During the first months of the year, a walk through a vineyard is like visiting a cemetery. The vines look dead, standing like rows of headstones and it’s hard to believe they will resurrect to produce juicy grapes in half a years’ time.
The vines are dormant and have been since their leaves fell after the first very cold spell, usually just after Christmas. It was then that the pruning began. The farmer must hand prune every vine and ideally this job must to be finished by the end of March, before the warming of Spring wakes them from their long winter slumber. Pruning is an important and skilled job as it will determine not only the shape of the vine but the amount of fruit the vine will yield.
In Languedoc, you will see many vines growing as bushes with no wires to support them. This is the traditional way here in the Mediterranean, it’s called ‘Gobelet’ or ‘Bush Vines’ in the New World. This method works well for vines with a natural inclination to stand upright, such as Grenache and Carignan but vines that are inclined to flop as Syrah does, need support. The way the vines are trained will give a clue as to how they are harvested; bush vines must be hand harvested, the harvesting machine needs to follow a wire.
In spring bud break happens and vines begin to sport little green buds that unfurl as each day passes. Life has returned to the vineyard and the landscape changes from the brown earthiness of winter to the green and hopeful beginnings of spring. After budbreak comes fleuraison or flowering. At this stage the vine seems to have produced minute berries that are in fact flowers which will bloom into a kind of green fuzziness and this is followed by fruit set when the flowers become tiny baby grapes which are called petit pois, little peas. The farmer will hope that heavy rains, frost or dreaded hail will not come calling as this could be death to the flowers and no grapes for this year.
The vine is vigorous and by early summer the canes are getting longer, swaying in the Occitanie breezes. The grapes have expanding but remain green regardless of their future colour and they are full of acid. It’s a brave person who bites into one of these grapes.
The sugars start to build in August during a stage called veraison that gradually changes the grapes colour and the acids begin a balancing act with the forming sugars. Usually most grapes have changed colour by the end of August and you can eat them from the vine, they are delicious but in most cases, they are still not quite ready, especially the reds as the skins and colours will take a few more weeks to ripen.
In the Languedoc the harvest begins towards the end of August for some wines, usually whites and will continue into October for others. Each terroir is different, as is each grape variety. The hotter areas, such as on the plains will begin earlier than those at altitude or where you find cooler microclimates.
Harvest time is stressful for the wine maker. When to pick is the biggest decision the winemaker will make and once it’s done there’s no going back. Science and laboratories help but I have spent many days with wine makers walking through vines and eating the grapes. You will know when the magical moment has arrived, when the flavours are so wonderful you know it’s time to pick.
By the early part of October most of the grapes have been picked and all the work is now happening in the cellar. Wines are finishing their alcoholic fermentations and some may even have moved onto the secondary one, Malolactic fermentation where the harsh acids transform into softer, creamy ones making the wines more approachable.
And so we have gone full circle in the life of the vine and the rhythm of a wine maker’s year. It’s not just a job, it’s a life style choice and one of hard work, risk and passion and in my opinion it takes a very special kind of person to take on this role. Luckily for the world of wine lovers the Languedoc has plenty of special people producing, in my opinion some of the most exciting wines on the globe.
Read more about Languedoc wines in Wendy’s book ‘The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon’.