If the picking in the vineyard is exciting, the vat-room side of the harvest offers the first glimpses on the future wines : after a few days, there's an atmosphere in the chai which is palpable, with all these yeasts gathering steam and communicating with each other. It's not usually the best time to drop in a winery unanounced, everyone is pretty busy and nervous, there's no time for dilettante chatting on the magic of wines. Thanks to Philippe Pacalet and Monica I could have a feel of the thrill. When I see the vat room crowded with vats, open fermenters, pumps and other tools, I wonder how Philippe was coping a few years ago before he found this facility in downtown Beaune. In the early years of his winery, he not only didn't own vineyards (he still doesn't) but he didn't even have a place of his and relied on subletting cellars and chais here and there (3 or 4 at a time if I remember), which means he had to commute with the wine. Since he took root in this former négoce house, he's less a gipsy in the aristocratic world of Burgundy family wineries, and he gained a better work environment.
As lead picture for this story, I could have chosen one of these side pictures right away : If there's a shared obsession in many wineries at this time of the winemaking process, it's hygiene. You keep washing things all the time then, and particularly your feet (like Philippe Pacalet does on the right) when you're just back from checking the harvest. On the picture on left, Hortense is hosing buckets and a vacuum cleaner. Hygiene is lesson #1 in non-interventionist winemaking, because unlike conventional wines where sulfur is repeated hammered on the incoming grapes, the juice and the nascent wine, here the juices/wine is more or less left by itself, and with a strict hygiene you reduce the chance that something gets wrong.
Note that there are only two remaining facilities in downtown Beaune, Pacalet's and the one of Fanny Sabre, all the other having migrated on the outskirts or in the villages of the Côte.
I spotted a small oval foudre in the buffer room between the chai and the whites cask room, it seemed to have landed here recently and it is obviously the new toy of Philippe. It was lended to him by Marc Grenier (the cooper based east of Beaune) and he plans to make tries with it, to see how it behaves on the wine. The foudre has a volume of 10 hectoliters and it offers many features with a large opening at the top and separate stainless-steel taps for the wine and the lees (the latter being at the bottom level while the former a bit above the supposed lees). Philippe has filled the small foudre with water (sulfured water) and tastes it from time to time to check the wood imprint evolution. I understand that he already changed the water and there's now less oaky taste. The first time, he says, the tannins were obvious when you tasted the water, but now they're gone. He will put some Chablis inside to see what it yields with the wine. This oval foudre is a gem of a vat, and I understand he's excited at the prospect of using it. With the equivalent volume of roughly 2 demi-muids, it should be soft on wood for the wines, especially after a couple of years. Monica arrives as we're around the foudre and she says with a laugh that while he usually never speaks about his vats, he now can't stop asking people if they've seen his new foudre...
On the picture on right if I remember correctly, Hortense was doing some débourgage work, pumping gross lees away from a vat.
Monica shows me around, including in the surface cask-room opposite from the chai, where the Chardonnay is fermenting. She listens here and there as Hortense pointed us to a couple of casks where the wild yeasts have begun their work, there's indeed the familiar fermentation song here... Later, if I remember, these casks will be stored in the underground cask cellars but the yeast/ambiance and room temperature here on the surface are more fit for this early stage of the fermentation. There's a large open room separating the vat room for the reds from this white cask-room so that there isn't any interference between the two wild yeast atmospheres.
These grapes will be pressed in a few minutes but first, he or Mickaël must note the weight of the load, so that all this data can be later provided to the French Customs, the authority in charge of everything alcohol in France. By being told the weight of each batch, the administration will know approximatively the volume of the cuvées, I guess. They position the crate load on the winery scale a,d Hortense will note the data, the gross weight and the final weight minus the tare weight. I din't pay attention here for the whites but later on the reds I noticed that the loads were always making more or less 380/385 kg, crates included (15 of them) which Hortense said was making 340 kg of net weight for the grapes. This means that Marine the other day was running up the slope with a 25-kg load....
