Despite the return of Game of Thrones (thank you internet!), the big topic of conversation on this side of the ocean is whether or not the grapevines are going to make it to summer. Ok, ok it’s early days, and I have no intention of being overly sensationalist, but the weather has been quite challenging already for a few key regions. With a really warm first quarter, most wine regions were starting to see buds in March. Unfortunately, this was followed by a frost this past month, so vineyards all over Europe (notably, the Loire Valley, Champagne, Chablis, even Switzerland and England) were either surprised or had to take extreme measures to protect the vines. Fortunately neither Bordeaux nor Alsace have been affected by the frost (so far).

This scene from Graubünden, Switzerland could be either beautiful or terrifying (the latter especially if you are anywhere near Fort Mac...hang in there guys!). Frost candle up close and far away on the hills of the Rhine Valley in Switzerland. Frost damaged vines - more buds will grow but all buds must die eventually, I suppose.

This scene from Graubünden, Switzerland could be either beautiful or terrifying (the latter especially if you are anywhere near Fort McMurray in Alberta, where wildfires are burning out of control). Frost candle up close and far away on the hills of the Rhine Valley in Switzerland. Frost damaged vines – more buds will grow later but all buds must die. …eventually, I suppose. I can hear this thought bubbling up, so I’ll head it off at the pass: this isn’t going to be ice wine… that is made when the grapes freeze after ripening, not before.

While the trunks of the vines are resilient enough to withstand (most) winter temperatures, the new shoots and buds will die at the freezing mark. The vine can still grow more buds and shoots after the weather warms up again, but it means a later start to the fruit cycle, and a risk that the grapes won’t ripen in time for harvest, and before winter comes. Frost on the ground means the air up to ~2 metres above ground is below 0, while the air beyond is warmer. So anything the vineyards can do to warm up or even just move that cold air, will help the vines. That’s why you’ll see anything from candles on the ground to giant windmills (slowly) blowing away the cold air.

That strip of soil in the grass was one of a series of soil samples we took and analyzed back in March. We'll have to go back in a couple of weeks for one more check. (Is the soil still there? Check!)

That strip of sand in the grass was one of a series of soil samples we analyzed back in March. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks for one more check. (Is the soil still there? Check!)

And then some days you find yourself listening to Barry White on repeat, while trying to make heads or tails or technical scribblings in photocopied French notebooks. (If I feel I am currently making heads AND tails of this…should I interpret that as more or less productive?) That’s right, it’s audit season (still? again?). We’ve finished analysing the cost accounting, and have now moved on to both financial auditing as well as technical auditing.

The technical audit is a big one: it’s complex and it involves a wine estate that has changed hands twice in the last ten years, from French to Dutch to Chinese ownership. So perspectives on data gathering and interpretation have evolved a little with the changing of the guard, yet it realistically reflects the kind of situation we might be in later on, trying to buy a wine estate in a different country. Suffice it to say that I am regularly thanking the powers that be for having put me through my paces with Microsoft Excel. I have never thought of myself as an analytical person, but after a few years of dealing with mountains of data and figuring out how to convert it into something intelligent I can read without wanting to fall asleep, this kind of thing doesn’t make me nervous any more. (You know, aside from the fact that three weeks from now I’ll have to stand up in front of my stakeholders and tell them how to make better wine… that’s a little nervewracking! Maybe if I make a really pretty powerpoint with lots of graphs they won’t notice I don’t know what I’m talking about… )

Distraction shows up in the form of an absurdly early morning visit to the wine co-operative in Rauzan (very close to St Emilion). This is the biggest wine co-operative in Bordeaux, though nowhere close to the biggest in France. You’d never guess it was a winery from the photos – it could be a dairy co-operative, the tanks are so massive! This one is quite interesting – the director shows us how they sort grapes for aromatic potential (whether a Sauvignon Blanc grape smells more vegetal like asparagus, or more citrus, or more floral) as well as quality, which is how they are able to make very specific wines. Though you only hear of the Grand Crus of Bordeaux, most estates actually sell wine in bulk to the négoce, or wine merchant, who in turn blends and bottles the wine with his or her own label on it. The co-operative still sells wine in bulk to the merchant, but because there are so many smaller estates sharing grapes, together they gain selling power while still being able to offer the wine merchants exactly what they want. Sorting for aromatic potential is very avant-garde for the co-operative; there’s still a lot of research being done in this area (particularly on how to improve it), and at least one of my classmates will be researching it this summer during the stage.

Big trucks, big outdoor tanks, big fermenting vats , and barrels as far as the eye can see.

You know you’re at a wine co-op when you are surrounded by big trucks, big outdoor tanks, big fermenting vats, and barrels as far as the eye can see.

Most of our class time is spent meeting with various professors being ‘coached’ through our audit work. Some of the financial information is in French, and the accounting is not the same as American or British accounting, so it’s easy to get tripped up. Fortunately we catch a break – the next French vacation day rears its head – the Ascension is a holiday, and happens to coincide with Cinco de Mayo. So we hide the books for a few days and head outdoors to forget about school for a bit. (The tequila helps…)

Like French accounting, this visual might also seem daunting at first: it is describing the international bulk wine market and who consumes what. Both vintage stores and local poseur action is strong over the long weekend. Van Gogh-esque terrace dining can be found on most streets in the old city. And our own terrace dining to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

Like French accounting, this visual might also seem daunting at first: it is describing the international bulk wine market and who consumes what. Both vintage stores and local poseur action is strong over the long weekend. Van Gogh-esque terrace dining can be found on most streets in the old city. And our own terrace dining to celebrate Cinco de Mayo (photo credit to Jarad).

Cinco de Mayo and the Mexicans well celebrated, it’s time to turn to the Finns for the weekend. Our friends at Château Carsin are putting on a classical concert in a nearby monastery. The musical heritage is through my classmate’s grandfather, the famous Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund, and is maintained strongly today (the logo of the château is the scroll of a violin). This particular performance is by Finnish musicians, traveling in from Finland to share their artistry and in return experience a little of the artistry of Bordeaux. After the focus on the scientific side of the wine making equation with our recent audits, it’s very good to be reminded of the artistic side.

Habits area clearly forming - we discuss pruning decisions and phenological stages of nearby vines. Stealing an opportunity to check out the landscape (rolling hills an unusual sight in Bordeaux, not to mention wild fennel always a treat.) The concert takes place at the Monast`ere de Broussey, followed by a wine tasting.

Habits are clearly forming – first, we discuss pruning decisions and phenological stages of nearby vines (baby grapes! not a technical team…) before stealing an opportunity to check out the landscape (rolling hills an unusual sight in Bordeaux, not to mention the wild fennel at the bottom is always a treat.) The concert takes place at the Monastère de Broussey, followed by a wine tasting care of our Finnish friends at Château Carsin.

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