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Well, that time has come again. The sun is still high in the sky, but setting earlier. There are squash, apples and pears in the market stalls and the pickers are in the vineyards with their buckets and clippers. Tractors chug along the roads, causing traffic back-ups. Hooked up to their backs are bins full to the brim with ripe grapes, all heading to the cellar for their future transformation. Early autumn is harvest time in Provence.
After multiple hot years that commanded early harvests—vendanges précoces (mid to late August), this year has taken us by surprise and proved ten days to two weeks later than normal—une année tardive. What a boon to the vintners who have been busy in their cellars cleaning, scrubbing, disinfecting and readying all the equipment. With the extra days it was no doubt a tad easier to fix that loose connection on the tractor, be assured that all the hoses are hole-free, that the pump is in working order, etc. They might have even slept well these past few weeks.
Weather does play its role: the spring was chilly and rainy (for Provence—we’re not talking Germany here); the summer lovely but short; and in recent weeks we’ve had five days straight of chilly mistral winds which tighten up and dry the grapes but which help little for ripening. These were followed by two fierce nights of rainstorms. But, given the state of the vineyards, these storms were very much welcomed. It’s all a question of timing. The moisture they brought (long in coming) has permitted the grapes to finally ripen as they should and yes, at least on the southern slopes and plateaux the harvest has now begun. So far the days following have proved bright and breezy—perfect weather if it lasts. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
Visiting with clients last week, we learned from the young vintner at Domaine les Florets that in the hills of Gigondas the harvest wouldn’t get underway till October. However, over in Courthézon, the Clos du Caillou was already harvesting a few of their whites and shortly the Syrah for their Côtes du Rhône (their Châteauneuf-du-Pape parcels will wait a bit to concentrate and deepen). Our new friend Doug Graves of Mas de la Lionne (and formerly of Seattle and Boeing) has already picked his Cinsault and young Grenache for his (soon to be) fruity and delightful Côtes du Rhône rosé. And as we went in to taste at the Domaine d’Eole in Eygalières we were greeted by a lively and content vintner covered in splattered grape juice from the morning pressing for his rosé. He had done what we call une journée continue from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
In this land of hot afternoons and fruit-filled wines, where most of the best wineries rely on hand-picking, this is becoming standard, not to mention that it is an intelligent adaptation to the French government-imposed 35-hour work week. The grapes are picked during the cool morning hours, placed in the tanks, and kept cool throughout the early stages of fermentation—an extra attention which helps the vintner keep those lovely fresh fruit flavors in his wines, rather than losing these delicate nuances to cooked or overheated notes. And, the pickers won’t suffer from mid-late afternoon sunstroke (they’ll head home for a nice long sièste after their much deserved repast).
As I write this the weather is still and splendid. Will this last? Will this be a “perfect year”? We shall see. Till the last grapes are all in, till the fermentation is safely underway, nothing is a given. Good weather now means lovely Syrah grapes and the early-ripening whites such as Viognier. But should that turn in a couple weeks to nasty storms and mist we could lose the late-ripening Mourvèdre and Clairette. What shall 2010 be? I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Madeleine Vedel, based in Avignon, is the owner of Provence Cooks LLC, leading intimate and personally designed tours to wineries, food artisans and villages in Provence for over eleven years. She recently started up a small agency promoting Southern French organic wines to US importers and distributors. You can learn more about her activities on her web site or at her blog where she explores her bicultural existence and passion for Provence.
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