March News

merlot-budburst-31-march A cold January, a mild February and a warm and wet March have resulted in earlier than usual bud burst.  The photo on the right shows the merlot on 31st March.  The concern now is late frosts which could damage the delicate new leaves, however the forecast is good for the next 10 days so fingers crossed!

We’ve been busy weeding and mowing the vineyard, it’s not only the vines that have been enjoying the warm weather!  Our mechanical weeder – the blade – is spring loaded and the leading arm enables it to spring between the individual vines turning the soil directly underneath the vine.  After the blading we use the weeding wheel to removes any weeds left behind.

The Blade       Weeding Wheel

The photo below left shows the results of our ‘blading’ and the 2nd photo the results of chemical weedkiller.  You can see our blade doesn’t remove all of the weeds, it is impossible to get right to the very base of the vine but the soil remains healthy and full of life, unlike the soil of a chemically weedkilled vineyard.

weeding      weedkiller

In wine news we have confirmed the bottling of the 2015 Prestige and 2016 Rose for 19th May.  This later than usual date gives the ’15 Prestige an extra 3 months in barrel, but will still enable us to get the ’16 rose to you in time for the summer!

If you are interested in the goings on in the vineyard and chai (winery) why not come and visit us so we can show you around, we’re just 35 minutes from Bergerac Airport (Ryan Air & Flybe) and 1 1/2 hours from Bordeaux (BA & Easy Jet).  We’ve still got some availability in our B&B apartment (sleeps 6), with it’s 2 air conditioned bedrooms,  a bathroom, living room, kitchen and dining room.  Also there are large gardens and solar heated pool.  Have a look at our B&B pages for details and availability.

The Evolving Vineyard

Driving past a vineyard in summer, one could be forgiven for thinking that not much goes on. A sea of vines gently fluttering in the breeze, maybe a person or two tending them, the odd tractor, and not much else. As we have often written in this newsletter, however, there’s plenty to do – but as most of the manual work is done vine by vine, and tractors can cover a few hectares in a day, there’s not much apparent activity at any one time, in any one patch of vines. But it’s clear enough that, somehow, the vines must be tended and trained in order to have good quality grapes at the end of the season.

One thing that is not often thought of, though, is how the vines get there in the first place, or how vines are replaced. Visitors to the vineyard here at Chollet often ask about this; for example, how long do vines last, and what happens when they are too old? Also, what if you need to change things – can they be moved from one place to another? Can you take cuttings?

The answer, of course, starts with ‘it depends what you want to do’. First of all, it’s best to picture a vineyard not as one large field of vines going on seemingly forever, but as a patchwork of separate small fields, called ‘parcelles’ in France. These parcelles are normally different grape varieties, of different ages, and often planted in different orientations or densities. This, of course, is strictly controlled and administered via what’s called a ‘plan cadastral’, where a vineyard (indeed pretty much all of France) is divided into small, numbered, patches of land.

In the picture below left, it is possible to make out the ‘patchwork’ of vines to one side of Chollet. The two by the house are running north – south and the other one west – east. Pathways separate the parcelles.

parcelles     plan-cadastral

The picture on the right shows all of Chollet’s vineyard, with the parcelles of vines outlined. Each of these has a reference number (not shown) and each is treated as its own separate entity when it comes to planting and maintaining the vines within. To give you an idea of scale, the largest parcelle (on the right side of the picture) is around 2 hectares (5 acres) in size, and contains around 11,000 vines.

Back to the questions; vines typically last anything between 30 and 60 years in Bordeaux (there are older ones, but not many). As they get older, they generally produce better quality fruit, but there comes a time where quantity and quality fades and in that case, the whole parcelle is grubbed up and replanted. During the life of a parcelle, vines are also replanted but to fill in gaps where vines have died, become diseased, or been damaged.

