a wine inspired dream
A few years ago, in a dinner with friends talking about nothing in particular, someone told us the story of Nico and how he had decided to leave everything to go to Provence to pick up his family vineyard and try to make his own wine. He thought that if he didn't try it then, just after earning his agronomist and oenology degrees, he never would. And that was what he did, as in a certain Hollywood movie that comes to mind right about now, he packed his bags and off he went, with very little experience, but with high hopes of bringing to life a family dream.
The first thing to do was to work hard at making the place liveable and getting to grips with how much work he had to do, both in the field and in the office. Managing a vineyard does not only require expertise in actually growing the vines, it also requires an entrepeneur mindset, a head for business and a disposition to make your way in a market that is already full of exerienced competitors. Patiently Nico set to achieve his goal, first by repairing the vines that were left in the fields, the machines that were left in abandoned workshops, buying second hand machines when he didn't have what he wanted. He planted new fields with new vines, cleaned and painted the wine cellar, and started actually making wine.
Some dinners later, we learned that Cristina, after a while decided to join Nico in this adventure and also packed her bags, looked for some fench lessons and moved in with him across the border.
More than four years have gone by since Nico left Madrid. He is now producing and selling several wine varieties, while Cristina has just launched an online shop where you can find a piece of Provence to take back home.
Last year we were lucky enough to visit them in their beautiful home and spend some days with them, shopping in local markets, having picnics, dinners and whatever you can imagine. Apart from all the cooking, we also tried to learn something about the art and science of making wine and about what it means to own and manage a vineyard:
"Le Grand Castelet", which is the name of Nico and Cristina's vineyard (and estate) is located in the outskirts of Tarascon, near the river Rhône. They produce Mediterranée, Bouches du Rhône and Alpilles wines. The farm has a production area of about 200 hectares, and at the moment only 103 hectares are being cultivated. These numbers will increase, but a small scale endeavour like this one cannot go from zero to a hundred in three years.
In the vineyard, they harvest different types of grapes for the different wines: Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, Cariñena, and Tempranilla, which is nearer to their Spanish roots. They are trying different things to see what works best for future production, such as Caladoc (Garnacha + Malbec) and Marslan (Cabernet sauvignon + Garnacha).
In their vineyard, you can find both recently cultivated gravepines and older ones. Some can be even 40 years old and have survived through the seasons and the different care takers. The annual production of the vineyard is now over 5000 hectoliters but Nico plans to double that by 2020. The estate also has its own wine cellar, where they actually make their wines. Plans for the future include bottling, but right now they are producing the wine in quantityand selling it to bigger wine groups.
The grape harvest
During the last days of august and early September the activity at the farm is increased as the harvesting begins. Harvesting takes place from August to October (in the Northern hemisphere) and February to April (in the Southern hemisphere). The exact date will depend on the maturity of the grapes depending on the wine you are willing to produce, as different conditions will affect the grapes such as the climate condition - the higher the latitude the grape will ripen later, the type of grape: depending on the variety certain grapes ripen faster than others, or the wine you are willing to obtain which will depend on certain components of the ripeness, such as sugar, acids or aromatic components.
Nowadays, harvesting is usually carried out mechanically. Once the grapes are gathered, they are carried carefully to the wine cellar where they are downloaded and introduced into the pressing machine. This step, which is romantically depicted in films and pictures with people pressing on the grapes by walking over them, is now carried out by machines. It is in this stage that the process starts to be different depending on whether the end result is to be a white, a red or a rosé wine.
For white and rosé wines, the grape is carried directly to the press to obtain its juice, or "mosto", ready for its fermentation, it is filtered, leaving skin and pips behind, so that only the liquid is transferred to the barrel keeping all the aromas and freshness of the grape. For red wines, the grape is pressed and transferred directly to the barrel for its fermentation, during which the juice will obtain the colour and body (astringency and tanins) from its fermentation with the skin and pips of the grapes included in the barrel.
During these four years, Nico has learned a few basic tips that he now follows for a correct harvesting of the grape. He avoids picking wet grapes as the humidity of the rain or fog will negatively influence the quality of the grape juice, diluting its sweetness and flavour. The hottest hours of the day are also to be avoided as the quality of the fruit may suffer and the transfer to the wine cellar must always be done as quickly as possible in order to avoid unwanted macerations.