Making White Wine

After the second-earliest white harvest in our 11 years here at Chollet (31st August, beaten only the precocious 2011 vintage which started on 28th August), we thought you may be interested in knowing a bit more about how we make our white.

Firstly, though, given the early start, a quick word on harvest dates, which have followed a similar pattern in all areas of France (and globally) for many years, that is the harvest is coming earlier and earlier. Further to the long-term trends shown below, it seems to us, and many others, that this has accelerated over the last 10 years.

The two graphs below will tell their own story – firstly a view of the evolution of harvest dates in several different regions in France, followed by a specific view of Château Haut Brion, a famous Bordeaux vineyard from the Pessac-Léognan area.




There are various reasons for this pattern, including more detailed vineyard management, scientific farming practices, and a better understanding of grape ripeness, but it’s hard to argue against the theory that global warming is playing the major role. The debate around global warming and its effect on farming and, in our case, wine, is not for the pages of this newsletter – many in depth studies have been done and are ongoing, and we’ll pick up in the subject again in the future.

Back to making the white wine. Compared to red wine, making white is a simpler process, however this is balanced by the fact that is easier to upset the more delicate flavours in white through rough handling, or less than perfect general health of the grapes on the vine.

The principles are easy enough; as ever, the most important is to grow a healthy, ripe crop; then, use careful judgement of the correct time to harvest (if the weather has not already made the decision for you); careful handling (hand harvesting) and pressing (new, gentle, pneumatic presses are the best); judicious use of oak, cool fermentation and lees work; stabilisation over winter then finally, a fairly early bottling. See below for a bit more detail;

  • Healthy crop: this is the result of months of work, starting way back with the pruning in the winter which sets the vine up to grow a certain number of grape-producing shoots (about 10), continuing with all the vineyard work in Spring and Summer, along with lots of crossing of fingers during spells of bad weather (eg: in 2017 the rare Spring frost, which only had a small impact on the white grapes which are higher up the slopes. The reds, however, are further down and reduced by half compared to the normal crop).
  • Harvest time: a combination of sugar, acidity, PH value, phenolic maturity (the complex molecules that affects the taste) and more prosaic matters like availability of pickers and the weather.
  • Careful handling: in order to preserve the delicate aromas and flavours of white wine, it is important to not damage the grapes during the harvest. To do this, we pick by hand, then load the grapes via a conveyor belt into a modern, pneumatic press that is gentle and presses over a period of 2 – 3 hours.
  • Use of oak: an interesting subject in white wine. The aim for us is not to make the wine taste of oak, but just to add a bit of roundness. This is done by fermenting the wine with oak, not ageing it in any way in oak.
  • Working with the lees: the lees are the residue of the fermentation, comprising mainly yeast cells, which have broken down during the fermentation into sugars and amino acids. When stirred back into the wine, these compounds give a certain ‘weight’ to the wine, and a slightly creamier texture.
  • After all the above is done, normally we are about the beginning of December. The wine then sits over the winter and naturally will drop to around 5 deg C, which enables a natural precipitation of tartrates (a process known as called cold stabilisation), thus avoiding the addition of a chemical product or use of an ion exchanger.
  • Bottling: typically we bottle our wine in February, which allows enough time to get the wine in stock for Easter, when people (optimistically) get their warm weather wine ordered!


                                             sauvignon blanc ready for picking

conveyor      press

Conveyor to transport grapes without damage                            Pneumatic press – good for gentle pressing                                                                                                                            

Down at the vineyard – autumn 2017

Harvest time is always exciting at the vineyard, and with the whites safely in the tank we have already started thinking about the reds.  Th e forecast for the merlot is mid September and about 10 days later for the cabernet, again this is going to be about 2 weeks earlier than last year.  We use a machine to pick the reds, they don’t require such gentle handling as the whites and with larger quantities it is logistically easier for us.  The real bonus is that we can leave the grapes to the very last minute to get them as ripe as possible.  We’ll be using out neighbours super duper new harvest machine, which now has integral cleaning and de-stemming so the grapes arrive in the chai in optimum condition.

debourbage-white     yeast-white    harvest-machine

                 Debourbage                                                           Yeast                                                         Harvest Machine

Now we are harvesting we are finally in a position to fully assess the frost damage.  The white was largely unaffected.  Of the reds, we have two parcelles of merlot, the first parcelle by the house and the pool (for those of you that have visited) is about 15% damaged at the lower end of the last 5 rows.  The other parcelle of merlot (by the lane and facing our neighbours house) is about 80% damaged and we are as yet unsure of the ripeness of the grapes, we need to wait another week or so before testing to see if it worth picking at all and if it is we will probably do it by hand to ensure we get only the ripe grapes.  The cabernet franc (by the drive) has about 20% damage and the cabernet sauvignon about 30% – for the two cabernets we will manually remove the unripe grapes before picking with the harvest machine.

