One month at Chevalier: the Harvest
This is an old article originally published in September 2014 on Julien Boulard's old blog
8:00 am, the sky is blue, the air is fresh, the vineyard of Domaine de Chevalier is still hidden under a veil of morning mist. I am going to stay here an entire month with the objective to gain practical winemaking experience which should come in handy during my teaching activities as well as in my Master of Wine studies.
As I stepped out of the car, I noticed a team of pickers already gathered between the vine rows. My first day’s program wasn’t very clear yet, so I offered Adrien Bernard (Olivier Bernard’s first son) to join the pickers this morning, especially that I needed some exercise after my long journey from China. I joined in and started my adventure with the first step of winemaking: the harvest.
The picking of Sauvignon Blanc at Domaine de Chevalier started last Wednesday (September 10th), and this was the second trie, or the second time pickers had to pick grapes in these rows. Indeed, all clusters rarely reach perfect maturity at the same time, and quality-minded producers such as Chevalier will not hesitate to go through the same plot many times to only pick perfect berries. This second trie was a coupe rase (clearcutting), which means that every remaining cluster had to be picked, taking care, of course, to cut-off the rotted parts if any. We finished harvesting the few designated plots within three hours, and we then spent another hour to do some leaf-trimming around Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (the west-facing side) to allow a better air circulation and to allow them to get better exposure to sunrays. My objective today was to study the different steps of grapes handling before pressing. I was therefore impatient to see how they protect the fruits against oxidation before they reach the pressing machine, but I was disappointed (in a good way though) to discover that they actually do nothing at all! Indeed, when you pick grapes, you can use many techniques to protect your harvest against oxidation, for instance by dusting potassium metabisulphite powder which will liberate sulphur dioxide once wet. Domaine de Chevalier doesn’t need these for different reasons. First of all, the grapes are hand-picked, which means the clusters are undamaged and that no juice is running out of the berries, thus dramatically reducing the risks of oxidation. Secondly, the white grapes are only harvested during morning time, when the temperatures are low, thus ensuring the freshness of the grapes brought to the press. And finally, the winery is located in the middle of the vineyard, which means the time between the grape is cut off its mother vine to the moment it is pressed is very short, thus limiting the risk of oxidation too.
Once the grapes are picked, and before throwing them into the press, a producer can choose to destalk and crush them. None of these are performed at Chevalier. Regarding destalking, Hugo Bernard (Olivier Bernard’s second son) explained that this is useful when you have a very big production and in need for a higher capacity of pressing. Indeed, the stalks take a lot of place in the pressing machine, but the current capacity (two pressing machines) is more than enough to deal with Chevalier’s six hectares of white grapes. Crushing is also not performed as this could release too much phenolics. This reminds me of Burgundy producer Dominique Lafon who explained, during a Master Class organized by Jasper Morris MW at the Institute of Masters of Wine, that crushed grapes allowed for a quicker pressing (1.5 hour instead of 2.5 hours), but that heavier sediments and more green phenolics were released. On the other hand, pressing uncrushed grapes permitted to obtain a more elegant juice. This is exactly what Domaine de Chevalier is looking for by keeping the clusters undamaged.
A technique which is sometimes used by producers to extract more aromas from the grapes, especially with aromatic grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc, is the one we call skin-contact or macération pelliculaire in French. This operation consists in leaving the white grapes in contact with their skin for a few hours before pressing them. This is normally done on crushed grapes but it can also be achieved with whole clusters kept at low temperature. This technique will extract aromas from the skin of the grapes, and will result in a wine with more pronounced varietal aromas. However, this isn’t the kind of wine championed by Olivier Bernard. According to Domaine de Chevalier’s owner, this would mean making a wine which is more a “Sauvignon Blanc wine” rather than a “Pessac-Leognan wine”, or in other words “making a varietal wine instead of a terroir wine”.
So far, I’ve discovered that the domaine uses a minimal approach to grapes handling. I like it, and I am definitely enjoying it! Tomorrow, I’ll try to focus on the next step: pressing.