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My first harvest - Bordeaux (#5)

Writer: Charlotte Gordon

Hey wine lovers,

Ever thought about where wine comes from? How it’s made? Do people really pick the grapes by hand and crush them with their feet?! The answer is sometimes no, but quiet often yes - and its back breaking stuff. My entire appreciation towards wine grew enormously after my first harvest and here is why…

My first Harvest was back in 2015 (although it feels much longer ago), in one of the most iconic wine regions in the world: Bordeaux. More specifically, the left bank in the Medoc where Cabernet Sauvignon is King.

I was lucky enough to be invited by a very recognisable winery for a week’s adventure and would be shown and taught every step of the wine making process. We also had some spare time planned in where we were able to drive around the region meeting other influential wine makers in their wineries and exploring the terroir around them. Thinking back now, I don’t think at the time I appreciated just how ‘money can’t buy’ that trip was.

Upon arriving, my breathe was instantly taken away as we drove up the pebbled rose bordered path to the Chateau. From the very beginning of the long windy driveway, it stood like a magnificent beacon amongst rows of vines boasting bulging ripe grapes. In Bordeaux, most estates still have a traditional Chateaux (house) in the middle of the grounds where the family live (often pictured on the bottles). I was greeted into the home as warmly as possible with a glass of Bollinger being thrust into hand as soon as the car door opened, and was then lead onto the balcony to enjoy cheese and charcuterie while looking out over the vines. At this moment, excitement fizzled inside me as I realised, I’d hit the jackpot!

Over the soon to become normal ‘multiple course’ evening meal with the family and wine makers that evening, I was briefed on my timetable for the week and where I’d be working. The first day I would be starting at the beginning. Amongst the vines, picking with the team that travel to the vineyard every year from Eastern European countries, and know the land and family as well as their own. Next, into the winery to assist with the sorting, pressing, maceration and fermentation. I remember being so nervous to not let a bad grape slip through and spoil the 2015 vintage! I’d also spend time checking and adjusting wines further on in their journey. This including setting up ‘punching down’ and ‘pumping over’ with huge great big pipe circuits which I really enjoyed, although always ended up with my entire body being stained purple - a messy job! Or maybe I was just doing it wrong?! Even some work with wines in barrel and observing the lab techs testing them with their hundreds of small vials and microscopes were truly fascinating parts of the process that I hadn’t paid much thought too before the trip. From ground to bottle, I learnt that wine is really all about geography, science, and passion. Oh, and cleaning! At that initial meal cleaning was not mentioned at all. Maybe they assumed I knew how important and normal this process was (I did not), but hours a day were to be spent scrubbing the insides of tanks (actually fun), along with the machinery, floors and even walls! Any bacteria present that finds itself ending up in contact with the wine can be fatal for the entire wineries stock. On reflection, it was on my return when I started to not mind cleaning around the house so much!

A huge perk of this harvest was being able to explore the Bordeaux region. While I adored the Medoc, Saint-Émilion on the right bank, I found to be a stunning little town which we reached via ferry crossing the Gironde estuary. Due to its fame and Grand Cru sites, tourists flock here with every other shop front being bottle shops where you can spend tens of thousands of Euros on the finest and rarest vintages of local wines – with those in between being cafes and restaurants. A real food and wine lover’s heaven. I have since returned to this enchanting town and its surrounding villages and intend to for years to come.

Back to the harvest it’s self and the part I enjoyed the most (which ironically was the toughest), was picking on the first couple of days. The Summer was hot (one of the sunniest on record), so we started at 6am on the dot each morning while the ground was wet and the air damp to avoid starting in the heat. I was freezing cold wrapped up in various layers, but the seasoned professionals were already stripped down to t-shirts and giggled at me rubbing my gloves together with chattering teeth knowing what was to come in only a few hours. It heated up very quickly indeed, but to my confusion, everyone started to put their jackets on! Someone tried to kindly explain in broken English that the sun would soon be so hot that I’d need my skin covered so not to burn, so we all sweated through our hats and jumpers as the sun rose higher in the clear blue sky. I think it only took say three or fours hours before I felt I couldn’t go on any longer! My back was literally broken from being hunched over all morning, legs burning from the unintentional squats, and my fingers ached from the constant snip, snip of the secateurs under cold wet gloves. Thankfully, the whistle blew somewhere amid the vines for lunch and while relived I could stop, I worried I wouldn’t be able to carry on after the hours break. While the pickers went back to their temporary accommodation, I was taken back to the Chateaux which I was pleasantly surprised at, as I assumed, I’d be eating a sandwich in the bottom of the field. Instead, I walked into a candelabra decorated luncheon spread out over a 10-seater or so mahogany table adorned with Bordeaux’s big wine players all suited and booted. I was introduced to them all over another glass of Bolli, while I desperately tried to push my sweaty hair behind my ears and catch myself in reflections of glasses to wipe mud from my brow! Bread, starters, salad courses, fish causes, meat causes, cheese causes and truffles and cigars were enjoyed with Champagne and a Magnum from each house in attendance over a long boozy lunch. It was a few hours before I swayed back into the vineyard to re join the pickers in a much better mood with suddenly no aches and pains. Funny how that happens…!

For any TRUE wine lover, I really do believe you cannot appreciate this precious substance entirely until you’ve earned your stripes in the vineyard. Go picking!

For all you Champagne lovers out there, join me next time for an insight into the UK wine trades best kept secret. The Champagne Academy. I talk about attending the course in 2017 (the best wine trip EVER), and about now proudly sitting on the committee. One not to miss!

Follow me on Instagram for posts about Champagne, wine, food and drinks – @charlottedrinkschampagne


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