What is Burgundy wine?
After spending a week in one of the most famous wine regions in the world, I learnt that Burgundy wine is not just about the juice; it's also about the people. So let's dive glass first into the adverture of Montagny Harvest 2019!
"But that's just the start of the rabbit hole..."
First off, what is Burgundy?
Or more like, where is Burgundy? Burgundy is a wine region located in central France that runs from the town of Dijon due south to the town of Mâcon (go on, go Google where it is!). It is made up of four main regions being Cote De Nuits, Cote De Beaune, Cote Chalonnaise and Maconnais; it is then further split into smaller regions called appellations, which take time to memorise for their individual wine styles!
Cote De Nuits is famous for its red wines, all of which have to be Pinot Noir. In contrast, Cote De Beaune generally speaking focuses on producing world class white wines from the Chardonnay grape. Cote Chalonnaise and Maconnais produce both red and white wines depending on the vineyard site (soils, aspect, altitude), again only from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay (there are a couple of exceptions to the rule of course, us wine folk don't want to make it too easy).
But that's just the start of the rabbit hole.
Many wine enthusiasts and professionals spend a lifetime enchanted by Burgundy and the wines produced there, from the more simple Bourgogne Blanc/Rouge through to the uber-premium and sophisticated Premier (1er) and Grand Crus.
Now that we have covered the simple answer, let me explain to you that it is so much more than a wine...
I've always been intrigued as to how wine was made, from reading about it in books to watching the process on television and listening to winemakers talk about their trade; but it never really sunk in. I mean, of course, I can explain to you how wine is made, the steps, the processes but I would have missed nuggets of information about how wine is ACTUALLY made.
So this is my story of the 2019 Burgundy harvest at a small family run winery called Domaine de Moirots.
After a late night boat from Jersey to St Malo, I jumped on the train down to Paris and then from Paris it was a quick 1h20 TGV train journey to a station called Le Creusot (near Chalon-sur-Saône).
I was greeted by a smiling Muriel, my host for the week, standing in front of her beloved brown VW mkII Golf. Muriel Denizot is known to our own Will here at Love Wine as he has also been hosted by Muriel (and Alan, her partner) when he spent three weeks down in Burgundy for a harvest several years ago. And like Will, I spoke barely any french so Muriel would also be my translator for the week (not that it mattered because I did not speak in the Burgundian dialect). Muriel was responsible for the marketing and tourism side of the Domaine, providing English speaking guests with an insight into the winery, their wines and also travelling around the world to promote Domaine des Moirots.
After a brief tour of the winery (as I would later get to know this place like the back of my hand), I was quickly embraced by Muriel and Alan as one of their own by having dinner with them at their home. We shared good food, good wine (Chateau Lucas, Saint-Emilion, 2009) and good conversation before I slunked up to bed for a good night's sleep.
At 6.16am, I was ever-so-rudely awakened by a number of roosters that couped relatively close to the house. After the initial f-ing and blinding in my head due to the early hour, the secondary thought was one of excitement and intrepidation; it was time to wake up and start the harvest.
After kicking my body into a low gear, I stumbled half dazed from Muriel's house over the road to the winery's main house where breakfast was being served. For 6.30am, the place was buzzing. Around 20 people were packed into the main house's basement garage, everyone was greeting each other in typical french fashion, a kiss on each cheek and a Burgundian version of "cava?". A bowl of coffee (yes, a bowl) and a piece of French bread were thrust upon me and I was pointed toward the butter (of course, I was in France afterall) and apricot confit. This was going to become my staple breakfast for the next six days.
Then I saw him. In all his grace, Lulu. Lucien Denizot (or Lulu as I was told) was the Chef, the Patron, the boss. Lucien used to be the winemaker here at Domaine de Moirots before his son, Christophe, took over in the 90s. For 78, he was full of energy with a grin from ear to ear, greeting everyone with a kiss or a hand shake or both!
Shortly after being introduced to Lulu (which involved a lot of nodding, oui and d'accord), I was muscled into an old Renault van which must have been from the 70s, had no windows and was full of other workers that I had never met before. After a 10 minute drive of mostly silence, a resounding thud of the suspension bottoming out signified that we had arrived at a vineyard and were now making our way over to (what I later found out was) the Aligoté vines to make the base wine for the Cremant de Bourgogne (sparkling wine).
