9 October, 2022
This is a day-to-day report of my stay at the Loire for Thomas Puéchavy’s harvest in 2022. This has been the year with me visiting Thomas the most. I stayed and worked at his in January, March, May and July. In wouldn’t say that the harvest is the highlight of the season, there are various small highlights throughout, I still think back fondly to the rather quite time of pruning in the cold, but it’s definitely a special time, mainly because suddenly there’s a whole team of people helping, social interaction becomes much more of a thing than in previous months were it was usually only Thomas and me or Thomas, one to three helpers and me.
30 August, 2022
The harvest will start on 7 September. In the follwing days we’ll be preparing the cellar and ourselves for it. The day today begins in the cellar. From three different barrels with different capacities (two times 225 litres, one time 400 litres) I put together the 2020 vintage of Les Doyennes, Thomas’s cuvée made from 80-year old vines. I need to concentrate: taking the same amount from each barrique would be wrong! Why? Please think for yourself (it’s not easy for me either). It tastes very good: great nose, lush aromas, long finish. We add a small amount of the 2021 vintage: tastes good too! This blend is a little less aromatic, but we still find notes of almonds, pineapple and lemon. In the finish: green apple. The Dame Jeannes – large carboys (glass balloons) for wine, sometimes braided with willow or straw or surrounded by a wooden frame –, which Thomas and I filled with wine from 2020 last year will also be tasted. I find all three wines to be extremely acidic, in one I taste, albeit being the only one, ›mouse‹. Thomas, who taught me how to taste ›mouse‹ (I’ve been paying attention to the somewhat furry taste which is reminiscent of the skin of a salami since then) doesn’t taste this wine flaw here. He says that the pH value in the mouth also plays a role. Only 30% of people can recognize ›mouse‹, by the way. In the following we try out how the three wines from the Dame Jeannes get along with the sweet wine from 2020, which is stored in two 400-litre barrels and which Thomas does not (yet) want to release. The sweet wine is clearly gaining tension. Finally, we can say that the higher the proportion of acidic wine from the Dame Jeannes, the more interesting the sweet wine becomes. I can no longer find out (I’m writing this some time after) what happened to the 2021 vintage from Les Doyennes from my notes: It’s not that easy to try and taste and take notes at the same time, especially since the barrels and the liquids they contain are all quite similar looking… Otherwise we tidy up, vacuum in the basement and clean the plastic hoses with which the wine is transported from the press to the fermentation tanks and then on to the barrels. In addition to a sponge and water, we also use a cleaning agent that Thomas simply calls ›product‹, which is highly concentrated and should therefore only be used with protective gloves. We use a funny tool to clean the hoses from the inside: a sponge, disguised as an oversized table tennis ball, is pushed through the hose at hight speed. It’s working!
31 August, 2022
It is cleaning time again! This time it’s the turn of the buckets that the helpers use to pick the grapes. Who is going to clean the large, several thousand liter tank into which the 2021 vintage of Le Rayon Blanc will soon be filled from the inside? Right: Thomas, himself! In the afternoon we visit Michel Autran and go to his vineyards together with his new trainee. I’m seeing Gamay Teinturier grapes for the first time. Unlike most red grape varieties, their flesh and juice is actually red. The overall impression of our visit, during which we are equipped with a refractometer to determine the potential alcohol content, is a heterogeneous one: some grapes have already burned, some are still very hard and barely ripe. Everything points to an extremely selective reading. We measure potential alcohol contents between 5 and 12% vol. If grapes look like coffee beans, with a kind of crack in the middle, this is a sign of (undesirable) oidium (vine mildew) – not to be confused with (theoretically desirable) botrytis, which is caused by rot. It’s no different in Thomas’s vineyards, although I’m surprised at how serious differences become apparent in a relatively small area of less than four hectares. In fact, although the impression of heterogeneity remains, there are sections that are clearly not yet ripe and sections that are clearly suitable for harvesting. Together with another winemaker, Vivien Peltier, Thomas now also owns a small vineyard with red grape varieties since this year. In less than half a hectare there are Gamay (most ripe!), Côt (on the right track) and Cabernet Franc (far from acceptable maturity). In Michel Autrans’ cellar, I witness the vintner’s virtuoso mastery of his gas-powered forklift truck as he heaves a tool into his van for Thomas. In Thomas’ cellar we taste wines together that have been stored in barrels lent by Michel. Thomas had wondered if they left too much woody flavor in the wine, and Michel wanted to test that with his own taste buds. We try wines from three barrels, Michel makes out the (too) strong influence of wood in barrel number 22, based on the concise tannins he feels.
