Heavenly spheres

One sunny afternoon this week I took my camera and went into the vineyards, to watch the vendanges of my friends Nadia and Cyril of Domaine la Madura.  The vineyard I visited was planted with a variety called Carignan, appreciated for the elegant structure it can bring to a wine and the plants in this vineyard were pruned in goblet fashion (we’re getting very technical here!).

The leaves had already started to change colour a little and the plants were hung thick with beautiful bunches of grapes.

Nadia and Cyril’s harvest is picked entirely by hand; each bunch of grapes is snipped  and then dropped into a small basket, so as not to crush the grapes.

Once the basket is full it is emptied into a crate, carried by one of the porteurs who follows the vendangeurs through the vineyard.

The crates get pretty heavy, and it I’m sure it can’t be an easy job to be doing all day long.  But the atmosphere in he vineyard is relaxed and the pace is not frantic, and the team enjoy a good banter despite the hard work.

There’s always some interesting wildlife to be found in amongst the plants – I’m not sure if this spider would bite, but it was impressive in size with the body about 2cm across!

The full crates get stacked, ready to be transported to the cellar where the transformation of the grapes starts in earnest.

And the taste of those grapes?  Absolutely divine: ripe, juicy, sweet, explosions of concentrated sun as you bite them…heavenly!  I bet they’ll make good wine!


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!