As for whether vines can be moved; no, the roots are way too deep. Also, taking cuttings is forbidden – only vines purchased from a specialist nursery, certified free of disease and with the correct rootstock, can be used. A vine costs just over a euro ex VAT, and costs of digging up and replanting run to another three euros or so. So, to maintain a parcelle like our large one, there’s not a huge amount of time or cost in keeping on top of things; say about 1%, or approximately 100 vines per year, to replace. However – and this is what we have done quite a bit of here at Chollet over the decade or so we have been here – when a parcelle is end-of-life, no longer meets the ever-changing Bordeaux appellation rules, or is no longer wanted (for example, the wrong grape variety for your needs, planted at the wrong density, or of poor quality generally), it needs completely replanting.

vine-graft-copy      potted-vines





Each replantation is quite a project. Firstly, we remove all posts and wires that hold the old vines up, then prune each vine to a stump, grub them up using a deep plough, clear the patch of vines and roots, cultivate the soil, then leave for a fallow period – during which we plant nitrogen-fixing plants like broad beans over winter and prairie flowers for the insects in the summer – then, when ready to replant, cultivate the soil again, work in some compost, and finally plant the new junior vines in a precise grid pattern. See the two photos above to see vines ready to plant – either bare-rooted or in biodegradable pots. Once planted, each vine needs its own little post to cling on to early in life, and watering during dry weather (5 litres per vine per week). Weeds are a huge problem at this stage – we do not use weedkillers here, so it is a manual job – but it is crucial to keep the weeds down to allow the new vines to grow. Next – install new posts and wires, and over a 3-year period maintain, prune and train the vines to the correct shape such that, when they officially enter production at the end of the 3 years, they are strong, already producing grapes and no longer need watering (which is forbidden from this stage on). We shouldn’t (as if we could) forget the formidable administration that comes with replanting a parcelle either. Phew!

See below on the left for a newly planted patch, a few weeks after planting. Already needs some weeding!

young-vines        plan-cadastral-2

Since 2006, when we arrived here at Chollet, we have replanted several parcelles. In the picture above right, the area outlined in red was all one grape variety – sémillon – and pretty ancient at that. This was OK for the previous owners who sold the grapes to a cooperative, but for us, it was too much of one variety, limiting production of others.

We kept the best, smaller parcelles of Semillon and replanted some others as below left, which shows the configuration at the end of 2011 – replacing Semillon with Cabernet Sauvignon (outlined in blue), Sauvignon Blanc (green) and Muscadelle (gold).

plan-cadastral-3       plan-cadastral-4

This year, we will continue by planting some more merlot (shown in purple above right). We’ll also grub up the areas outlined in light blue, and replant those in a couple of years, when the soil has recovered and we have paid off the last lot!

As you can see, quite a different mix of grape varieties from 10 years ago. Lots of work and expense – but necessary, and as a result the vineyard will be producing what we need, very efficiently, hopefully for many years to come.

2015 Blanc Sec Exceptionnel

Blend: 75% sémillon, 25% sauvignon blanc

Average vine age: 50 years

Harvest size and plantation density: 35 hl / ha and 4,500 vines / ha

Terroir: Soil is clay / sand over limestone. Location slightly elevated (80m above sea level) on gentle south facing slopes.

Vineyard methodology: certified organic (ECOCERT).

Winemaking: direct pressing after harvest (no skin maceration), fermentation at 16 – 18°C, regular lees stirring over a 3 month period.

Maturation: 6 months in stainless steel tank before bottling.

Tasting notes: The 2015 ‘Blanc Sec’ is clear and pale gold, with an intense nose of citrus and tropical fruits. Balanced and good weight of fruit on the palate, with a long finish.

Serve with: shellfish, fish, grilled chicken, mature hard cheese

Ideal time to drink: now to 2019

Serving temperature:  8 to 12°C

Medals: Decanter & IWC « commended »

2014 Cuvee Classique

Technical Specification

Blend: 65% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon, 15% cabernet franc

Average vine age: 30 years

Harvest size and plantation density: 35 hl / ha and 4,500 vines / ha

Terroir: Soil is clay / sand over limestone. Location slightly elevated (80m above sea level) on gentle south facing slopes

Vineyard methodology: certified organic (ECOCERT).

Winemaking: cold maceration for several days followed by fermentation in stainless steel at a temperature of 25-30 °C. Reduced sulphur.

Maturation: 9 months in stainless steel tank before bottling.

