I’ve grown to love wine over the past few years – all colors and most types – but I never expected to have the opportunity to learn about winemaking first-hand. The whole industry is, frankly, a little bit overwhelming. I worked in a restaurant which was hosting sommelier tests many years ago and talking to the participants of the test made me realize how vast (and pretentious) learning about wine could be. How could anyone train their palate to distinguish a year, a region, and a grape? And only to spit it out — what’s the point?
My week spent at Domaine Vintur assured me that not all wine industry types are so self-involved and competitive. I was thrilled when James Wood took me in and showed me a snippet of the reality of running a vineyard – both the luxuries and the hardships.
Domaine Vintur was established in 2010 and is located in the Cote D’Azur region of Provence. It is conveniently located on a main road between a few different villages and the base of Mount Ventoux, known for being on the Tour de France route. The vineyard sprawls across over 12 hectares of land (30 acres) with three types of white grapes and seven red varieties. Domaine Vintur bottles and distributes whites, reds, and rosés, with a majority of their vines aged between ten and thirty years.
The week I spent at the vineyard was during a pivotal moment in the season – it was almost time to harvest the grapes and there was a ton of manpower needed to prepare for this. (My next post will outline the various jobs needed to get the vineyard ready for harvest.) Thankfully, I was there with John, a former investment banker turned student looking to enter the wine industry. He wanted to learn about the harvest and spent ten days at Domaine Vintur. Even though John knew a heck of a lot more than I did, there were plenty of topics and events over the week which we both approached wide-eyed and got to process together.
One of the things we continuously discussed was about the difficulty involved in this life. Running a vineyard seems a bit like playing Russian roulette — your entire livelihood rests on luck. Woody even mentioned that a few weeks ago in the Bordeaux region, there was a nine minute hail storm which ruined an entire season of grapes.
This year had been particularly wet, causing the wine to be lower quality. This seemed crazy to me – every day I was there felt dry and hot. However, any slight amount of humidity makes a drastic difference. The wetness that was problematic for vineyards made for fantastic goat cheese, so some people were happy about the conditions. From what I gather, someone always loses. Everyone has to roll with the punches Mother Nature provides. It’s quite a departure from the corporate world, let me tell you!
Despite the seemingly competitive industries within this region, I was really happy to see a very supportive and tight-knit community. Everyone wants to try each other’s wine. Another big surprise was that rosé is big here. Everyone drinks it at lunch. Everyone. It isn’t considered girly like it is in the States. It is one of the most important vintages Domaine Vintur carries. So to be sure the Black Grenache and Cinsault grapes are both ready to blend into rose is key.
I was particularly fascinated with the timing and chemistry relating to the harvest. How do you know when it’s time to harvest the grapes? To give me a better understanding of where to begin, Woody sent me out to the Grenache vines one morning with a plastic bag. He told me to pick completely randomly – “do not look at the vine, just grab what you feel.” Another time, Woody made a triangle with his hands and said, “if a vine is a triangle, take one from each top side, then the bottom, one in front and one in back – 5 grapes per vine.” The idea is to get an objective sense of the ripeness of the grapes. Shadiness, closeness to water, and wind exposure all factor into this. After completing two rows of each, I took my bags of grapes, poured them into a big bowl and crushed them all up, “I Love Lucy”-style (but with my fingers). We filtered the grape juice and had a few sips.
As a side note, I was always disgusted by watching people taste wine. I hated that Hannibal Lecter-like slurp that would inevitably sting my ears. However, I get it now – adding air to a sip of wine brings out a whole new layer of flavor. While I never mastered the perfect slurp, I am now able to add a little oxygen to my sips without drooling. Small goals!
Woody uses his palate to make an initial assessment about a grape’s ripeness and when the harvest should occur over the next two weeks. He’s had extensive experience in food and wine and his palate was sophisticated enough to distinguish the balance of desired tastes. He explained a bit into his line of thinking as he did these initial taste tests “Does it taste right? Are the pits brittle? Does it have a sharp taste? Is it a good color?” These are all factors to consider.
Using a wine refractometer, Woody analyzes juice to see what the alcohol level would be if the grapes were harvested now. Depending on the grape, the target varies. A typical Syrah in this region should have an alcohol level between 12 and 14%. If you were wondering, compared to the most wines, that is pretty high. In England they have less alcoholic wine because it is cooler (and sparkling). As grapes ripen, sugar turns into alcohol. If the alcohol level is projecting too low, he waits to pick them.
After testing the alcohol levels, we created little bottles of the different grape juices and sent them off for analysis. Woody made a point of reminding us that, while this analysis can give you a lot of helpful information, he would never allow the results to overrule his palate.
What are the bottles analyzed for? A whole range of items. Malic acid (apple acid) is common in these wine varieties. However, it is very sharp, as opposed to lactic acid, which is smoother. Tartaric acid makes for bad wine, but potassium (salt) can be used to reduce it. pH is a measure of total acidity. Tannins are the dryness in your mouth. Glucose and fructose are measured as well. There are also so many flavor profiles to consider, which varies person to person. All in all, trying to analyze wine is overwhelming!
Later on, when tasting some barreled vintages, Woody asked “what do you taste?” To which I think I said something along the lines of “umm… grapes?” And he was able to say “I taste limestone, raspberries, chamomile, salt…” It was fascinating to hear. Perhaps someday I will have a mature palate. Until then, I’ll be perfecting my slurp!