As the back doors flung open, I was greeted with a completely unexpected view. Not one of muddy fields and overgrown shrubbery but one of pure beauty.
Everyone piled out of the vans and towards the vines where buckets and shears were waiting for us.
I was a bit apprehensive at first, not really knowing what I should be doing but with a few words of wisdom from my new French friend, Damien, I was off! Shooting down the vine row, snipping bunches and ripping foliage away from the fruit.
The idea here is to move along each row of vines and remove as much fruit as possible whilst leaving as much vine as you could, so you needed to clip close to the top of each bunch of grapes. As long as the grapes were ripe and not rotting or sunburnt (think really small, hard raisins), it went into the bucket. It is a challenge because most of the fruit it as knee height, so you are bending over or squatting the whole time, whilst moving forward. For these vines, there was a fair amount of foliage/leaves covering the fruit to protect them from the sun, so in order to reach the fruit you had to pull away some of the leaves. It may seem easy, but vines have a tendancy to grow sideways and up, creating latices of tendrils with fruit intertwined. Anyway, back to the action...
I was like an energised hare straight out the gate whilst everyone else was meandering along, chatting and joking (in French) like tortoises... Can you see where this is going?
By the third row of vines, I was ruined. My back hurt, my knees were in pain and this was only a couple of hours in! Yet everyone else, who ranged from 30 to 60 years old were all fine and dandy... I couldn't believe it. The worst was yet to come.
But first, wine! We had been working for just over a couple of hours, so it was time for a break and what a break it was. We broke out our packed sandwiches, coffee, water and [wait for it] Aligoté! Wine at 10am, I think so! Remembering some words of widsom from my colleague who had been here several years ago - "go easy on the Aligoté, you have the rest of the day ahead of you".
The wine provided some much need lubrication for my joints and soul to carry on clipping.
Remember when I said, the worst was still to come? Not five minutes after re-starting with the harvest, I snipped my thumb. Blood. Was. Everywhere. All over my hands, on my clothes, on the grapes... I had to stop and plaster up. Once I had seen to myself, I was back on tra... I cut myself again. Alex, you fool. Although, this was the last blood-drawing injury that I sustained during my time in Montagny, it made the rest of the working week that tiny bit more painful whenever the grape juice entered the open wounds.
"the first day of hard, honest work that I had ever done"
After a further six grueling hours (with wine and cheese in between), it was time to stop for the day. Battered, bruised, cut, scraped, I was covered in dirt, I was having back spasms and knee pain. It was safe to say I was mentally exhausted and dehydrated. However, all of this made that first sip of Cremant back at the winery taste so much better.
I can hold my hands up and safely say that I am lazy and not cut out for honest, hard work. Credit goes to the 39 other grape pickers that I had the pleasure of working with who went through this everyday for 11 days straight with no weekends or time off.
Although I had learnt how grapes/vines grow and what goes into actually harvesting fruit, I was glad it was over as for the next 5 days I would be based in the winery.
After a shower and longer than expect nap, it was time for dinner back at the winery with the Denizot family where we feasted on salad, roasted veg, sausages and [of course] cheese. Whilst the others at the table chatted about the start of the harvest, I quietly dozed off in my chair, shattered from the first day of hard work that I had ever done, later to be woken by a shoulder shake from Muriel signifying that it was finally time for bed.
DAYS 2, 3 and 4
This day started the same as previous (roosters included), only this time I didn't have to get out of bed until 7am. Apparently working in the winery has its perks of a later start.
I dragged my beaten body across the road to the winery for breakfast with Muriel, Lulu and her sister Marie, and upon preparation of my morning sandwich plus bowl of coffee, I fell mercy to a soul-shattering slap to my upper back. I had been greeted by the myth that was Hervé.