Tasting notes: A rich, garnet colour, full on the nose with mature red fruit aromas, alongside hints of pepper and tobacco leaf. Soft, round and full on the palate with good depth, black cherry and ripe plum flavours, smooth tannins, and a long finish.

Serve with: red meat, grilled or roasted poultry, hard cheese

Ideal time to drink: now to 2020

Serving temperature:  14 to 16°C

Medals: Decanter « commended »

Down at the Vineyard – Spring

After the very mild winters of 2014 and 2015 we’d been hoping for a cold one this year and we weren’t disappointed!  January was bitterly cold with temperatures dropping as low as -9 and rarely getting above 0.

The photo shows our 60 year old semillon frost covered vines and the view over to Christoph’s, our neighbour and the maker of the 2014 Chateau des Sablonnets.


The cold made it hard work for us out in the vines but it was very good news for the health of the vineyard.  We needed a hard cold snap to kill off pests in the soil – this is especially important in an organic vineyard where we don’t use any pesticides.

As I said in the introduction, spring is  a very busy time, the preparations for the upcoming growing season are vital, if a job is missed or the timing is wrong then it can affect the growth of the vines, which affects the quality of the grapes which then impacts the quality and quantity of the wine.

The season starts after the first frosts in early December, with pruning the vine down to one ‘cane’ (main growth stem), with 8 to 10 buds, and one ‘spur’ (a spare), with 2 buds.  Then we pull off all of the last years unwanted wood, shown in the photos below.  The unwanted wood is put in the middle of the row and crushed up.  Then we tighten the support wires and replace any broken posts.  Then attach the cane to the lowest support wire.

before      after

During this time we also prepare the ground, ploughing every other row (we leave one unploughed so we can work from the tractor on that side), fertilising and do the first round of weeding.  All this needs to be done before the first buds appear at the end of the March.

A Word from LME

A Christmas Charity Challenge

Since the last newsletter, Linda and I have been lucky enough to spend nearly three weeks in India.  So my head is not quite as full as usual with matters vinous!  What it is full of is the extraordinary sensation of how lucky I am to have, by chance, been born in a country like the UK, and just what a disparity between there is between what I take for granted and what billions of people regard as their usual lot in life.  So the thought has struck, especially as this is the Christmas edition, to issue a bit of a challenge to see if our readers will help a little. The challenge is to commit as much as I can by pledging that (personally, not from Chollet’s margins) I will pay 25p for every bottle sold from this newsletter to the charity which supports people in the Dharavi Slum in Mumbai – ‘Reality Gives’

With one of their guides – and with considerable reservations, but every Indian friend of mine said ‘you must do it – people need to know’ – we visited Dharavi – the setting for ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ -where 1.2 million people are packed into 1 square mile. Chastening – totally. Harrowing, even. But uplifting to see the attitude and endeavour of the people living there.  Our guide, who lives there, said, ‘They call it a slum.  We call it a community’. It has been called ‘a veritable entrepreneurial hotspot’ – and it’s true. I have rarely seen such industry in the UK. Or such a commitment to education as the way out – which is where ‘Reality Gives’ concentrates its efforts.

I am not suggesting that Bob Geldof need worry about the competition, or that what might be given will be even a drop in the ocean.  But 100 cases sold would yield £300 – which, astonishingly, would pay the rent for a family there (which averages 500 rupees – not much more than £5 – a month) for five years.

So if you needed an incentive to decide to take that extra case, or to buy prize winning organic wine from us, rather than boost the supermarkets’ profits………….

india-2          india-3          india-4

Appellation Sainte-Foy Bordeaux

We have always been pleased and proud to be part of the Sainte Foy Bordeaux appellation – a couple of rungs up the ladder from generic Bordeaux in quality (and price) terms.  The problem has been, as Sainte Foy is such a small appellation, with only around 20,000 hectolitres of wine produced (there’s around 2.5m in Bordeaux overall) and 35 or so producers, we never had the size nor money required to effectively compete for recognition in the marketplace.  Now, however, after about 3 years of work, we are officially part of the family of ‘Cotes de Bordeaux’ which has pulled together the appellations of Cadillac, Castillon, Francs, Blaye and now Sainte-Foy into one sizeable, efficient and quality minded appellation with around 1,000 producers, about 15% of Bordeaux.



