Trading places

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you may remember my mentioning Domaine La Madura every so often.  Over the years, I have become friends with Nadia and Cyril Bourgne, who own the domaine, and I’ve been able to observe the wine-making process at close quarters.  If you type “la madura” in the search box on the blog website, you’ll find quite a few articles which mention the domaine.

Today’s post isn’t as much about wine making as it is about the winery itself.  When Nadia and Cyril first bought the vineyards in 1998, the winery building was part and parcel of the deal.  It was located in Saint-Chinian, on Avenue Raoul Bayou, and it was very typical of a small winery building dating from the early part of the 20th century: two rows of concrete fermentation vats/tanks facing one another, and a kind of attic space above.  Very little room to manoeuvre  and almost completely dark without the lights switched on or the barn doors open.

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For years, Cyril had been dreaming of working in a modern, newly-built winery, where he would be able to have the best possible working conditions for making his wines.  After many months of wrangling with the planning authorities, Nadia and Cyril finally received permission to build a new winery on one of their former vineyards, just outside of Saint-Chinian.

Getting the new winery built was no mean feat – all the services had to be connected, and the smallest detail had to be thought of.  When he wasn’t working in the vineyards, Cyril spent every moment he could spare at the building site, to make sure that everything was going to plan!  The new winery was ready in time for the 2015 vintage!!

Here now, is an overview of the new winery, in all its gleaming glory.  The new building is off the Route de Salabert, and you’ll see this sign on the side of the road:

IMG_3131 Arrive at the winery and you’ll see that everything has been thought of.  There’s even a car park!

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Here’s what you see when you approach the building:

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Of course by the time of your visit, it won’t look like this any more, the landscaping around the building will be much more advanced!  The colour of the wall render was carefully chosen to harmonise with the surroundings.  If you turn away from the building, looking towards the village, you’ll see the most wonderful view:

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There’s another great view from the terrace outside the tasting room:

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Perhaps I’d better tell you a little more about the layout.  There are several parts to the new winery.  There is an office, where Nadia can be found most days, during office hours.  The office is behind those three windows, as you arrive at the winery.  Next to the office is the laboratory, where Cyril analyses samples of wine and grape juice.  From the laboratory a door leads into the winery proper, where the fermentation vats and storage tanks are:

All of the tanks are fitted with sensors and equipment which allows for temperature control during fermentation.  Stainless steel stairs and a walkway give access to the air locks on top of the tanks.  The air locks ensure that the fermentation gases can escape, but no air can enter the tanks.

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There is ample space for storage:

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… and there is lots of light and air – it must be a pleasure to work here!

From the winery a door leads to the storage area.  At long last, all the bottled wine can be stored under one roof.  Before, it had to be stored in several different locations, in Saint-Chinian and Assignan, because of lack of space.

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From the storage area, another door leads into the barrel cellar, where the wine is ageing in oak barrels:

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From the barrel cellar, a glass door allows access to the tasting room.  The tasting room has lots of space, along with a very zen atmosphere!

The views from the large glass windows are wonderful, especially with a few bottles of wine in front:  🙂

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So you’ve seen pretty much everything – all that is left to do is for you to visit the new winery in person!  And taste the wines, of course! 🙂

If you would like to visit Domaine La Madura, please get in touch with Nadia Bourgne ahead of time, either by e-mail or by phone on +33 (0)4 67 38 17 85.

Out with the old…

I’m back on one of my evergreen topics:  wine.  For me that never loses its fascination.  At the moment, every wine grower is starting to get ready for the harvest, preparing their tanks, checking their presses, secateurs and all the other paraphernalia required for bringing in the grapes.  In fact, at this time of year the harvest has usually already started, but this year everything is running behind because of the cooler spring we had.

