‘Vintage’ is a term applied to everything from old cars to films. But for us winefolk it’s the end of September, early October, and it’s the mad time … the best time.
Visit wineries any other time of year and they are dark and still. Quiet, except for maybe a pump ticking away somewhere. All tidy. But VINTAGE, – Les vendanges, Il vindemia – is not tidy, it’s messy* and it’s very noisy.
It looks chaotic and often is … lots of shouting, banging, whooshing. There are tractors bringing grapes, grapes being weighed, tested for sugars and acids and stuff. It’s a race against time, weather, and things that want to eat your nice ripe grapes. You’ve just days to turn them into wine.
And you can’t get anything wrong. Cooks can bin their meals and quickly start again. Winemakers have to wait another year. Pressure. Huge pressure.
There’s grapes being de-stalked, maybe crushed, and juice gets spilt on the ground. I love the smell of wineries, but year-round that’s a musty smell of mushroom, damp earth, barrel wood. At vintage it’s fresh grape juice, spilled and quickly oxidising. That vintage smell, I find absolutely thrilling. My once a year fix, that gets my old heart pumping; as a whole new life begins.
It’s a mucky birth. Don’t touch the handrails, sticky with sugar. Old guys reckoned they could predict the quality of the new wine by listening to the ripping sound of tyres on sticky roads. The louder the better. These days that’s less easy; there’s a lot of cleaning goes on. Customers want wines that taste pure and fruity. So it’s clean, clean, clean, morning noon and night. I’ve done many, many vintages relegated to the high-pressure water jet-gun, constantly blasting the sticky, emptied grape baskets at La Clarière and more recently at Henry’s Harrow and Hope … that is until he replaced me with a machine … wittily labelled ‘TONY.2’.
Machines are everywhere now. Inevitable but sad. Picking grapes is hard on the back, legs, hands … everywhere. Secateurs are bloody dangerous. Professional pickers have keen eyes and the right muscles. Most of us don’t.
Those 8am starts in the cold, dawn mists get to be very hard. But the chat, wit and rudery gets you through. Harvesting machines, of course, go all night and day. And nowadays do a better job, But they’re not much fun. Many estates still manage to hang on to the long harvest lunches, though. In these days of sandwich-at-your-desk they are something quite splendid. Happy, happy times. Two hours, many courses, plenty wine, mad, but they do give you the stamina to go on till dark. When it’s all over you go madder and overdo the dancing, singing and misbehaving at the Gerbaude; the end-of-vintage party. Why not? You’ve got ten months to recover … ‘til it all starts again.
*must stress … not always messy!!! My only 2021 Bordeaux visit apart from La Clarière was La Fleur Petrus. Christian Moueix’s bright yellow t-shirt – indeed the whole cellar – was still impeccable after a long day’s sorting. How does he do that?
Tony Laithwaite, Founder