Wednesday, 16 April 2014

What Winemakers Are Made Of: The Drinks That Fuel Them

Photo: James Fischer

A great deal of time and effort and marketing copy is spent on descriptions of what goes into a wine bottle. The hand-harvested grapes from old organic vines on steep terraces. Basket presses, Limousin oak, Slovenian oak, Acacia wood, concrete vats, stainless steel, whole bunches, careful selection, respect to nature, gentle pressing, care, love, attention detail, yadda yadda yadda. It’s not like they’re going to be telling you how a bicycle got trapped by their machine harvester and no one noticed until it broke the press (which is not, I am assured, how Gallo’s Red Bicyclette got its name).

People know what goes into wine: it’s grapes. There are some other things, obviously. I’ve seen a few bugs fail to escape the press or destemmer. I once found a dead lizard on the top of a cap of Mourvèdre (a winemaker I know saw it and shrugged, muttering ‘terroir’). I should make clear that tank was someone else’s. I’ve never knowingly made wine that involved a macerated lizard. 

But somehow, all of those odds and ends get shortened down to “Contains Sulphites” on the label.

So we know what’s in the wine. What’s in the winemaker? What liquid ingredients allow such men and women to steer grape juice from its natural state to the bottled boozy nectar we all know, love and spend all our hard-earned dosh on? 

Is there some sort of magic elixir - the winemaking equivalent of Gummy Berry Juice? Do they mainline Red Bull and junk food like a stereotypical software developer? Well, I can’t speak for folks the world over, but this is how it breaks down in my little corner of the Roussillon. (I have it under good authority that winemakers in New Zealand get better coffee)

Photo: Katie Jones, of Domaine Jones
1. Beer. I wouldn’t trust a winemaker who didn’t drink beer. I know one Aussie who makes wine in Burgundy that will not venture over to Beaune for harvest without at least 10 or so cases of craft beers from Wild Beer Co and the like. At the winery I work, Mas Cristine, the first beers of the day are usually cracked opened when the last of the fruit has been processed and the cleaning is set to begin. While I would love cases and cases of massively strong IPAs and Imperial Stouts from tiny breweries with great label design, the heavy machinery aspect of winery life leaves us with fizzy yellow Kronenberg Red/Heineken/San Miguel: something invariably lager-y, wet, thirst quenching, and light enough so that we don’t overindulge. Beer needn’t hit the sides in such situations.

2. Coffee (terrible, terrible coffee). This should really come first, as it’s the first thing to be drunk in the morning. Coffee in France is terrible. In a nation so dedicated to the finest of food and drink, it is horrifying and inexplicable that their coffee should be so bad. It isn’t just bad. It’s aggressive, staining, and shocking to the system. Its ashen desiccated palate does far more to liven the senses in the morning than its caffeine content. To be honest, I don’t know if I’d have the energy to work in the winery if I were presented with a perfectly crafted double espresso to start the day. That sort of luxury would send the wrong signals. No, give me this putrid muck - I’ll work harder in the hope that it may some how get the taste out of my mouth.

3. Beer. I know I already said beer, but this is different beer. This is the beer outside the winery, in the pub after work. This is the beer that you can sink totally content that you’ve earned it. It doesn’t last long, usually less than a minute, but that’s okay, because pubs have it on tap and they probably, hopefully, won’t run out. 

4. Gin. Horse tranquillisers are not a good idea to ingest the night before operating heavy machinery and lifting 6 or so tons of grapes, and so instead we tend to drink what would be, were they measured, about quadruple gins with mere whispers of tonic. They work quickly, unknotting the strained muscles of the day. It’s the most medicinal gin you’ll ever drink. The barman is basically a ship’s surgeon during the Napoleonic Wars - nothing they can do medically, so they might was well get you nice and liquor’d up.

5. Whisk(e)y. I don’t go to France without whisky. I also don’t buy whisky in bars in France. Whisky is for home drinking, when you’re back from the pub and it begins to dawn on you that you have to do it all again tomorrow morning. Before dawn, in fact. Whisky helps soothe this realisation. Don’t have too much though, winemaking is a fucker with a hangover: it’s dangerous and will everyone hate you if you spill or break something due to a hangover (they’re very forgiving of genuine accidents, however).

6. Wine. Well, this one’s pretty obvious. Wine with lunch. Wine with dinner. Your wine. Other people’s wine. Wine from barrel. Wine from tank. Wine from bottle. Wine from pichet and carafe. Dry wine, sweet wine, fortified wine, white wine, red wine, pink wine. You’re always tasting and quite frequently drinking something made from grapes. Well, it’s why you’re there, isn’t it?

7. Water. Stay hydrated. And rinse the taste of that awful coffee out of your mouth.

So the next time you grab a bottle and study the label, and its sloppy copy speaks wistfully of sun-kissed vines and everything done by hand, of artisans and craft and minimal intervention, just remember that there’s another story behind it. It’s not just grapes that make the wine; it’s people. Messy, sweaty folks mainlining caffeine to stay awake and alive long enough to get to the beer part of the day. When you bring that bottle you liked the look of home and are about to crack it open, ask yourself, how many beers were drunk to make this wine?

Richard W H Bray is the author of Salt & Old Vines: True Tales of Winemaking in the Roussillon, released 1 May 2014, available from Unbound and all good bookshops. You can follow him @RWHBray.

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