and Funk Wednesday is born in St. Trojan!

The up side to all this is trying the ’99 Malbec / Merlot which is awesome, and if the 1999 doesn’t get you going the 2003 definitely will. Both are subtle and well balance with a smoother texture than I am used to with standard Bordeaux. The normal thin, slightly sharp edges of the newer wines has softened in the bottle and the fruit has intensified nicely.

This is unlikely to be the taste notes of the 2011 vintage as it is not a good year for Bordeaux, the long hot spring and wet summer has forced the harvest early on account of the grapes ripening too fast. The warmth of the spring has developed the grapes quickly so the sugar levels are quite low. The wet summer them filled the spaced in the grapes left by the sugar with water. This means that the a lot of this year’s Bordeaux will be quite low in alcohol and a little thin on flavour. The Colombard and Semillion we have picked were a mottled colour and an unusually small. Despite this we generate several hundred 20kg cases of the grapes and press them up to 150 bar `9your tires run to about 4 bar). The juiced is sweet and clear, a near miracle from such damaged grapes. Enzyme will be added in a couple of days to further clear the liquid so the juice is even better. Michael ‘the nose’ of the region arrives to test all of the new pressed juice and some of the wine ageing in the cells. He is pleased with the result and happy that the fermentation is beginning after only 24 hours, in turn Bruno is pleased and so we clean with Bobby Womack at full volume!

In the next two days we manage to generate 7,500 litres of Malbec for the Bordeaux blend that will most likely end up as 80% of the finished product. The merlot is picked later and kept separately so that the nose can return and advise as to the % of the blend. Everyday we cycle the liquid at the bottom of the tank up to the top to keep the tannins moving through the wine and as an organic solution to the problem of ‘crust’ forming on the top of skin of the wine.

Finishing after midnight on the 4th day as the red had begun to ferment after only 36 hours in the tank, the co2 coming off the tank is palpable so we seal it ready to turn all 14.5% sugar to alcohol.

As much of the work at L’ Hospital is done by hand as possible the only nods to the intensive factory farming now so familiar in this region are; a tractor, it’s small and silver and it’s a Lambogini! ‘The Giraffe’ a long conveyor system to feed the grapes into the top of the tank via ‘Big boy’ - the machine that separates the grapes from the stalks. Not forgetting that all of these step would be much slower without ‘the beast’ a high power quad bike the type beloved by all young farmers and not a little beloved by Romain (Lapain Bleu).

Anywhere from 4- 10 pickers work in the lanes and the boys pick up the filled ‘cagette’ with the quad and bring them to ‘the shed’ to be loaded onto the giraffe to be picked thorough by hand to remove leaves, stick, animals large and small and any grapes that do not pass muster.

They pass up the giraffe through big boy and into the tank, the only other element added is a little sulphur to preserve the wine, most wines do this and the organics use a great deal less than the ‘super market’ brands that fill their wines- particularly the whites with sulphur. The result of which is effectively a UHT wine and a terrible headache. L’ Hospital does not do UHT, their wine will keep and keep well thanks to the traditional techniques used in this area for centuries.

More to come...

Monday, 26 September 2011

Adventures in Wine Land 1


A night in Blaye passed without incident or much interest frankly. A UNESCO world heritage site with little but the Citadelle for interest. The town has a real old French charm however and over the last few years several developers and restauranteurs have tried to set up on the water front but all have been stopped dead by the council at some point or another. This has lead to a few large yet empty buildings in the centre of town. As such Blaye’s only draw other than the Citadelle is the ferry over to Medoc. It is a town much like my own, being strangled by a fervour to preserve it’s history and a staunch refusal to move forward.

Arriving at Chateaux L’Hospital the next evening to be met by my utterly gracious hosts Bruno and Christine and their youngest daughter Alex, the eldest Alienor is at college in Nantes.

I find out to my embarrassment that it is Christine’s birthday and all I have brought as a gift is some sausages from my local butcher (I was pre- warned that Bruno is an Anglophile). Ever generous the family provide dinner and 3 wines! I feel I may like it here….

A little about family and home:

The building itself is a beautiful farmhouse that has been as is still being renovated by my hosts over the last 15 years. The previous owner was a life long vintner although only sold his grapes to the cooperative to blend into ‘Tesco’s fines’ wines. He was a great hand in the field and left an exceptional vine stock but he was far from house- proud and had little interest in the making of wine. Bruno’s philosophy is that wine making is 80% in the field and 20% in the shed. With this in mind he was of course pleased to find after months of searching in several different areas a 6 Hectare property of fine vines and a house large enough for his growing family.

From the age of 20 Bruno Duhamel had wanted to leave industrial Norther France and escape to wine country. Around 15 years ago he was given the perfect opportunity when he lead a strike action over pay in the factory where he was a HR manager. After 8 days of negotiation Bruno was left with little doubt that his services would no longer be required. Christine Bruno's wife had recently finished her Phd in Archeology and was soon persuaded to move down to the beautiful little vineyard in which I now sit.

The Wine:

It's a birthday so first come the bubbles! A rose 'Champagne' from their own grapes- it is a sin in Bordeaux to make sparkling wine so they send it away to be carbonated! It is great, a light blush pink. It even tastes how it looks, dry and subtle the nose not damaged by the carbonation as it is hardly noticed- it sparkles like a Viognier rather than fizzes like a champagne and despite being made in the champagne method it tastes more Prosecco (which I prefer (except perhaps for Bollinger (just in case anyone reading cares to send me some for comparative purposes…))). In taste it is closer to Franciacorta although not quite as rich, the similarities lie in the soft ripe fruit undertones.

