We always sleep with the windows open. Our northern souls appreciate the cold, fresh air, and the bed is layered with duvets, quilts and an old horse blanket. We witness the moon, the stars, the clouds; we relish the rustling of the leaves on the huge beech tree outside our window; we wait for the metallic smell on the road outside and the pittering of raindrops on the tarmac. When the rain comes, at about 4.30 in the morning, we lie in bed listening to it.
There was a time when we would have dreaded rain the night before harvest. That was before climate change turned our preconceived notions of grape-growing and wine-making on their heads. Then, we dreaded the cold, damp and threat of rot. Today, we are more confident that the rain will wash off the drought dust and perk up the acidity levels.
This is the witching hour, when it is too early to get dressed and too late to hope for deep sleep. So we talk, we repeat the steps of preparing the chai, we visualise the different vineyard parcels, we worry about our cellar-hand who has just gone into hospital with appendicitis. It is all so familiar and yet our nerves are up, butterflies tug at our insides and we are as apprehensive as if we were doing this for the first time. I gently remind my husband that this is his 40th harvest.
The team arrives at 8.30am – a stream of old Renaults and Citroëns lining up along the road. Spirits are rather dampened as we see leaden clouds slouch along, hugging the hillsides, and tufts of mist hop over the vines. Jacques gives his opening talk; many have heard it before. Locals mostly: cousins, sons, daughters, sisters – we have given up trying to trace the family lines that link them. Meanwhile I punch into my phone, checking the five or so different weather apps that I will consult several times throughout the day. There is a glimmer on the horizon: at 2pm this afternoon, all display a bright, happy sun.
Jacques and I have already walked the vine rows; the rain has not made much impact and is packing its bags and moving on. No puddles, no swelling of the berries, but the grapes are cold and the ground greasy and slippery. Now the team is here it would be madness to send everyone home. Finding a good picking team is getting increasingly hard; keeping them for the duration of the harvest can only be managed by cajoling with bonuses if they turn up each day. We decide to occupy the workers with some leaf stripping, to expose the bunches on the western side of the vines so that the grapes can dry off (those on the side of the rising sun are already free of moisture).
When we start to pick, the team moves quickly and we laugh as we see how swiftly scarves, raincoats, jumpers and gloves are peeled off as the pickers reach the end of the rows. The clip, clip, clip can be heard first; then the shouting begins: ‘Porteur’, ‘Pas des Feuilles!’, ‘Allez, allez, allez’. If the sun was shining, they would have broken into song by now.
I rather regret the mechanical drone that interferes with this timeless, bucolic scene. The noise of the generator that drives our selection table perched on a trailer at the end of the rows. But this is an ingenious invention that allows the picking and sorting teams to work closely together. The constant arrival of grapes keeps the sorters engaged, attentive – under pressure to sort rather than just stroke the berries. A bad load that includes leaves and sticks is frowned upon, and the porter who has just emptied his bin – via a balletic twirl which pivots the large plastic pannier on his back over the first set of vibrating slats – is sent back to his two rows of pickers with a sharp reprimand. The tractor driver has the masculine gravitas to instill order in the troop better than I. I am up there with the sorters, relishing the view from the selection table looking out over the sea of vines.
A fleeting moment of mourning strikes me as I look at the freshly picked rows, empty, naked, stripped. Will it really be a whole year before I admire the heavy clusters of midnight blue grapes again?
We use bicycles, Jacques and I. They’re perfect for getting ahead of the tractor as it leaves the vineyard for the winery with its new load, and for to-ing and fro-ing between Le Pin and Vieux Château Certan, our sister château barely 500 metres away, where our cousins Alexandre Thienpont and his son Guillaume are such an important part of our family. We park our bikes and are ready for the grapes as they arrive at the winery.
You won’t read this elsewhere, but there is always, always a certain amount of mechanical fiddling that goes on during the first day of harvest. It takes a moment to remember which direction a lever or a valve needs to be turned, or to repair a fuse or plug. We have a moment of reckoning as the trucks appear. Jacques has chosen a vat, estimating that it will be large enough for the yield from the parcel that we are picking. But this choice isn’t by any means guided by perfect science. There is a fair amount of starting again when we need a bigger or smaller vat. After all, the vessels will be the scene of that amazing alchemy of turning grape juice into wine. It is important to get it right.
Parcel selection is one of the key advances in winemaking lately. Being able to keep the different grapes from each plot separate, so that the individual character of that part of the vineyard is allowed to shine through, has led to more precise decisions tailored to the wine in each small vat. So what if the winery resembles a nursery of cots in a new borns’ maternity ward?
And then the smell arrives – that gorgeous fruity, yeasty, gassy, heady smell of new grapes as their skins split and crack open, spitting out their peanut-flavoured pips and spilling their glamourous crimson purple juice into the bottom of the tank. The vat fills rapidly and it is time to note the density of the wine. We will check this every time we do a pumping over to homogenise the fermenting must and help the yeasts do their work with a good, deep breath of oxygen. After about 10 days, the grapes’ sugars have all been converted into alcohol and the yeast’s work is done.
Jacques moves calmly around the cellar; not for him rock music and crashes and clattering. When he built the new cellar in 2011, he employed an architect friend who had designed the great concert hall in Bruges to get things just right. Acoustics are important to him: the cellar’s bridges and walkways are lined with oak undersides to reduce the jangle of cellar work. Le Pin is a peaceful place.
The tractors and sorting equipment, pumps, presses, tubs, hoses have all been washed down. It takes forever, and we are all tired, but it is an essential part of the day. It’s true what they say about needing an enormous amount of water to make a great wine. But hygiene is just so, so important and having once entered the cellar on an early autumn morning to the dreaded smell of nail-varnish remover – the combination of ethanol and acetic acid that can arise when rogue bacteria turn wine into vinegar – the memory spurs us on to ensure that all the equipment is clean and neatly stacked, even if in a few hours’ time we will be using it again.
Across the vineyards, the house beckons; rich odours of hearty stew waft over the vines (we never have time for more than a bowl of soup and a hunk of baguette at lunchtime) and makes our stomachs rumble. The sun is an orange globe gently slipping behind the hill of Fronsac. Ca y est; the first day is over.
Excerpted from In Vino Veritas, published by Académie du Vin Library. To buy the book at a £5 discount, click here and use the code CLUB2020.