This is great news, and opens more doors for us.  The rules have been tightened too, meaning better quality overall, but a bit of work (and, as ever, investment) on our side.  Keep an eye out for this family of appellations under the Cotes de Bordeaux umbrella – it is where the real value is going to be found in Bordeaux, between the more basic generic Bordeaux and fine (but expensive) high end appellations.

2016 Harvest

A bountiful harvest

In Bordeaux, 2016 has been a year of quantity and quality. We finally finished picking Friday 21st October – almost the latest ever (we somehow stretched it to the 30th October in the difficult 2008 vintage). The late harvest this year was not actually due to a difficult year, more an idiosyncratic one, as reported in our previous newsletter. As a result, we did need an Indian summer to get the optimum ripeness, and indeed the weather was as warm and benign as could be, right through the harvest period, and also during the early part of winemaking, which helps when wine is fermenting in outdoor tanks, benefiting from the warm, but not too hot, temperatures.


Harvest dates – we picked the whites on 17th September, a few days later than the 10-year average, but the reds needed longer; Merlot was 6th October (two weeks later than average), Cabernet Franc the same day (about a week), and the Cabernet Sauvignon, as said, 21st October (10 days or so later than normal).

As I write, the heavy work in the chai has calmed down, as all the reds have finished their malolactic fermentations, and all wines are run off their lees and stable, ready for the next major action which will be after Christmas when we get the white and rosé ready for bottling, and blend the reds.

One noteworthy change this year – no sulphur was added at harvest time, which should reduce still further the total quantity in our wines. Typically, sulphur is added three times; at harvest, stabilisation, and bottling. We have now cut the first one out altogether. Our wines were already quite low in terms of sulphur content, well within the organic certification rules, but we want to reduce its use as much as possible (whilst maintaining, crucially, the stability of the wine in bottle). Relying more on natural processes and less on additives as time goes on is an essential part of what we do here at Chollet, however it takes time to develop the techniques and experience.

Quantity and quality – the importance of the right yield

We have mentioned before the importance of a good yield when aiming for quality – which we would define as good, ripe fruit with depth of flavour – meaning about 1 bottle of wine per vine, more or less. That equates to a pretty low yield, compared to the maximum permitted, hence the truism that ‘low yield is good for quality’. However, even with that approach, yields on a larger scale can vary a lot, depending on various things, including the percentage of the vines performing at their optimum level, how many are missing/diseased, and how densely they are planted. To illustrate, imagine one hectare (10,000 sq metres) of vines, planted at 3,000 vines/hectare. That would make about 3,000 bottles of wine, assuming all are in good condition. Take out 20% poor or missing vines, you have 2,400 bottles from that same area. Same yield per vine, same quality, but less yield per hectare.  Now, if the same hectare was planted with 5,000 vines, all in good condition, you can make 5,000 good bottles from that area. Much better. Beyond that, the 1 bottle/vine ratio falls down a bit – but the point is, a well planted and maintained hectare with good soil can make more wine of the same (or better) quality than a poorly planted and maintained one.  Also, the cost of maintaining that one hectare is about the same in each scenario. The commercial arguments are obvious, although there is more technical work in a densely planted vineyard, whereas less dense means bigger machines can access the vines, increasing speed.

 Here at Chollet, we have been working hard to achieve a better yield, through improving soil quality, replanting poorer sections of the vineyard, and simply keeping up with the work, although of course the weather plays a huge part year on year. Looking over a longer term, the graphic below shows how our average yield per hectare has changed since we started 10 years ago.

Our previous example of a well-maintained hectare planted with 5,000 vines producing 1 bottle per vine equals a yield of 37.5 hectolitres per hectare (shortened to hl/ha, and equivalent to litres of wine per 100 sq metres of area. This is how it is measured in France – another way of thinking about it is weight of grapes per acre, 37.5hl/ha equates to around 2.8 tons per acre).

