Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mechanical Harvesting, Up Close

Day 3 of my Bordeaux adventure was both exhilarating and exhausting. I'm getting to relish the scenery, the lessons, the people, the culture and the tastings, though I don't know that I could live here, at least not in one of those rambling and turreted 14th-century chateaux that punctuate ridgetops with mystery and drama. They are handsome and romantic, but the interiors are harder and darker than I would have guessed, and the bulk of their rooms fairly overshadow the furnishings and art that dress them up, no matter how grand the pieces. If airlines soon slap a surtax on passengers for the extra pounds that visitors pack on during their stay in France, however, I may have to rent a room in one until I resume my workouts and shed some weight.

Merlot harvest under way at Chateau Couronneau

Monday, I posted an item here quoting a local vintner to the effect that about 85 percent of the grapes grown in Bordeaux are harvested by machine. I was a bit skeptical, but other growers and winemakers have concurred with that estimate. And today I got an up-close look at the efficiency, cleanliness and speed with which a mechanical harvester can sweep through a vineyard. This was at Chateau Couronneau, site of a 15th-century castle where Christophe and Benedicte Piat tend about 40 hectares of organically grown grapes, mostly merlot. Against this noble backdrop - the drawbridge is gone, but the moat remains, though now dry - a big high-riding harvester sped down one row and up another, somehow shaking trellis wires and vines just enough to release only ripe grapes, leaving behind fruit still green or so mature the berries were wrinkled. When I stuck my head into the wagon where the grapes were unloaded, few berries were broken. And this was at 6 p.m., not the 6 a.m. when hand harvesting often is well under way in California's vineyards. Granted, it was still a relatively cool 18-degrees Celsius at that time, but Christophe Piat indicated that the harvest machines are so quick and so good at getting the fruit to the winery unblemished that picking can occur most anytime during the day. Though the harvest is picking up throughout Bordeaux, I have yet to see a single crew hand harvesting grapes.

Julia Gazaniol and the vineyards of Chateau Parenchere
Over at nearby Chateau Parenchere, meanwhile, the easternmost estate in the Bordeaux appellation, Julia Gazaniol, granddaughter of the estate's founder, Raphael Gazaniol, waxed enthusiastically about how much she enjoys selling the winery's wines in the United States. Though her father Jean Gazaniol sold the property to Swedish oilman Per Landin in 2005 so he could pursue his interest in cultivating truffles, she stayed on as the brand's export manager. Belgium and Germany are the estate's principal export markets, but she travels to the U.S. two or three times a year to secure outlets, and has had success in California, Florida, Texas and elsewhere. She also put in a semester at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to polish her business credentials. In promoting Chateau Parenchere wines in the U.S., she has found Americans refreshingly open to judging their buying decisions on what they find in the glass, not on the label. The French, in contrast, are so hung up on the country's appellation system and traditional ranking of chateaux that they tend to base their purchasing decisions on standing rather than flavor, said Julia Gazaniol. "They don't trust their taste," she remarked. Americans, on the other hand, aren't as concerned about whether an estate is a classified growth. "They taste a wine, then decide whether they like it or not," she added.

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