There's no sorting table here, all the sorting has been don cluster per cluster between the rows, and when I was walking along the rows I often came across a picker who was foraging through sometimes very small cluster with their shears to put down the undesired grapes. The press was already clean when the white load arrived and Philippe had just to put everything in the proper position.
The pressing will take a few hours, it's not a pneumatical press, just an old-style horizontal one, which Philippe or another chai worker alternatively switches on and off. From what I understand they press gently at a one-kilogram pressure, then they switch it off, backtrack a bit, leaving the juice drop by itself and then after a few minutes they switch it on again. They do that repeatedly along a few hours, and it seemed to me from what I witnessed that the press spent more time on the "off" position than on the "on", but the juice was somehow flowing more generously when on "off", hard to understand for a non-initiate like me... Philippe says that the pressing will last 8 to 9 hours. After all these crates have been emptied into the press, there's more hosing and cleaning so that oxidized juice doesn't spoil the atmosphere, and Hortense gets busy again. Hortense came from Paris to help Philippe during these harvest days, otherwise she works in a wine shop near Chatelet, named Crus. She followed an enology training in Montpellier if I remember and she still doesn't know if this wine-shop is temporary, if she'll come back to the winemaking front. You can see her on this Crus blog post about a recent tasting of Bordeaux wines at the wine shop. Here is the Crus blog.
Mickaël is a permanent staff at Pacalet.
The company on the other side of the street is Taransaud, the cooperage, at least it's one of their facility. This is a saturday and the whole street is quiet but on week days this side street of Beaune can be busy on harvest days. The good thing is that the Pacalet facility has this deep access on the street where they can move freely without bothering about the traffic.
There will be again for a change much hosing to do with all these crates and this cleaning thing, along with Marine's performance at carrying crates in the vineyard, reminds me of the delightful Xtranormal movie "Sommelier starts a winery") when this character (a sommelier planning to leave his New-York job to become a winemaker in Walla Walla) says that making wine is 49 % cleaning shit, 49 % moving heavy shit around and 2 % drinking beer (watch it again, it's lots of fun)...
Thanks to the forklift (pictured on right), filling the fermenter is made more easy, even if each batch of 15 crates makes about 380 kg to handle (and you need several of them here). I understand why they chose Romain for the job (but I'm sure Marine would have done it easily though).
It's all whole clusters here and as the grapes are in good shape, the only bleeding should come from the bottom layers lightly crushing under the weight of the load. Mickaël uses the plastic fork to sometimes distribute the grapes evenly in the fermenter.
The plastic pallets are very convenient when you think about it. I guess they're now found in most wineries, they have the advantage of being easy to wash, of being light and of not harboring potential nefacious germs that could disrupt the fermentation process.
After this old ritual that no machine may replace as efficiently, Romain walks down the ladder and will take another shower (picture on right).
I peered under the plastic sheet covering the fermenter next to the small vat where Romain did his pigeage, and the grapes there (pic on left) were fully intact, they hadn't been touched by any cap punching or pigeage and were in the midst of their carbonic maceration. I asked where they were from but I didn't take note immediately and I forgot the name of the parcel. However, you can see here by clicking on the picture how intact these clustered grapes are, which makes a big difference to conduct this type of vinification.
We had also a red : Beaune 1er Cru les Perrières 2010, not a good year, Philippe jokes. How many times did we hear this "good year", "bad year" thing when speaking to people with some interest in wines. The worse is around the Foire aux Vins (the mass wine sales in the French supermarkets), when the supermarkets try to make gullible customers believe they're in for a bargain. Speaking of the best years, we'll try to follow Art Buchwald's advice which he made long ago : "Always carry a vintage chart with you. If you're not sure of the best wine years, take the wine card to the washroom [of the restaurant] and check it against your vintage chart".
Finally, thanks to Monica and the kids, I tasted the freshly-pressed juice of the Chassagne-Montrachet (jus de raisin in French), also a delicious treat and a luxury indeed. The video will fit in the serie "teach real wine to your children".