Surveying the lay of the land

Bernard Duseigneur at Domaine Duseigneur tasting the grapes for ripeness.

The learning curve is quite high when one is actually in the vineyard rather than trying to study from a book. In all the time I was in school, I didn’t memorize the visual difference between syrah, cinsault or mourvédre. Well, now I could go out into a vineyard and tell you. From the leaves, from the grape size, from the bunch shape. Syrah, with its tight bunches is nice to hold; cinsault has big fruity grapes that are a pleasure to snack on. Cool. I can tell you which vine is hit by powdery mildew or botrytis rot, which one has been attacked by grape catepillars, and which one is giving up from heat stress. I can tell which grapes won’t ripen any further and which ones are probably too green to harvest. All in a day’s work.

Surveying today included walking (stumbling, rather, the boulders in these parts are major) up and down rows of grapes in different plots, tasting the grapes and putting others into plastic bags for analysis. Sometimes I could tell before tasting that a plot would be less ripe than the previous one – the air was cooler and there was more shade. These had a fresher acidity still, even if the fruit flavors were clearly there. If I chewed a grape and the skins were a bit tough and the pits left a dry feeling in the mouth, they were not ready to harvest. If chewing the grape skins and pits left no feeling of toughness or green, dry flavors and the most exposed grapes were starting to taste a bit like jam, it was time to get going quick or they would over-ripen.

Grapes from different plots waiting for analysis. In the background, a pensive Pierre Charon, one of two winemakers at Domaine Duseigneur.

Unfortunately, none of the grapes had left the dry, green tannin completely behind once the pits were chewed. I might have thought so, but the expert told us otherwise. The consulting oenologist, the famous Philippe Cambie, only had to chew a few grapes per bag to tell us we were days off. The harvesting had to be halted. Ah, the disappointment! So of my 10 days down here, maybe I will end up harvesting for two. And the 25 people employed for the harvest have to lounge around for a bit longer, waiting, waiting.

In a way, it is a good reflection of the life of a winemaker. They wait eagerly for harvest and when the factors finally add up, something unforseen happens. Luckily, it doesn’t seem like it is about to rain here now – it is rather warm and sunny which reduces the risk for rot. We saw only two spots of the rot botrytis. Otherwise I can only imagine the anguish. Imagine you have spent an entire year preparing and taking care of the vines to get the best possible grapes. Then one day at harvest time you stand there, forced to make the decision to pick five days too early or to lose half the crop to rains and the ensuing rot and dilution. Damn, I admire them. Personally, I’m not sure I’d have the nerves.

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