See below how at Chollet we have gone from approx. 25 – 35 hl/ha over the 10 years, with a dip in the (very) poor weather years of 2012 and 2013.


Below is a quick illustration of yield (ie, amount of wine) from a given area of vineyard – from the left, if it were planted at 3,000 vines per hectare, not in great nick; 3,000 vines well maintained, and 5,000 well maintained. More wine, same quality, less relative cost. Only problem is, in order to achieve the magic 5,000 per hectare, there’s always a cost, up to about 15,000 Euros per hectare if all the vines need replacing. Once up and running, though, we can look forward to our happy right hand barrel – nice and full.


One more item regarding yield – if low yields are good, high yields can be bad for quality. For this reason, maximum yields are restricted, with variations between appellations. This table shows a comparison of yields versus maximum permitted – for example, in our appellation of Sainte Foy Cotes de Bordeaux, red is restricted to 52hl/ha (around 7,000 bottles), but for organic growers that is not achievable. Our aim is for between 35 and 40hl/ha. Some other examples are; St Emilion Grand Cru is capped at 50 hl/ha, champagne is 65hl/ha, Alsace around 80hl/ha, on the other hand Chateauneuf-du-pape is restricted to 35hl/ha.


Down at the Vineyard – winter jobs

We’ve had a good autumn here, nice and warm through September, turning chiller in the mornings and evenings in October, but mild and dry into November, all of which helped the harvest and wine making.  It has also given us some wonderful colours out in the vines and in the garden as you can see below.

img_1141      img_1138     img_1168

We’ve made a start on our winter jobs, in the photos below you can see we have already started on the weeding.  Being organic, weeding is a critical but time consuming job and it is necessary to get the timing right.  At this time of year we heap the the soil up beneath the vines, using the plough tine attached to the side of the tractor, when the weeds grow through in the spring, we use a blade which takes away the heap of soil and after that, when the ground is too hard we use a brush to remove any remaining weeds.

 turning-soil-up       plough-tine

Other winter jobs which need to be done as a matter of urgency are the ploughing, this decompacts the soil and breaks up any surface roots.  Another job is the fertilising and last year we also put down a cover crop of barley and broad beans which helped get the vines in tip top condition which in turn helped us get good quality and good yields this year.  Cover cropping with broad beans helps to fix nitrogen in the roots and the barley helps with soil structure.  Ideally this will be planted out before the first frosts.

The other big winter job is the pruning, we like to wait until after the first hard frost before starting so that the sap has retreated into the roots which helps to protect from any potential infection in the pruning wound.  After pruning we pull the pruned wood off of the wires, then there is the the removing and replacing broken posts and wires, the wires also need tightening, then we need to attach the new cane to the wire.

In other words, plenty to keep us busy!!

A Sparkling Winter Mix

Back again by popular demand is our Sparkling Winter Mix Case and again it includes 2 bottles of the fabulous Herbert Hall Brut, English sparkling wine.

Herbert Hall is a ‘Traditional Method’ (as champagne is made) sparkling wine. It is made from low-yield chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grown organically at the Marden Vineyard in Kent.

On release Herbert Hall was described by the leading wine writer Matthew Jukes as “the finest debut English Sparkling Wine I have ever tasted“.

Herbert Hall Brut is a Chardonnay dominated blend. It is pale straw in colour and has a light floral nose with the slightest hint of autolytic (creamy) character. On the palate it shows great intensity of pure fruit.

Also included in the Sparkling Winter Mix Case, are 4 bottles of our award winning 2011 Cuvee Prestige, 3 bottles of our neignhours winning 2014 Sablonnet and 3 bottles of our 2014 Blanc Sec Exceptionnel.

This combination of wines is designed to cover all your Christmas needs, and we can recommend the following wine / food matching combinations.  Sparkling wines always work very nicely as an aperitif, and in France they are often drunk as a digestif as well.  Our Prestige will be perfect with your Christmas turkey and all the trimmings, the Sablonnet will be wonderful for boxing day cold meats and curries, and the Blanc Sec  Exceptionnel will be great with starters and any fish, and in particular those difficult  creamy dishes.