Will had previously mentioned Hervé to me. It was Hervé that looked after the winery and wine production whilst Christophe was out with the pickers, picking grapes and driving the tractors to and from the winery, so Hervé would be my new Chef. Towering over me at 6ft4, Hervé delivered that warm welcome which was quickly followed by a cheshire cat smile, a simple 'allo' and a small glass of Aligoté as a peace offering.
I couldn't be angry at someone who had the audacity and confidence to deliver such a morning greeting. So I took the wine, threw it back and returned the favour of a 'friendly' back-slap.
Then there was silence.
Had I crossed the line of this close-nit family?
Lucien started to snigger and erupted with laughter, Marie starting clapping in agreement and Hervé's grin became even bigger. I had been accepted.
In the days to come, I was very fortunate that Hervé also spoke very good English as it would become invaluable in undestanding orders, commands and questions in relation to work in the winery.
With petit dejuner over, it was time to get to work. We headed up to the winery and through the main door. In front of me were two relatively large grape presses, which were to be used in a tag-team to process the Aligoté and Pinot Noir grapes for the Cremant.
The reason for starting slightly later than the pickers was to give them time to pick the first load of grapes and bring them back to the winery, so that we weren't stood around like cheese at nine pence waiting for the fruit to arrive.
The rumble of a diesel engine signified that the grapes were on their way up the dirt road to the winery entrance. It was all hands on deck, but where were all the workers? Was I going to have to unload all c.100 25kg boxes of grapes into the press myself?
Once Christophe had parked up the tractor and trailer, I was there. Like a dog to a butcher, waiting to help unload the crates of grapes.
But alas, I was pushed away like a scrounging puppy and sentenced to sorting the grapes. I watched in awe, as this Herculean farmer manhandled all 100 boxes himself from the trailer to the sorting conveyor belt without missing a beat or taking a rest.
Meanwhile at the conveyor belt, or as I liked to call it, "the Grapescalator" (grape escalator)...
Once Christophe had emptied each box of grapes into the bottom of the grapescalator, it was my responsibility to remove any MOG (matter other than grapes), which included leaves, branches, stones (unsure of how they made it into the buckets...), twigs and unfit fruit (raisined or rotting). Whilst this may seem easy, you needed to have quick reactions, a keen eye and above all, no fear of insects or bugs because there was a ton. I have never seen so many earwigs in my life. One sensation that I never got used to was that of said insect crawling up my legs and "tickling" my leg hair - it would automatically send shivers up my spine. I also NEVER shrieked in front of the other gyus when this happened each morning...
Once the grapes (and earwigs) had made their way through the press, the juice was pumped into large stainless steel vats to settle the liquid which helped remove MOG that made it pass the first filter.
Over the course of the morning, I watched the team orchestrate a network of pipes through the winery to different vats, barrels and containers. Then it was my turn...
"Voici la sauce, Alex!", I heard belted at me from across the warehouse. I racked my brain to decipher what was being shouted at me... then it struck me as I saw Hervé's hand open the largest vat's tap; I scrambled to connect the last two pipes together as I saw the must (what we call the unfermented grape juice in the business) flowing toward me. With a moment to spare, I locked the pipe and watched as all the dirty, bitty juice flowed away into a waste container. One thing that surprised me was the use of carbon powder in winemaking; the Domaine (and many producers around the world) use carbon powder (best way to describe it is powdered carcoal, harmless to you and me and an element that makes up every single thing in this world) to help remove colour and sediment from red grape juice when making a white wine. It acts as a filter almost; and once the juice has settled in the vats, the heavier particles and sediment which have attached itself to the carbon, float to the bottom of the vats and it is then syphoned off to leave clear, clean must.
The next two days consisted of processing around six loads a day, all hand-balled by Christophe from the trailer to the conveyor belt, all sorted by moi and all pressed by Hervé. In between grape processing we did a bit of cleaning, and when I say a bit of cleaning... hours of it.
Processing one batch of grapes roughly took 30 minutes, so three hours of our day. The remaining five hours were all spent cleaning (and drinking wine). We cleaned the grapescalator, the presses, the floors, Hervé, buckets, vats... you name it, we cleaned it. I may have as well been wearing swimmers and goggles rather than work boots and a cap.