The bubble bursts with the white. Bordeaux is of course not a region renowned for white and the taste is best described as ‘unusual’ and perhaps more worryingly ‘challenging’. On first taste it had a slightly salty scent mixed with elderflower and not a little alcohol. The first sip reminded me of the wines local to Crete, salty was still there but now with a whole shit load of grapefruit citrus. which if you were with me in Malia or have been to the old quarter yourself you will know should fill any normally functioning adult with a crippling fear and have sent me running for my car and a ferry 9 hours later. However I am far from normal functioning and soldiered on like the fucking hero I am! Frankly I want some credit because it was butchering me, the balance seemed off but not in any way I could describe it was just a bit odd.

However no sooner had I mentally shat upon my hosts offering but Christine brought out a delicious looking plate of prawns with a roasted tomato sauce and a slightly hot ‘dressing’ (there was much discussion of what to call this element!). The wine came alive with the food. The slight spice from I presume Tabasco and the soft long flavours of the tomato along with the texture of the prawns (local) all combined with the wine to change it utterly, it’’s flavour became a little more biscuity and the finish from lime stone to butter. Amazing. Like Guinness it appears to be an acquired taste but one, like Guinness I suggest you cultivate. The odd complexity still has me questioning my own tongue but now as I drink it again the following night it is a great sip after a long day!

Red, the speciality of the house, 2009 vintage (the 2010 we’ll talk about later) I should for the interests of clarity explain that the reason I am here is that two years ago I helped a friend of my dad move some stuff out of his garage and was paid with a bottle of the 2006. It was amazing so I asked where it was from? ‘My mate Bruno’ was the reply. I had the misfortune to be fully employed last year so couldn't come but this year I had to! Voici the Vendage! All I can say is that as a bordeaux at a mid range price this is great. More later.

So, today. At 6 am the daughter Alex comes down stairs and sets up breakfast- I dare you to try and get an English nipper to do that- she then goes to get ready for her school day- 8 til 5 with only an hour at lunch! Similarly try that in England and the August riots will seem like a holiday. Breakfast, we talk about the French economy collapsing, welcome to the club. 730 (630 gmt) we start work. If you thought that these guys took wine seriously wait until you see them clean! Here let me explain the Bruno Rules of 3 (there are 3!).

1. For every hour you work on the wine you spend 3 cleaning.
2. For every litre of wine you use 3 litres of water- mostly to clean
3. If something is worth doing it is worth doing 3 times

You chef and bartenders that bitch and moan about 2 hours prep of an afternoon, try it at 630am and then try it for 4 hours. The cleaning concept is "rinse, Scrub, wash, scrub, rinse, dry repeat". Still a bit of graft never really bothered me, particularly with booze at the end. So the president is set, clean and mend and fix and clean then wine stuff. Honestly it’s a great technique to begin with there are 2, later (after most of the scrubbing) two 20 somethings turn up, children of friends, students (no wonder they missed the scrubbing). Francois and Romain are however quick to pitch in and not so bad with the English which helps as my french is broadly ‘merde’.

Lunch time! Nicois and melon with ham, nice… see what I did there Nicois- nice! Ha! Genius.
I can quite fairly describe Bruno’s approach as passion over logic because that is what I like to see! He’s been making it up for 15 years and getting it right, his wine is great so carry on! To accompany the lunch he arrives with a bottle with a fashionable cartoony label reading vin table. Mme tells me it is rose- It is white says muggings. They call this type a rose piscine as although it is white it is made from the very first pressings of the Cabernet Franc grapes. It seems a fair name. I’m not a fan, it is pleasant enough but if you are expecting a normal blush- jump out the window. A local mechanic sits with us as he delivers an invoice, he is an lank haired Anthony warrel Thompson type and he describes the wine as ‘unusual and perhaps more worryingly ‘brave’. Clearly this is a difficult wine for an untrained palette such as mine, it does not help that my awkwardness at not speaking much French and the long days means I am smoking like a fiend.

A hard day of cleaning and general trade graft and I was ready to have a few drinks… Luckily the last job of the day was to move the 2010 Malbec from one vat to another, although I refer to the large stone vats as cells as they remind me of the cell of a monk, sparse and wreaking of wine! The vat has been pressure sealed for 12 months and when we open it the smell is truly amazing. It surrounds us and moves like an unseen cloud across the ‘shed’ so that where ever you move for the next few minutes you smell the deep dark liquid. We tap a little to try, a jet of foaming cherry purple liquid fills the jug, the colour is so livid it looks alive. In the glass it is jet black and smells of dark fruits and little alcohol, which surprises me as at the moment it is 15.5% by volume. Although not yet ready to sell we drink some- standing over the hole in the top of the tank. On top of 7,500 litres of the wine the experience is of total immersion. The smell surrounds us and the wine slips down beautifully. Rich although a little sharp it is fantastic if young, not worth a 5 stretch but worth a look. It makes all of the work worth while as does the meal afterward, they guys make as much effort as they can to translate their stories into English and it makes me feel as guilty and stupid as I have ever felt, I have come to their country to make their wine, I enjoy their hospitality and stay in their house and I don’t even speak their language enough to follow their conversation. We English are an arrogant, vapid and ignorant bunch!