Tender harvest

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2007, 12:00am

Among winemakers in Australia's Hunter Valley, there's an unofficial competition held during harvest about who can lose the most weight. There's no lack of contestants, although the weight loss isn't intentional: picking grapes around the clock can mean working through the night, and little time to stop for meals.

The same holds true for most of the New World wineries, where large vineyards, machine harvesting and hot summers tend to make vintage a hectic time.

It's different in Bordeaux, which produces some of the world's most prestigious, investment-grade wines and is the world's second largest wine-growing region.

Despite the pressure to bring in the grapes quickly, harvesters and winery workers at top-end chateaux such as Ausone, Petrus, Lafite-Rothschild, Cheval Blanc and Margaux take a break each day to enjoy luxurious 11/2-hour lunches.

Alfred Tesseron of Pontet-Canet, of the 80-hectare grand cru classe estate in the Pauillac commune of the Haut-Medoc, says the chef is just as busy as the harvest workers during vintage.

'We have 250 people [this year] between the harvesters and the people in the sorting and vat rooms [cellar],' he says. 'Roughly the same team comes every year. It's a lot of people to feed. The chef has a lot of work and the atmosphere is good.'

Taking care of the team requires enormous organisation: trestle tables and marquees are erected, kitchen staff brought in to help out, and often accommodation is provided for the harvest workers.

Most wineries down tools at about noon (usually with a quick check by the harvesters across the vineyards for an update on the neighbouring chateau's progress) and then eat a hot lunch that includes charcuterie, pudding, cheese and, of course, wine.

But while the lunches sound glamorous - and they can be, particularly for visiting winemakers - the tradition simply reflects the different approach to winemaking.

It's all about attention to detail.

Wineries in other areas such as Australia, the US and Chile tend to be much larger than they are in France, and the grapes are harvested by machine, rather than laboriously hand-picked.

At top wineries in France, the harvested grapes are then carefully picked over. In Bordeaux, this usually takes place on long, vibrating tables - a practice that slows the flow of grapes coming into the winery but also allows the team to remove flawed grapes.

It's a labour-intensive process and requires a large and, ideally, experienced team. Tesseron estimates that at Pontet-Canet, there's one person at the sorting tables for every three pickers.

If all this sounds fascinating, the Bordeaux tourist office now offers 'oenotours' where tourists can pay wineries to hand them a pair of secateurs and spend a day in their vineyard as pickers or porters.

The 2007 harvest is just ending in Bordeaux, and this year, winemakers believe the sorting process is particularly important after some patchy weather.

'It's always good to have a look at the grapes as they are coming in so they can select the right ones,' says Jean-Baptiste Bourotte of Pomerol's Clos du Clocher.

Bourotte employs 56 people during harvest for his 5.5-hectare property, although they also work on his 40-hectare estate in Lussac, which borders the more famous St Emilion.

He suspects the quality of this harvest could surprise the market.

'We have better potential than 2002, the acids are less diluted,' Bourotte says, referring to another rainy year. 'After the good weather in September, we harvested quite late after flowering, which allowed the grapes to ripen and the tannins to develop.' He says there is some suggestion the wine could be similar to the acclaimed 1983 vintage, which was also characterised by a late harvest.

Over in the Medoc, Tesseron agrees the better weather has helped the harvest, but says it's too early to tell how the wine will turn out.

'Each year is different - that's what gives our grands vins their charm,' he says.

'But the 2007 vintage has not been an easy year. In April, we had great weather then the summer turned and was very average.

'The cabernets and petit verdots have come out well with very little damage. Thank goodness as it's the main part of our crop and is essential to our grand vin of the great Pauillacs,' he says.

'Also, we were lucky that September was a magnificent month compared to its predecessors with three weeks of sunshine, no rain and mild temperatures.'

While the top chateaux won't speculate on price, an estimated fall in the volume of the 2007 harvest is likely to underpin a price rise of Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) Bordeaux red.

The AOC sets strict standards for the quality of wines produced within each appellation or regulated wine-growing region of Bordeaux.

The overall estimated volume for 2007 stands at between 5.5 million and 5.6 million hectolitres, which is lower than last year. That has helped push the expected price of a tonneau (900 litres) of AOC Bordeaux red up to Euro1,000 (HK$11,185). In 2006 the price was Euro880.

This low yield is being seen across France, which is expected to be down 7 per cent, or 50.6 million hectolitres, compared to 2006.

Over in the Entre-deux-Mer, which is Bordeaux's most 'commercial' appellation, winery owners are also upbeat about the harvest. Lionel Raymond of Chateau de Lagarde, Bordeaux's largest organic winery, says the quality of this year's wine will be determined by the quality of the vineyard.

'It will be different for everyone in 2007 because of the weather. The problem with 2007 is not all the wines will be homogenous. In 2007, it will depend on the winemaker - if you did your job well, you will have quite a good vintage.'

But before any thoughts turn to working off the extra harvest weight the winemakers have piled on during vintage, there's one more thing to be organised - the end of harvest party, or 'gerbebaude'.