In the evenings, we played petanque with a couple glasses of homemade rum courtesy of Hervé until dinner, where Christophe and Lulu showcased some vintage Pinot Noir and recent Chardonnay from neighbouring Domaines, most of which were friends of the Denizot's.
Yes, you keen eyed-readers will have noticed that I have kind of missed out Days 3 and 4, but these days played out in a very similar manner to Day 2.
Day 5 was a new adventure.
On this day, I entered the winery to a very different set-up. Gone were the presses and in their place was a sorting table that conststed of a vibrator (essentially a vibrating table that allows for small raisined grapes to be shaken off the bunches and fall through small holes) and a conveyor belt where workers would stand alongside and pick out the MOG, followed by a destemming machine (a large-holed cyclindrical tube with plastic rods that pushed grapes through the holes and left the stems behind).
Day 5 was for the Pinot Nior (i.e. the earwig grapes). More importantly the Givry and Givry 1er Cru. With grapes from these smaller, more prestigious areas winemakers want to be sure that only the best fruit makes it through into the wine. This requires extra care to be taken when transporting the grapes from vineyard to winery, sorting them and moving them into the correct vats as soon as possible so that they avoid oxidisation (like when cut apples start to go brown once they've been in contact with the air). Oxidation can cause enjoyable but sometimes unwanted aromas and flavours in wine that can hide or mask the pure fruit and terroir of wines and, in Burgundy, it is all about the terrior.
Aprés was gladly received by the crew and not soon after my second glass of Cremant, Muriel suggested that as I was based in the winery for most of my trip, I should take a tour of the vineyards in Montagny and Givry firsthand. So into the VW Golf mkII we went!
First stop was Givry, where you can see below that even at 6pm in the evening, the vines still receive ample sunlight to aid their phenolic ripening.
After the black Pinot Noirs Grapes of Givry, we trundled along to the Montagny and Montagny 1er vineyards, located on a steep south-east facing hillside, where the soils had changed from a rocky, limestone soil to a softer, sandy soil.
Now remember what I said at the beginning of this story, that there were always exceptions to the rule? Well Cote Chalonnais has that exception. Throughout Burgundy, Chardonnay is really the only white grape that is allowed to be grown, with expception to two appellations; Bouzeron (of which Domaine de Moirots has a small percentage of) and Saone-et-Loire. The grape grown here is Aligoté. It produces a fresh and simple wine, reminiscient of apple, lime and flowers with a lovely refreshing acidity. This was definitely something that I was going to take home for Chris and Will.
The final day.
The last morning of waking up with the roosters.
The penultimate morning in Burgundy, for the next day I would be heading home.
I was sure to make this one count. On this day, we processed the Montagny and Montagny 1er Cru Chardonnay. It was by far the hottest and longest day; Hervé and Christophe had probably planned this to make the little British boy work for his keep, but it did not phase me.
I used this day to recap on what I had learnt through working at the Domaine. I now had an insight into how grapes were grown, how they were trelised, the amount of blood, sweat and [nearly] tears that went into harvesting them. I now understand the process of moving must from location to location within the winery to create space, to ferment and to mature. I can also now understand the French language a lot better than before the trip (with only a few swear words). After a mentally exhausting day of sorting (it felt like doing speed sudoku all day), it was time to relax for a bit and one thing I had realised whilst sipping on my Cremant was that there had been no earwigs crawling up my legs that day. Apparently, earwigs don't like the white grapes and when I asked everyone why, no one knew... But anyway, aprés was a welcome sight and gave me a chance to dry off from all of that water usage.
But most of all, I can begin to comprehend what it is like to work for and/or live with a Burgundian winemaker and his family. The whole trip has resonated with me about how important and enjoyable family life can/should be. Not once (with exception to Google translate), was there a phone at the dinner table with social media pinging off. People from across France conversed with one another as opposed to just being sat in front of a screen all the time. It reminded me of my home when I used to live with my parents.
Now, don't get me wrong - I enjoy being a couch potato every now and then but what I have learnt and what will stay with me forever is how hard working, genuine and hospitable this family and region were to a complete stranger.
Plus their wine is f*@#ing awesome.