1 September, 2022
In the morning we are preparing a delivery to Belgium – wines from Thomas, as well as from Anne-Cécile Jadaud and Thibault Stéphan. We place the boxes close together on an empty pallet. At the end everything is fixed with a tear-resistant transparent film. Next, we consider how to best place a tank with a capacity of several thousand liters in the cellar. When full, it will weigh several tons. Using an ingenious system, we place several stones on the ground and cover them with an insulating board that is supposed to protect the tank from the rough stones. In the afternoon a technician comes and connects the new, second-hand pneumatic press Thomas bought recently. The grapes are pressed gently through an inflatable tube/membrane. The technician gives us an introduction to the various functions of the press. We have to remember to always grease the machine before using it. We also need to remember to shut the doors of the press, otherwise the grapes will fall out. We are not supposed to fill the press up to brim and should always leave a space of 20cm. Basically, there is one preset program that most of the winemakers use: program number six. I discover that the machine has two photoelectric barriers which stop the machine when you come near the revolving press. I appreciate this as I nearly killed myself with Thomas’s other, older mechanical press two years ago. At the end of the day, Thomas talks extensively to the owner of cork makers Aquitaine Liège and asks for advice on cork issues – a science in itself! There are five different qualities, the heavier the cork the better, the thicker the more it protects agains oxidation. Print on the cork is applied through fire. An order is best placed two weeks in advance. I decide to go for other corks as my wine, 300 bottles only, will most likely be consumed immediately and not stored for years. Thomas, however, would like to work with Aquitaine Liège next year.
2 September, 2022
It thundered during the night. The rain goes through the roots directly into the grapes, into the wine, so to speak, and becomes juice. That in itself is good. If it rains too much, however, there is the problem of the formation of rot. We’re preparing a racking (›soutirage‹ in French), the first and last for Thomas’s wine »Le Rayon Blanc« from the year 2021. Thomas doesn’t want the barrel’s wood to leave a too strong taste in the wine, hence the racking at this moment. (In the vat the wine will stay for a while, approximately half a year before it’ll then be bottled in spring 2023. The longer the wine stays in the fibreglass vat the more it oxidizes). We use nitrogen, which gently presses the wine out of the barrels and at the same time protects it from air and oxidation on its way back to the glass fiber tank from which the wine will be bottled at a later point in time. When the hose makes a funny sound we know that the barrel has been emptied. Inside the barrel we can make out the dead lees which we’ll take out separately. Then I clean the press from the outside. Unfortunately, in the afternoon we have to realize that the large tank, see above, which now contains the entire 2021 vintage of »Le Rayon Blanc«, is leaking – the lower door does not close properly. A truly horrible moment. We take out the wine and transfer it to other empty vats nearby – nothing we like to do, because any movement is undesirable, as is any contact with the air. After a new plastic door seal also does not help, the crucial tip comes from Michel Autran (see above), who suggests, via the phone, that the seal should be lubricated with grease that is approved for contact with food.
