Sunday, December 19, 2010

Almost halfway?

Well, there is snow on the ground, the lights are lit and I am on vacation, bound for England on Monday morning. My French is in good shape, though not great, and after four months of school and five weeks of stage, I realize how little I have written here about what I've learned up to this point. I came here to learn and to work, and though I'm wasting nobody's money but my own, I'm feel compelled to prove here that I haven't been entirely wasting my time.

I spent the last week working at Domaine des Croix and Maison Camille Giroud. Since I didn't manage to get this site up and running before the vintage was over, I should tell you all that DdC was where I worked the harvest and crush. The winemaker in charge, David Croix, is a friend of mine and not only did he offer me a place at the domaine during harvest, but graciously said yes when I asked him again regarding my stage de taille.

La taille, or pruning, looms large in the calendar here, not only because it is hugely time consuming, but because if it is done badly, there is relatively little to be done to repair the damage. Careful pruning controls yields, limits a vine's susceptibility to disease and reduces the amount of work required later in the growing season. Over the past three weeks I've spent just enough time in the vines to see a variety of pruning methods and shapes and at this point I can more or less identify a badly pruned vine and picture in my head how it might take shape in coming months. So I thought it might be fun if we prune a vine together.

So let's look. Here we are in Bressandes, a Beaune Premier Cru vineyard at the top of hillside, where I spent of this past Monday. The weather was spectacular, clear and sunny (if a bit cold) and the only day on which we received no snow. The vines are the youngest of all the DdC plots, averaging about twenty five year and the fruit they yield produces a fairly burly, tannic wine. So let's take a look.

Here is a vine, as pretty as anybody could hope for. We have a baguette, the horizontal cane from which four branches protrude, and two other single branches. If trimmed correctly, this time next year we will have an almost identical formation, and pruning will be simple and then next year and so on. Where do we cut? Let's find out...

So there it is. See that, on the left? That is the courson. We trimmed that branch so that it is left with two buds. When the sap starts to run, around March, the bud at the base will produce two shoots. In an ideal world, one of those shoots will be the baguette for the following year. So now, all we need is to find one for the coming year. What next?

And it's all done. After all of that second-guessing yourself, panicking that you might accidentally cut off the wrong thing and render the vine for this season, it was actually all pretty easy. We left the single branch and just cut off last year's cane. Come February, we'll do the pliage, when we bend and tie the cane to the wire trellis and it's off to the races. If you are still unclear about what happened here, then don't worry. Neither do I!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Holiday Spirit

* A disclaimer: My friend Paul suggested to me the idea for this post. I cannot claim credit for it. So if you don't like it, you may post hateful messages at If you do like it, all he did was suggest an idea. I'm the one who wrote it.*

The more one learns of wine, the less one really knows and understands... A cliche if there ever was one. Over the past few years, as I've been exposed to more great wine and good wine and plenty of terrible wine that was supposed to be good, I've slowly learned to prepare myself to always be surprised, to never expect what's in the bottle to correspond with what should be there. No matter what the label says, it is still just  a piece of paper that suggests what should be inside. That label tells nothing of the bottle's handling and storage conditions, whether it was bought once and then resold, and in the case of an old wine, whether it has been topped up or had the cork replaced or even that it might be fake. Not that I often find myself in the position to drink wines so exalted that someone might have taken the time to manipulate them, but I'm always ready and on guard. In the same vein, I try not to dismiss a bottle out of hand before tasting just because it doesn't on the outside conform to my idea of good wine, though I certainly have my prejudices.

With this in mind, let me take you back 
A glimpse of Jongieux
to an October weekend, when my friends Paul, Danielle and I took a trip down to the south of Beaujolais to stay at the house of a winemaker, with whom Danielle had worked the previous harvest. We had mentioned the idea of a wine-related day trip to our host and since most Beaujolais producers were busy with getting ready to release their nouveaux, he suggested the Savoie. It was only an hour and a half away and he could collect some phone numbers for wineries we might visit. So we set out just before noon and only five hours later (having been waylaid by lunch and traffic in Lyon), we were winding our way up the foot of the French Alps to Jongieux, one of the central wine-producing villages in the region.

Steeper than they look from here

Though the countryside was beautiful, most of the wineries we had numbers for told us they were unavailable, having just finished harvest,  and lots of work unfinished. We received only one invitation, from Domaine Dupasquier, the only domaine on our list about which none of us knew anything. And when we arrived we couldn't help but be a bit disappointed. The wines just weren't particularly impressive, each one out balance in some way. The whites were either a bit thin and lacking dimension or overly rich and high in alcohol, while the reds wanted for character or any sense of energy. Still we were having fun and and their Pinot Noir, which, though a little hot and unbalanced, showed some very pretty and exotic red and blue fruit aromas and flavors and I thought it might benefit from decanting. And at 7 euros it was hard to complain, so I bought a few to take home.

Fast forward a month. For whatever reason, I had yet to open a bottle of the Dupasquier Pinot Noir. But three Sundays ago Paul and Danielle and some other friends came over for an impromptu early dinner of oysters (which I shucked myself) and escargots and when the two bottles we had bought for the occasion were finished I opened one and decanted it. It was fantastic.The wine showed none of the awkwardness and alcohol heat that it had previously. It was intensely aromatic, full of red berries, black pepper and a herbal, fennel-like note, and had terrific balance and weight on the palate, bound together by the clean fresh acidity that one hope to find in mountain wines. Everybody guessed the grape correctly, but nearly everyone though it was Burgundy and there was a suggestion it might be Californian. When the identity was revealed, Paul and Danielle couldn't quite believe it, and frankly neither could I. It was nearly a different wine from the one we had tasted a month before and if the other two in the cupboard are like this I'll be a very happy guy.

One often hears or reads stories of a wine tasted in a cellar, and purchased on the spot, but when the bottles show up what's inside is a shadow of its former self. It's like opening the big box under the Christmas tree and finding not the Ghostbusters proton pack you had asked for, but a set of encyclopaedias.  I liked this wine not just because it was great but because it's nice to get open a present once in a while, one that you are ready to hate and instead find something you really wanted... like pictures of Mitch McConnell and Sarah Palin doing lines at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch with Anton Scalia and the chairman of Goldman Sachs.