Another hard day at the office – driving through the Loire Valley earlier today on my way down to Bordeaux to see this year’s harvest. It’s all part of the rigorous research that I do for you. As I get constantly reminded by my nearest and dearest, my job isn’t really a job. I am in the extremely enviable position of genuinely loving what I do. I am very passionate about wine – the vineyards where the grapes are grown, the winemaking process and the people who make it, not to mention the end results. There’s no point doing what I do and just reading reports and studying text books (although I do that as well). I prefer a more hands on, practical approach and, of course, this generally means meeting people and talking over a good lunch in a vineyard somewhere while tasting the fruits of someone else’s labour.
Anyway, harvest time is a fantastic time to be in France, although the welcome is not always as hospitable as normal because it really is ‘all hands on deck’ with extraordinarily long days and nights for all concerned.
On my way through the Loire I stopped off at the wonderful Domaine Levin as they prepared for the vendage which should kick off on Thursday and will last about a week. Start day is determined by the sugar levels in the grapes and when David Levin has decided they taste just right – the balance between the sugar, aromatics and texture from the skins and pips. You have to really know your vineyards to make these decisions. David and Lynne Levin, apart from owning one of the very best hotels in London, have been making wine in the Touraine for over 30 years. I’ve been a fan of their wines for over 10 years. Talking to them today reminded me just what effort, passion and hard graft goes into every bottle of every decent wine we enjoy from anywhere in the world. David told me that there are over 25 processes that they use during the harvest and fermentation. It really is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Attention to detail is key.
Domaine Levin is an organic vineyard and apart from talking about the harvest I wanted to say a few things about organic wines. Yes, it is a bit of a rant … I take great issue with growers that make a huge song and dance about the fact that their wine might be organic (and don’t get me started on so-called natural wines!). The best growers are those who are passionate about looking after their land, minimal intervention, responsible and not just commercially drive.
They strive to make the best wines they can but also to protect and cherish their vineyards and soil. Those 25+ processes that the Levin family use, from small batch pressings (only 2 a day otherwise the workers get tired and cut corners), using inert gas to blanket the grapes once they have been picked before they arrive in the winery. That journey takes a maximum time of 6 minutes! Everything is done to cut out chemicals and preserve the natural aromatics and fruit flavours they seek. They do all this (as most good organic farmers do) not to tick the boxes on the organic checklist but to produce the best wine in the most responsible way. I love that. The same is true of Biodynamic wines. It is not true of natural wines. But that’s for another blog!
This year’s harvest in the Loire will be a challenge. Mother Nature was at her brutal best earlier in the year and the Loire suffered terrible frosts at the worst possible time – bud break. Many vineyards have lost 80% of their crop. Levin estimate that they will be 50% down. That’s the third year in a row that the Loire has been hit. In Burgundy many vineyards also had the same frosts and then terrible hail storms in May! Crazy weather. Decanter called the hail storm ‘catastrophic’. Then there was significant rainfall in May, Jun and the beginning of July – far more than normal.
The rest of July and August was totally dry and fairly hot. As long as the rain stays away for a few more weeks then the end result will be a good French harvest. Normally no rain in July and August is bad news but vines send their roots very, very deep and the water table is high. That’s why, as I look out over the Dordogne countryside as I write this, the ground is dry and parched but the trees and plants and healthy and green.
So over the next few weeks spare a thought, while you are drinking your glass of crisp Loire white or juicy Rhone syrah. This is make or break time for the northern hemisphere wine growers and with a fair wind (and no rain) we will be enjoying the fruits of their labours in a couple of years’ time! Talking of which, it’s nearly 6pm here so I’m off to conduct more research ….