3 September, 2022
In the morning I fill a glass from ›my‹ barrel to check how the wine behaves in the glass over several days without chilling. Will ›mouse‹ appear? The result will give us an idea whether or not we should lightly sulphurize the wine before bottling. From different barrels I put together different blends of the 2021 vintage of the cuvée »Le Rayon Blanc«. The Dame Jeannes that Thomas and I filled last year will also be tried. Otherwise we tidy up, vacuum in the basement and clean hoses and barrels. We then continue with the racking. In the afternoon I clean the crates that are used to transport the grapes from the vineyard to the cellar to the press. In the early evening I pick up the harvest helper Christine from the train station. We have dinner and continue racking until midnight. Before we go to bed we speak about wine and question Thomas at length. He mentions a winemaker who never keeps his old vintages which I can relate to. Thomas says it’s difficult to make a wine that pleases everyone – best to make a wine that you enjoy drinking yourself as for one thousand drinkers there’s one thousand different tastes. Some people release their wines when they are ready, some release them in any case because someone out there will like it. Then, some winemakers count on the customer waiting until the wine has reached its perfect moment to be drunk…
4 September, 2022
We blend several experimental wines of Thomas’s, including the contents of three Dame Jeannes, with a more sweet wine, and then bottle them by hand. The bottling line we set up looks very primitive, but it is effective. We have a lot of fun at work! Among the various experiments is a new wine from Thomas, which, like the infamous »266«, finds its home in a half-litre bottle; together with his adventurous neighbour Sebastien, who has decided to live without electricity, Thomas has made this wine from Chenin grapes and the powder of dried Cabernet Franc mash. The powder should protect the wine with its bitter substances and make the use of sulphur superfluous. I think the wine is awesome and think of offering it to Thomas’s Danish importer Lieu-dit who might have the right client for it.
5 September, 2022
The specialist from Bordeaux who cleans the barrels from the inside and whom I already met last year is due to arrive tomorrow. My job is therefore to move the barrels from their dark storage areas to the bright entrance of the cellar. I use a wheelbarrow specially designed for this purpose. In the afternoon, the winemaker and friend of the house, Julien Pineau, visits us, with a new beard and hairstyle, to look at Thomas’s new press. The rest of the afternoon is then very sweaty. I roll the barrels onto two inclined rails and pull the stopper that closes the wine barrel. The yeast left in the barrel shoots out, over my arm, and then into a bucket. This process will also make the cleaning specialist’s job easier. Christine cleans the outside of the barrels with a Kärcher steam jet afterwards; the French verb used is ›kärcheriser‹, actually.
6 September, 2022
Early in the morning we drive to the vineyard to determine where to harvest first thing tomorrow. We have the refractometer with us. However, what is decisive for Thomas is the gustatory perception. How do the grapes taste, what is the texture of the skins like? We find out that many plots taste heterogeneous, in some cases the grapes and berries on one and the same vine are at different stages of development, which will not make harvesting any easier. The skins are thick and often taste awfully bitter when chewing on them. Each of us finally collects 100 berries, without looking, which we press by hand at home to analyze the juice with the alcoholometer. A table shows us a potential alcohol content of around 12.5% vol. alc., which is good. The acid is also measured, and it also has a good value. I spend the afternoon preparing a ragù. In the evening we welcome all twelve harvest workers who have traveled from the surrounding area, from other parts of France, from Germany and from Italy with a dinner. The aperitif is accompanied by the local specialty Rillon and cheese and salami from Haute-Provence, which second-time helper Rémi brought back from his recent internship in a goat cheese dairy. This is followed by the spaghetti bolognese that I prepared. For dessert there is cheese again. Everything is accompanied by Thomas’s wines and two red wines from magnum bottles from winemaker friends Marie Rocher and Julien Pineau. It’s a beautiful evening!
