Working the vine
The cultivation of vines means year-round labour for the winegrower. At the end of the autumn, once the leaves have fallen (and only after, to allow the vine to stock up for the winter), the farmer cuts back t he vine stocks. To qualify for the Côtes du Rhône appellation, the yield must not exceed 52 hectolitres / hectare. This is one of the essential conditions that ensure the grapes will be of good quality. The traditional method is gobelet pruning (6 spurs to two buds maximum).
Certain varieties, such as the Syrah, are cordon pruned and fenced, because their habit is drooping, and that way they resist the wind better. One man can prune from 10 to 15 hectares over the 4 winter months. It is also at this time of year that the earth is worked and fertilised. In March, the root system stirs into life and sap begins to ooze from the cuts in the wood: the vine weeps. The buds open in April, the vegetation begins to appear, and it is time to begin the protective measures against diseases and parasites, a process that lasts right up to harvesting.
Flowering occurs in early June in the early areas (south of the Côtes du Rhône zone). The foliage can then be ‘topped’ to make it easier for the machines to travel along the vines and to increase the sunlight that reaches the grapes. The grapes fatten, called fruit setting, then they lose their green hue towards late July and turn red or golden yellow, the ripening stage.
At the end of August, tests are carried out to determine the level of maturity, and the harvesting can usually begin in the first few days of September.
From the harvest to the elaboration of the wine
Once the grapes have been harvested at the right level of maturity, the winegrower’s work goes indoors, into the cellar.
White wines are made from white grapes which are crushed and then pressed. After the wine has been racked and the carefully selected yeasts added, the alcoholic fermentation can begin. The temperature is kept steady between 18 and 22°C in order to preserve as many aromas as possible. No attempt is made to encourage lactic acid fermentation, which means the white wines keep all their freshness. Once it has been filtered, the wine is bottled. Between 2 months and one year have elapsed since the vinification process began.
Rosé wines are vinified from red grapes with white flesh. The grapes are crushed and then usually destalked before being poured into the vat. Depending on the colour desired and on the particular harvest, they will macerate there for from 4 to 24 hours. The mixture is then ‘bled’, by removing a certain volume of juice from the maceration vat. This volume, once it has been racked, if that is necessary, then ferments at a temperature between 18 and 22°C, in order to preserve all the aromas possible. Lactic acid fermentation is undesirable, in order to ensure the rosé remains as vivacious as possible.
Red wines are elaborated from red grapes. The harvest is crushed, usually destalked and then placed in a vat. The alcoholic fermentation, which is often generated by introducing certain yeasts, is carried out at a temperature between 25 and 32°C in order to extract the aromas and ensure the wine has a good structure. The wine remains in the vat from anywhere from 3 to 15 days, depending on whether the desired result is a light wine (of the new season’s wine type) or a wine to be conserved in storage. The must is then pressed, after the juice is allowed to run off from the vat. The free-run juice is then usually mixed in with the grape juice.
Natural sweet wines are made with the white grape muscat or the red grape grenache. The natural sugars are kept by adding a neutral alcohol (mutage) that stops the alcoholic fermentation.
Sparkling wines are vinified using white grapes, according to the traditional method. (Second fermentation in the bottle).
The assemblage or blending is a delicate exercise. The idea is to increase the quality of the wines by blending a number of wines of various origins. The task requires an exceptional olfactory sensitivity and a long experience of the effects of time on the development of the wines.
There may be several blendings during the vinification process, both before and after the lactic acid fermentation.
The assemblage also has to take into account certain other vinification techniques used to give the wine its full character – destalking, crushing, maceration of whole grapes, treading, etc.
In every case, the task of the winegrower is to obtain the maximum amount of complexity, aroma and structure. He acts like an orchestra conductor, searching for perfect harmony, creating his wine like he would a symphony.
Maturation begins from the end of the fermentation until the wine is bottled. It is a period that can last from a few months to several years.
The goal of maturation is to stabilise the wine and to bring out its aromas and tastes…
Slow oxidation clarifies and degasses the wine, strengthens the colour, softens the tannins and develops the complexity of the aromas.