My friends at Domaine La Madura always have a bottling session or two before the harvest starts, to free up valuable tank space.  Because of the location of their cellar on Avenue Raoul Bayou, they cannot have the mobile bottling plant pull up right outside the door.  So the Mise en bouteille takes place on the river bank opposite to where their cellar is located.  Getting the wine across the river is a bit of an adventure:  Cyril, who owns Domaine La Madura with his wife Nadia, dons his biggest Wellington boots, and marches through the river with two hose pipes.  The larger one for the wine 🙂 and a regular one for drinking water.  Once they are connected to the bottling plant the fun can start – or almost!

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The palettes of empty bottles were delivered the night before, and the capsules, labels, boxes and corks are all ready to go.

As you can see, the mobile bottling plant is in a huge lorry trailer, with all the machinery fitted in ingeniously.  Before the bottling begins in earnest numerous adjustments have to be made, to ensure that every bottle turns out just perfectly filled, corked, capsuled and labelled.  The engineer in charge has a fair amount on his hands!

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But once everything is regulated and calibrated the machines are put to work.  First a pump draws the wine from the cellar across the river and into the plant’s tanks, where it is filtered and dosed with a small quantity of sulfites.  Without sulfites the wine could “turn” very quickly, either during the bottling process or soon after opening, giving it a sour, vinegary taste.

Meanwhile, a palette of empty bottles has been loaded onto the platform on one side of the lorry.  The platform can be raised, as successive layers of bottles are taken off and fed into the machine.  Before you start wondering, no they are not grabbed one by one.  There’s yet another ingenious tool, which grabs a whole row of bottles. The operator then swings it across and deposits the bottles into the machine, where they start their journey.

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IMG_8270And what a journey it is!  First the bottles get washed and dried.

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Then they get filled with wine, exactly 750ml in each bottle!

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Next comes the cork.

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The foil capsule is dropped onto the neck of the bottle

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And tightened on.

PICT0068So now the bottles are ready for their labels.  Domaine La Madura puts two labels on their bottles, one on front, giving the name of the Domaine and wine (classic or grand vin) and the year.  The label on the back of the bottles gives information about the wine such as grape varieties used in the blend.

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In the next step the bottles are boxed up and this is done entirely by swift hands!  The cardboard boxes are delivered flat packed and have to be shaped (but not taped yet).  One layer of bottles is put in, a cardboard separator is laid on top and the next layer of bottles is put in, with the bottles facing the opposite direction to those in the bottom layer.  The nimble hands can probably fill a box in the time it’s taken you to read this paragraph!

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IMG_8313Once the box is full, it is pushed through a contraption which tapes the box shut.

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And off it goes weeeheeeeee 🙂

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to be stacked with all the other boxes on a palette, ready for shipping or storage.

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IMG_8284So there you have it – the journey of the wine from cask to bottle.  I’m sure you will look differently at the next bottle of wine you open!  And in case any of you are wondering about 2011 printed on labels and cases – most wineries don’t bottle their wines as soon as they have finished fermenting, but only once they are ready for bottling.  This can mean a year or two after the grapes were harvested.  The year on the bottle always indicates the vintage, the year the grapes were harvested and turned into wine.

And just for fun, here are some “arty” shots.

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Let the juice loose…

I spent some more time this week in the vineyards and the wine cellar of Domaine La Madura – and learnt some more about wine!  Cyril Bourgne’s winery is not large but very clean and tidy as you can see from the pictures!

The first time I went to watch some of the work which goes into the vinification process.  Cyril was preparing to mix some of wine in fermentation, drawing must off at the bottom of the tank and pumping it over the “crust” at the top of the tank.  A large basin was set up, a spout attached to the outlet of the tank, a stainless steel filter basket hooked onto that and then the juices started to flow.

A pump had been set up to pump the juice from the basin at ground floor level to the first floor, and a device with a propeller had been attached to the end of the pipe over the top of the tank.  It was great to see the propeller jump into action, spraying beautifully smelling liquid all over the floating grapes.

During the procedure Cyril measured the sugar density and temperature of the must and carefully noted the results.

