After 8 indulgent months of travel, it was time to get back to work. A one month contract as an assistant wine-maker for the 2012 harvest sounded like a nice way to ease into it. Working at one of the top wineries in the Rhone region, it was to be a pleasant holiday from holiday.
Working at the winery was like a 10 hour weights session every day: carrying heavy hoses, climbing into machinery and tanks, shoveling grapes, pushing pumps, scrubbing floors, lifting lids, carrying buckets…
My first few days were focused on ‘remontage’. This involved taking the juice from the bottom of tanks, pumping it through hoses and spraying it onto the fruit at the top. This allows the juice to absorb the tannins, colours and characteristics from the skins. I felt like a fireman – only the water was red and sweet.
Getting distracted, my friend accidentally (at least that is what he said) sprayed me in the eye with a hose full of wine. Straight in the eye! Luckily I did not lose my contact lens and that the grape juice was sweet, fragrant and delicious.
After years of office work, it was good to be in a job where I could get dirty. Usually my face was spotted with wine and my trousers wet with the excessive spraying of hoses in an attempt to keep everything clean.
My favourite task was chapitilisation. This involved pouring out the juice from the tanks, mixing it with sugar in a big basin, then feeding it back into the tank. The purpose of this was to increase the sugar content (and thus alcohol) of the wine. Mixing in the sugar by hand, I loved being elbow deep in the wine with the sweet smell of ripe grapes underneath me. It was a treat to suck the sugared juice off my arms afterwards.
“Making jam?” the manager would lamely joke whenever we were doing this task. Playing with grapes, it was all just doing fancy things with grapes.
After the grapes had been in the tanks for several weeks, we then had the fun task of removing the juice and then shovelling the grapes out of the tanks to be pressed and then put into barrels. It seemed so exciting to climb inside the tanks with shovel in hand. The small ones were fun, the big (I was told) overwhelming.
My last week, I was in the chai rouge (the red barrel room) stacking and filling barrels. It was so calm with the noises of the mad cuverie hidden and I loved resting my head on the oak smelling like banana and vanilla as I attentively listened for the high pitched whooshing telling me the barrel was almost full.
Tradition and Terroir
As a wine maker, you are part of this history. You are creating something memorable that brings people together, something that people enjoy.
Terroir and tradition are the basis of wine-making in France. Unlike Australia where our wines promote the grapes as the defining factor, in France, it is all about the region. Based in Tain L’Hermitage, I was intrigued to learn about the different soils and see how these affected the wine. It is not just the soil, it is the sun, the aspect, the vines.
“Walk up to the chapel,” it was suggested, “when you are there you can just smell all the flavours going into the wine”.
From the clay soil Meal to the granite and famous Hermitage and L’Ermite. Nearby was Croze-Hermitage with different terroir again.
One day we did a trip to Chateaunuef-du-Pape. I was amazed to see the vines different colours just from one side of the road to the other. This area is unique for its rocky soil. The rocks heat up during the day, and keep the vines warm overnight. The rocks also protect the grapes from the rain. Some parts had white rocks, others brown with the tanned clay soil. This region grows about 13 different varieties of grapes and they can mix up to that number up in a single wine!
Yes, the landscapes create beautiful wine, but they make stunning sceneries too. Running along the Rhone one night I was enlivened to see the sun at liminal with mountains in the background, only to turn around and see a vibrant rainbow.
When I first arrived the vines were green with heavy, ripe grapes hanging from them. After only a few days, they had started to yellow. Other vines stood out as bright red amongst a sea of green.
I lived in a house, on a hill, near the chapel, near the look out with a brilliant view of the vineyards and the town and river below. To get to town, I could either walk through the forest or the vineyards. So much pleasure it gave me to see these landscapes every day.
Part of working at the winery was being served one meal a day – of course this came with wine. The work lunches usually presented sample bottles from last year and the one before. I made a deal with myself that I would try at least two every day.
This was no hard task as the number of wines made and the sophistication of the French style had me constantly engaged. I became to understand a key word of French wine: finesse. Unlike many wines in Australia, that try to pack in as much flavour as possible (admittedly with complexity, but usually without subtlety) the wines here were all about balance. I found my tastes changing and appreciating a wine for its multitude of flavours and textures brought together in the mouth as smooth as velvet.
Wine was also the order outside of work hours, where I came to learn much about the beauty of the Rhone.
A highlight was a Viogner without sulfates. It was nothing like any of the Viogners I had tried at home. In fact, until this hit my taste buds, I had resigned to not liking this variety. It was fruity, almost like a sauvignon blanc and so incredibly fresh.
I tried a wine from Cote-du-Rhone that smelt exactly like Turkish delight. What an amazing bouquet! Whilst I did not warm to the taste as much, I could have sat, sniffing that wine for hours.
There was a Coufis that was explained like a wine stew where kilos and kilos of grapes are used for just one bottle. It was all Viogner taken from three different regions. It was so sweet but enjoyable with oak.
Each wine I tried from Chateauneuf-du-Pape was different and here it was explained to me that it is one of the biggest areas of the Rhone. One red from the region was amazing. It was so fruity but at the same time well balanced with soft oaks.
So is it the best job in the world?
I learnt a lot in this month at the winery. I learnt useful French words (like hose, bucket, broom and squidgy). I learnt how to make wine. I learnt about history, geography and science. I tasted some incredible bottles, and I was surrounded by beauty. Sure, the hours were long, the work was hard. But what a unique experience it was. And how much enjoyment one can have when life is devoted to creating one of the oldest and most cherished beverages of all time.