The Americans and the tractor.


Off we go again at 7am. Breakfast and out to it. Out to the them. It’s definitely not got boring yet. I just keep imaging they’re mine and want them to look their best. I want these things to be healthy and in the best state to create as many gorgeous, balanced grapes as possible. Keeping them healthy, and free of any useless branches and debris, and a bit open so that the breeze can brush through is a challenge though.

It’s a long story but a long long time ago in a far away land (in France – and really all of Europe) there came along a big buggering microscopic insect which killed all the vines. This ruined livelyhoods of winemakers and threatened to ruin the lives of us all (in a sense) – it was the insect… Phylloxera. Wanting to keep our evenings and their vines alive, and realising the American’s of all people had the answer, the vignerons all replanted the vineyards.
They ripped out the once brilliant, old and beloved – but now defunct, dishevelled, diseased rootstocks. In their place they replanted. But with a difference. The new roots would be American but the top of the plant still had to be the Merlots or the Cabernet Sauvignons or the Pinot Noirs, or even the infamous white Sauvignon Blanc. The French weren’t going to have their fill with American varieties. So they grafted on the Merlots or the Cab Savs by chopping each so that it fitted together like a puzzle piece: so now, effectively, what goes into the ground is American, the top of the plant with the leaves and grapes: that’s French.

These plants are riotous, and they just grow, so you need to keep them in check. Part of this is removing the branches that grow out of the ground from the base of the founder: The American root. These are tough bastards: brash, thick and stubborn (That’s the rootstocks I’m talking about; not the people!).
To tear them out takes an age and is hard work. You need to dig into the soil about two inches under and force the secateurs on them – at times putting all your weight in – until it cuts away. But sometimes there’s five or six branches all meeting some mega root-splitting hub just under the soil. So you grab them and cut it and pull and you’ve got them all, and still attached. And you’re like: “Yes! Got ya”. Yep. Long days!

Then you move onto the top of the rootstock where the branches come out and sort through them, removing the inessentials and allowing the energy the plant is creating to all go into the grapes. It’s tiring but a lot of close up time, with the vines, so I feel I’m learning a lot. There’s nothing like doing it for hours on end to realise the actualities of how they work and what you need to do to gently edge them in the right direction.

I am properly lucky that the first vineyard I’ve worked on is organic. Everything that is done is hands on and the right way and closely governed. There are so many things that need to be done and are far harder to do; simply because unlike most producers, Julien’s not just spraying the plant with whatever in order to fix a problem. He is a proper vigneron who loves what he does and wants to do it right. It’s like the difference between an organic restaurant and a dodgy takeaway. The kebab shop has its purpose and produces big and cheap and is sending if out to the masses. And there are tonnes of them, some of which are good, but there are few rules or guidelines you have to follow.

The other one, the organic restaurant, takes care in everything it does and tries to create the best and has to jump through hoops to satisfy regulations and will be letting the produce speak for itself. They’ll try to succeed by making great produce and turning it into food that speaks for itself. That’s much more time consuming and risky and expensive… It’s much harder that way. Unsurprisingly there are a lot more ‘conventional’ vineyards than biodynamic. But there’s been a big increase and that will only continue.

Odd analogy. Anyway…

And so today I drove the tractor. It is fairly edgy driving the tractor that’s older than me, amongst narrow rows of vines that could be older than me. This tractor is seriously old. The bonnet just sits, rusted, on top of the engine. The key is broken into the ignition and there are leavers that are stuck posiotion that you hope means safety on but, having driven it, I know it says ‘off’. I’m getting the hang of it but you need to get cut the grass really close to the rootstock so that air can flow underneath the plant. Getting that close is unnerving. You’re bouncing this old thing over an bumpy alley, but you hit a bump and change direction all the time and you need to turn the steering wheel so far to move wheels at all, but if you jerk it you go wide quickly and can hit the vine with the cutter attached behind. It’s about building confidence… but it’s also about not running this big metal chunk. You might as well just throw full bottles of wine at the wall.

Back to bed and onto tomorrow.



Dusk at Chateau Brandeau


Please. Do not. Hit any.


In the vines, Chateau Brandeau




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