This page is a work in progress - as the year goes on there will be further pictures added, until finally you will be able to follow the progress of the vineyards throughout the year.
I have been following the "Vendanges" or grape harvest of Nadia and Cyril Bourgne of Domaine La Madura in Saint-Chinian. In early September, at the point where summer turns to autumn, the harvest begins and with it several weeks of work, as one carefully tended vineyard after another is stripped of its bounty of grapes. Each bunch of grapes is carefully picked by hand, and placed into small baskets. Only perfectly ripe grapes are picked, and any damaged berries are cut out by the picker.
Picking grapes is not easy on the back, but the atmosphere among the pickers is very happy and relaxed, and working with nature and surrounded by beautiful countryside is a compensation. As the baskets become full, the grapes are transferred to crates, which are carried by the "porteur". They pass with the "hotte" on their backs between the pickers and the truck, which will carry the grapes to the cellar.
Once the truck is fully loaded, it goes to the cellar, where the grapes are processed. Each crate in turn is emptied into a machine which removes all stems and leaves, and the grapes are then conveyed to the "cuve" a cement tank, where the fermentation will take place.
On the first floor of the cellar are inspection hatches into the tanks, where the fermentation of the grapes into wine can be observed. Cyril Bourgne at Domaine la Madura only uses traditional methods to produce his wine. The deep red colour of the wine comes from the skins of the grapes, which also contain a lot of other compounds vital to red wine. In order to extract the maximum from the skins, juice is taken from the bottom of the tank and pumped over the crust of grape skins at the top. Regular tests during the process ensure the highest quality wine.
For the red wines the skins are left in contact with the wine for about six weeks to extract the maximum of flavour compounds and colour. The tanks are then drained and the wine decanted into a clean tank. Then comes the task of emptying the tank of the "marc", the skins and pips which stay behind and which have settled into a solid mass at the bottom of the tank. First as much as possible is raked out through the small opening at the bottom of the tank.
Three persons were at work the day I took these pictures. One person taking the marc from the tank, and two people carrying the full boxes to the press and loading it in. Once everything in reach is raked out someone has to climb into the tank and pass out the remainder. The opening at the bottom of the tank is just big enough for a person to pass through! This is dangerous work, as gases build up inside the tank and is always done with at least one person outside the tank.
A fan is placed on the opening on top the tank, to circulate fresh air. The picture on the right shows an airlock used to protect the wine during fermentation.
Once the press is full it is closed and started. The drum slowly rotates around its axis, squeezing as much liquid as possible, which is returned to the rest of the wine.
Once the wine is matured, in tanks or oak barrels depending on the wine, it's time to put it into bottles. Come that day an enormous lorry pulls up on the quay side, which contains a mobile bottling plant. Everything has to be ready for that day - the palettes of bottles delivered, the labels printed, the corks ordered, the cartons and last but not least the space for storing the bottles organised!
The bottles are loaded into the machine by means of a pneumatic device, allowing a whole row to be lifted off the palette at once and they then start their journey through a number of operations
First the bottles are washed and rinsed, before doing the rounds on the filling machine, each bottle being filled with exactly the right amount of wine. The bottles are then corked, but unfortunately this part of the process was hidden behind other machinery and so there is no picture.
Next on the foil caps are dropped on the bottle necks and then fitted by the following machine, which consists of spinning "hats" that come down over the necks. Two further machines then apply the labels - one to the front of the bottle, the other to the back.
The journey of the bottle is now almost over. As the bottles line up to be put into cases, Nadia folds cases ready for packing, ably assisted by her son Achille, who stamps the cases with a reference code. Nimble hands pack the waiting bottles into cases. All that's left to be done is for the cases to be sealed, before the roll off the conveyer to be stacked on palettes again!
The wine is now ready for your enjoyment, so as we say in this neck of the vines "Bonne degustation!"
Every year on the Sunday following July 14 the Cru Saint-Chinian celebrates and it's a fete to be reckoned with! As it's on a Sunday the weekly market is displaced onto the street and the main square lined with white tents, where wine makers and others offer their wares for tasting and inspection. The members of the wine makers brotherhoods of the various AOCs parade in a solemn procession to the church for a special mass, of course preceded by one of the local bands. There's more music throughout the day and of course lots of wine tasting to be done! Here are some snapshots from the 2005 event, on Sunday July 17, 2005. Next year it'll be on July 16, 2006 - a date for your diary!
After the harvest the vineyards turn beautiful shades of red and russet, some golden, others a deep crimson, and eventually the leaves fall and the plants begin their well earned winter rest period. During this time the plants have time to recover and vigneron has to prune each plant in turn. Nowadays most people use electric or pneumatic secateurs and Cyril Bourgne is no exception. With his electrically powered secateurs he's able to prune between 500 and 1000 plants a day. Doesn't seem too bad, but even then pruning his vineyards takes months to complete.
Each "pied" is mechanically pre-pruned - done by a machine which goes down each row of vines and reduces the shoots to about 2ft in length, which makes the next step a lot less difficult. The shoots are then cut back to show 1 - 3 eyes, depending on the variety of grape and the yield wished for. The more eyes, the more new shoots and grapes a plant will produce; the fewer bunches of grapes a plant produces the higher the concentration of flavours and quality.
The vines in the pictures are grown "en chandelle", i.e. like a candelabra - the main branches grown horizontally, with new shoots being trained vertically up the wires that run along the rows. That way the grapes have a maximum exposure to sunshine.