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