Once the task was complete and all the equipment carefully rinsed with clean water (same as before starting up!) another job was waiting:  that of pushing the grape skins which had collected into a crust on the top of another tank into the juice and thereby allowing a better extraction of colour and flavours.

Hard work, pushing the stainless steel tool down and pulling it back up again, trying to get into all of the corners of the tank!  While Cyril was working away I managed to snap a quick picture of the barrels used to mature the Grand Vin”.

The following morning I passed by as some grapes came back from the vineyard.  That day the vineyard below the Col de Fontjun was being picked, and the grape variety on that particular parcel of land is called Mourvedre.

The de-stemming machine had been set up just inside the doors, and the van pulled in just far enough so that the crates could be lifted up to the hopper. 

Each crate full of grapes weighs around 40kg so it’s heavy work, even for two people.

As the grapes are slowly tipped into the hopper every bit of leaf is removed, and any bunches which aren’t up to scratch are taken out.

Inside the de-stemmer is a drum with holes and the grapes are pushed through those holes by flexible paddles.  The stems stay behind and leave the drum at the opposite end, whilst the grapes drop into a tub below the machine, from where they are pumped into the tank.

And all of this accompanied by the wonderful smells of ripe grapes!

And they’re off

Earlier this week I was driving along and noticed the car suddenly making a very strange noise, a kind of loud hum, as if the cooling fan was going flat-out.  It disappeared again after a few seconds, but not long after I heard it again.  I started to worry a little.  Then I opened the window and the reason for the noise became clear: sticky grape juice all over the road!  I’d completely blocked out of my mind that the grape harvest had started on Monday in a lot of villages, and of course with the harvest come lots of small tractors all over the countryside, taking the grapes to the wineries.  The machine-harvested grapes get a little more squashed than the manually picked ones, and inevitably some of the juice leaks out on to the road, dribbling as the trailers bounce their way along.  And then the tyres stick to the sugary road and make a very strange noise indeed 🙂

At the cooperative winery in Saint Chinian things are well under way and incredibly well organised.  Weeks before the harvest each vineyard is visited and analyzed, and later on grape samples are taken to check for ripeness and sugar content.  Then the different parcels of land are picked in succession, generally the same kind of grape variety at the same time.  Once the tractors bring the grapes to the cooperative they queue up for the weighbridge, where the grapes are also tested for sugar content.

Then they are sent to the various dropping points.  I am sure that it takes lots of skill to reverse the trailers to exactly where they are supposed to be.

In a great big whoosh the grapes are tipped into the stainless steel container and start their way to becoming wine.

An Archimedes screw takes the grapes up to the de-stemmer, the machine which removes all the stems from the bunches of grapes (and any leaves too).

The grapes then go on to be either pressed or go directly into tanks for fermentation.  It really is a wonderful time to be on holiday in the area; the weather is generally very good, the smell of ripe grapes lingers in the air, and it’s fun to watch all the activity in the villages!  And of course soon the wine fetes will be under way…

This post would (of course) not be complete without a mention of food!!  Last Sunday I was invited to a mechoui at the house of friends near St Chinian.  According to Wikipedia,  “In the cuisine of Northern Africa, Méchoui is a whole sheep or a lamb spit roasted on a barbecue. The word comes from the Arabic word šawa, which means “grilled, roasted”. This dish is very popular in North Africa.”  And it was just that.  A whole lamb (15 kg) which was spit roasted over an open fire for about four hours.  I didn’t know what to expect but the meat was just amazing, tender, juicy and oh so tasty!!  I leave you with a few pictures of the process.  Needless to say I ate far too much; there were aperitifs while we enjoyed the beautiful evening, and then everyone was invited to pick at bits as the roast was carved.  Finally we all sat down and accompanied the choice cuts with couscous, vegetables, roast potatoes (also cooked in the fire) and harissa sauce.  Cheese followed, and then came three desserts, and the whole meal was accompanied by wines from Domaine la Madura.  Life really can’t get much better than an evening spent with good friends sharing great food and wine!