7 September, 2022
The harvest begins! We meet at 7.30am and drive to Thomas’s vineyard in Vouvray where we start work at 8am. My task this time is to ensure that the harvest buckets are emptied and the harvest boxes distributed evenly and sensibly. The helpers’ buckets should never be too full and heavy, so that the tedious work does not become even more tedious. I always have two empty buckets in my hands, which I swap with the respective helpers. If I’m not there in time, »Seau!« (bucket) is shouted and I rush over. The full harvest boxes are transported away with the help of a ›human train‹: Each picker carries two boxes with the person before and after her:him. I do not cut a single grape until noon. We harvest more than expected and are done. In the vineyard we were visited by Antoine Sauvignon from the Canon wine shop in Poitier (Sauvignon is his real name!) and Sylvain Deletang, inventor of the natural wine offshoot Drunk by Nature by the Berlin wine merchant Suff. Sylvain has been selling Thomas’s wines very successfully in Berlin since 2021, starting with the 2019 vintage. In the cellar, back in Nazelles-Négron, we try various wines of Thomas’s that are not yet commercially available with our two guests. We have lunch in Thomas’s conservatory. Then it’s time for pressing – Thomas’s new pneumatic press is being used for the first time. Unfortunately, individual programming is not possible, so we use the pre-programmed ›program 6‹, which presses gently so as not to extract too many bitter substances from the skins and stems. The first juice is greeted with joy. With an alcoholometer (mustimetre in French) we measure its density and can deduce the later alcohol content. It is below 12% vol. alc., which will make for a lovely Pet Nat! We still haven’t found the best method for emptying the press, so we use a method I invented: A tarpaulin is placed under the press. The press is moved, the mash falls onto the tarpaulin, the tarpaulin is pulled out; the pressed skins, kernels and trunks can now be disposed of.
8 September, 2022
In the morning I prepare black tea and coffee for the harvest workers, and I also put apples and nuts in the baskets. Together with Christine, I load the delivery truck with 201 empty harvest crates. I stay in the house and keep busy in the cellar: I clean up, sweep up leftover grapes, prepare hoses and pump and clean a big vat that will »welcome the result of today’s harvest«, as Thomas always puts it so beautifully. The harvest arrives in the afternoon, four of us load the grapes into the press. Two harvest workers get the full crates out of the small truck that Thomas has rented from the local supermarket for the duration of the harvest, and two others tip the crates into the two open hatches of the drum. Thomas decides on a different preset program (»Crémant«) and manipulates it a bit. Three and a half hours later there are more than 1000 litres of grape juice in the tank. I clean the scissors with water and dry them with a cloth. We transfer the juice from the previous day to a new tank and along the way we say goodbye to unwanted matter that has settled on the bottom (yes, that’s racking). The work doesn’t end until 11 p.m. – a long day!
9 September, 2022
I can sleep in! I spend two and a half hours and a meditative morning cleaning the press and removing the mash. Newcomer Ola comes and helps. Thomas and harvest worker Ettore return around noon with the first load of grapes. Feli, it’s her second harvest, and Ola take care of the emptied boxes – some are loaded back into the truck, they can still be used in the vineyard in the afternoon and only have to be cleaned in the evening. The crates left in the cellar are hosed down with water in the afternoon while I oversee the pressing and transfer juice to a tank whenever the tub under the press fills up. In between, Thomas, Ettore and I take yesterday’s mash to a rubbish dump where winegrowers leave their leftover grapes during the harvest. I fill the wait of handling the press with Alice Feiring’s new book »To Fall in Love, Drink This« (and writing these notes). The second batch of grapes arrives, we take them to the cellar to be processed the next day. Their amount is too small and would not fill the press completely. Finally, we transfer the previous day’s juices to new tanks (another racking), one time with the help of a so-called Chinese hat, in order to get rid of the sediments.
10 September, 2022
Same procedure as the day before, more or less. I first met Thomas exactly two years ago, my calendar says.
11 September, 2022
Everyone has a day off. Feli, Ola and me have lunch at the beloved Le Berlot in Montlouis-sur-Loire. The afternoon I spend (and finish) reading Feiring’s entertaining book.
12 September, 2022
In the morning I work on the computer on a new film I’m music supervising for. After lunch the first batch of grapes arrives. Together with Ettore and Rémi I unload the truck and then start first press. The grapes taste gorgeous. With the upcoming pressing we have already reached the total amount of juice that was harvested in 2021 – and it’s only harvest day five (out of approximately twelve). I clean boxes and pump the juice from the press into a 1000l vat. Whilst making everything is running smoothly I detect a common earwig in the juice. How did it make the from the press through the tube into the vat? It must have been an exciting ride. It’s still alive. I take a sieve, manage to catch the earwig and bring it outside the cellar.
