That’s it! Our harvest is over – in the vineyards at least. All our vines have been picked, all by hand of course, finishing in style with our oldest Grenache Noir from Saint Andéol, some of which date back to the immediate post-war year of 1946.
But that’s not the end, nor the beginning of the end – it’s just the end of the beginning. The hard work continues in the cellar every day. All our fermenters are full, so the long days continue to stretch from dawn to dusk monitoring every step of the fermentation as nature takes its course, aided only by our regular remontages and manual pigeages. It’s as though each fermenter asks its development to be checked first thing every morning and before you leave at night, so these are long days which take no account of weekends nor allow any days off!
Natural fermentation, that is fermentation which takes place by the action of the natural yeasts present on the grapes skins rather than by adding manufactured yeast cultures – is a process which can’t be rushed. Even in the latter stages of pigeage in Tronconique 10 one or two full bunches of grapes could still be seen. To obtain the finer aromas and flavours from the grapes, fermentation is best allowed to take place naturally, progressing slowly until all the sugars in the grapes have transformed must into wine.
Slow fermentation poses many risks though: one being that the ‘cap’ – the initial solid mass of grapes and stems, which at first is more than a cap as it is almost as deep as the fermentation vessel itself – is at risk of natural spoilage. Just as fruit left in a fruit bowl will eventually decay, so the grapes in the ‘cap’, if neglected, could start to turn in a bad way. Luckily Mother Nature lends a helping hand here: as the naturally occurring yeasts ferment the grapes’ natural sweetness, turning must into wine, at the same time the yeasts also release carbon dioxide from the sugars. This CO² is Mother Nature’s natural anti-oxidative preservative: it rises above the cap and because it’s heavier than air, the CO² spreads like a protective blanket over the top of the cap, preventing oxygen in the air attacking the fruit and starting any decay. So fermentation can take place without fear of interference under this protective blanket.
At the very beginning of fermentation, if not enough CO² is produced to create this protective layer a little dry ice (frozen CO² ) is sometimes suspended above the cap, just to ensure the cap is kept healthy.
Also key to protecting the cap is regular ‘remontage’: the French term used to describe the process of circulating the wine from the bottom of the fermentation vessel to the top, usually first thing as dawn is breaking and last thing as dusk descends. This keeps the cap wet and therefore healthy, and acts as part of the gentle extraction of aromas, flavours and tannins. Remontage is also key to making the cap easier for ‘pigeage’ – more on the ins and outs (or should we say up and down) of pigeage in the next blog.
‘Remontage’ could be done by machine but we prefer to do this by hand and our open top fermenters allow us to do this. Sitting on top of the tronconique we can gently direct the juice all over the cap, making sure it has been thoroughly soaked. As a daily, often twice daily ritual during harvest, remontage has an almost religious, soothing effect on us all.
Once the alcoholic fermentation is over the wine is ‘racked’ (drawn off) from underneath the cap into another, untarnished vessel – what happens next will be posted in a future blog.
CO² is of course very dangerous, if not to say lethal when inhaled. Overnight the build-up can be quite substantial from the fermentation in open top vessels (tronconiques). So, every morning during harvest when we arrive at the cellar the first task is to throw open both the huge doors at the front of the cellar and the small upper doors at the back to allow fresh air to rush through and up to push out the CO² which may have risen to sit dangerously, covering all of the upper floor, lurking dangerously and undetectable by sight.
As we climb the stairs every morning to the upper floor, we have to be alive to the slightest sensation of CO² in our nostrils and if in doubt, hold our breath till we throw open those upper doors. Fresh air then circulates quickly, so there’s barely enough time to take a small coffee under the almond tree before all the CO² has rolled away and the cellar is safe to work in.