Apart from the harvest is it fairly quiet in the vineyard at this time of year – the ground is as yet too hard to start preparing for next year and the grapes need leaving alone to finishing ripening.

The 2017 white has already started fermenting and we need to test the density and temperature every day to monitor the progression of the fermentation.  Also in the chai we need to get the big red wine tanks clean and disinfected and check the rest of the harvest equipment is clean and in proper working order.

We also have a bottling on 22nd September of the 2015 Prestige, so still plenty to do!!

A Word from LME CBE – A label review

Many of you will remember that when we started out at Chollet, 10 years ago, the vineyard had not been making its own wine for many years, but was selling all its grapes to the local co-operative.  We always wanted to make our own wine, so that wasn’t an option for us.  But it meant that we had to do everything (and buy everything!) associated with wine making from scratch.

One of the most important things we had to do was to design our label.  Being a marketing man (or having been one, once) we did this by researching amongst our ‘target customers’ – many of you may remember this, because we had Mike Barlow, of Mi Creative, design 10 labels, all of a different nature, after careful study of different forms of labels, and ‘market tested them’ by e mailing them to everyone on our family and work contact lists to ask them to rate them.  We tried labels from the traditional to the contemporary.  (One was called ‘Fat Bird’ – not a sexist/sizest joke, but an acknowledgement of the success, believe it or not, of ‘Fat Bastard’ wines in the US and in Europe, and the fact that a fat pigeon (a ‘palombe’) is an emblem of our area in France and we have a ceramic ‘Fat Bird’ perched on the top of our tower.

‘Fat Bird’ didn’t make it through to the next stage, which was to ask a focus group (inevitably, and with better results than Mrs May’s, carried out by Kim and Teresa from B different, who Mrs May should have asked to do hers……….) to discuss the four labels which scored best and choose a ‘winner’ from them.  The clear view, as you can see from our label, was actually really quite obvious – if what people are looking for, when they buy wine, is classic Bordeaux, then when they open the case on arrival, it ought to look like classic Bordeaux. Hardly a shock, but the fact that we sell most of our wine directly to peoples’ homes, through specialist merchants, independent restaurants, or ‘at the Chai door’ means that there is not the need to try to catch the eye on a supermarket shelf.

We did do one or two things deemed ‘radical’ in Bordeaux, like putting the grape varieties on the labels (revolutionary!) and adding an informative ‘back label’ with details of the harvest, alcohol content, tasting notes etc.

90 x 120  Our existing label

So that is where we were, and still are.  It seems to have worked.  But 10 years in, is it still the right call?  To help us judge this, around 80 ‘friends of Chollet’ got together to try some of our latest wines at the Royal Over Seas League in St James’s, earlier in the year.  By way of a task, they had to go round the room and give a score to each of a dozen alternative label designs on display.  The labels were a selection from the specialist French printers who we use, of what they thought were the best of the latest designs they had been asked to print.

You can see the labels displayed below.  Numbered 1 -12.  We asked everyone to rate then from 1-10 and also to give a rating to our existing label. Not a process I would submit to the Royal Statistical Society, but the result was clear enough.  Of the ‘new’ designs, only two scored an average of over 6/10 – Number 8 (which scored highest with 6.2), and Number 5. Both quite traditional.

no-1  no-2

                                                        No.1                                                                                                      No.2


no-3       no-4

No.3                                                                                         No.4

no-5  no-6

                                         No.5                                                                                                     No.6

no-7  no-8

                                                    No.7                                                                                                     No.8


no-9     no-10

                           No.9                                                                No.10






By contrast, our label scored an average of not far off 8.  Of course, one has to account for a bias, everyone there being familiar with the label as it stands.  But there doesn’t seem to be a great reason to rush to radical change.

So over the winter, Kirstie and Paul will mull over the findings and think what, if anything, to do next.  The best brands – think of BP, Mars, Cadburys, Coca Cola – may evolve a bit over the years, but are still immediately recognisable from their first evocation.  So a bit of updating might be right – or maybe we could borrow something from one of the high scorers, for a ‘special cuvée’ one day.

Watch this space – or, rather, watch this label! If you have any views, we would be very happy to hear them.

Best wishes to you all, and thanks to Marie Williams (formerly Marie Belsham, whom many of you will know) for organising the evening and the analysis.  Marie is running her own ‘virtual PA’ and events management business now, so if anyone needs anything in that line……