13 September, 2022
In the afternoon I resume an activity that I last devoted myself to in 2020: determining the density of the pressed juice, the sugar content, and its temperature – the results provide information about the progress of the fermentation. Later, Thomas teaches me how to sulphurize barrels from the inside. The purpose of burning sulphur is to preserve empty wooden barrels that are damp on the inside.
14 September, 2022
Not much there is to to say about today, apparently (I’m writing some of these notes only weeks after the event). I open the vats in which the juices ferment and take away, with a sieve, matter that has made it to the top of the fluid. In the afternoon we do several rackings. In the evening we have a very good party – a farewell party for Una and Ola who will be going back home tomorrow, to Bordeaux and to Hamburg respectively. There’s even dancing (I’m the DJ)! Song of the night which I play a few times: Mazouni’s »Écoute-moi camarade«.
15 September, 2022
In the afternoon, the red grapes (Côt and Gamay) arrive from the vineyard that Vivien and Thomas have recently started working together. Exciting! Unlike the white grapes, the red grapes are not pressed immediately but macerated. To put it simply: They are left to themselves. They remain in this state for a few days before being pressed. Vivien and Thomas are planning about ten days, I think. Whether or not to let the stems macerate with the grapes is up to the winemaker. Vivien and Thomas had already decided in advance to only macerate the grapes, so Vivien brought the grid welded by his brother, with which the berries are separated from the stems in an elegant and gentle way. Destemming is fun! When we’re done, the tank is closed with a lid. Finished!
16 September, 2022
Today we harvest grapes from which I can make a wine, my second. Only my second day in the vineyard, the other days I spent exclusively in the cellar. I enjoy the work, but the grapes are actually of different ripeness, so we have to try a lot and be very selective, which interrupts the flow again and again. I’m happy to be able to make my own wine, but I also notice that of course I have no direct relationship with the grapes that I’m harvesting, as I’ve only visited them irregularly this year. At the same time, I was in the vineyard more often this year than ever before. Perhaps I can ask Thomas in relation to next year whether I can perhaps take more intensive care of a certain part of the vineyard in the course of 2023, more independently? But then I will still be far away most of the time. Well, we’ll see. Either way, I’m already looking forward to the next harvest, I have to say.
17 September, 2022
Officially, today is Felis and my last day helping Thomas. Tomorrow is Sunday, everyone will take a day off, from Monday on we will be making a short trip to the area and will not be coming back until Thursday evening. I get up early and tidy the cellar. I listen to music, which I have never done before during this stay. I’ll start with a Pet Shop Boys song. It’s called »Wiedersehen« (meaning goodbye – although it deals with a quite different kind of goodbye). The mood in the morning in the basement is wonderful. I sweep and clean. I also measure the densities in all the fermenting juices. The pressing from yesterday (800 litres in total, amidst it the 225 litres that will make my wine) shows »1095 – 15°C« (in the first vat that we filled) and »1102 – 14°C« (in the second vat). In the afternoon we transfer it straight into four wooden barrels – the wine will be aged in them for about a year (›elevage‹, in French). The barrels, which we had disinfected with sulphur in the last few days, are vacuumed beforehand and then taken to the dark, damp side cellar room that Thomas has prepared for them. The first four barrels we fill are placed right at the back of the room, starting in the far left corner. Christine and me fill them like that: B1 (barrel one) 200l from the first vat + 25l already-fermenting juice B2 like B1 B3 200l from the second vat + 25l already-fermenting juice B4 Rest of second vat (75l) + 125l from the first vat + 25l already-fermenting juice. It will be interesting to see whether the wines in those four barrels will taste differently.
7 September: loading the press for the first time. Note the high five between Thomas and me and (filmed by Christine)
14 September: moving a vat for it to be cleaned outside the cellar (filmed by Christine)