Harvesting the Pinot Gris from the steep slopes of Rangen calls for smaller baskets.

Harvesting Pinot Gris from the steep slopes of Rangen calls for smaller baskets.

It’s been six weeks since my last post, as I’ve been preoccupied with the busy harvest days, and the lead-up to the end of my stage (and therefore my return to Bordeaux). The days pass by in a blur. There’s a rhythm to this faster pace particularly around the end of September, although it is punctuated by slow days when we’re not harvesting due to unreadiness of certain grapes and parcels.

In broad, broad terms, the harvest begins with the grapes in the Pinot family: Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Auxerrois, and even Pinot Noir, the only red grape we have. This is followed by the Muscat, Chardonnay and Riesling, and Gewurztraminer tends to be the last to be ready. I emphasize broad terms because many factors can impact the decision to harvest each varietal: the geography – the plains tend to be harvested before the slopes (the generic wines before the Grand Cru wines), and the soil – the granite tends to ripen earlier, and the volcanic rock later. Additionally, the type of wine desired also impacts the timing decision: grapes for drier wines will come in before grapes for sweeter wines, like the Late Harvest planned for some of our Pinot Gris.

The view from Clos Jebsal; the Pinot Gris up close and personal with the botrytis; a row of Pinot Gris waiting to be harvested for the Late Harvest wine.

The view from Clos Jebsal; something is rotten in the Pinot Gris – thankfully we want the botrytis; this row of Pinot Gris will be collected for the Vendange Tardive, or Late Harvest, after my departure.

As long as the harvest is on, we have a routine to follow each day. The first task is to empty the pressoirs, which have been running overnight. While the grape must is settling in the tanks below the pressoirs, and getting ready to be moved into barrels, it’s our job to clean up. This means removing any lingering skins, seeds and stems, and ensuring the pressoir is clean and ready, inside and out, for the next load of grapes. Once they are clean, we head down into the cellar to check the density of each of the now-fermenting wines. Even though the whole fermentation period can last up to a year, most of the activity takes place during the first few weeks after the harvest. The density measurements give us an idea of how quickly the wine is fermenting, and roughly how much sugar is still present. Proper lab analysis will tell us exact amount of each compound – residual sugar, alcohol content, tartaric and malic acidity – but it’s not necessary to analyze this every day as we have a good understanding of what’s happening inside the barrels.

It's hot in the press! Each morning begins with cleaning the pressoirs, inside and out. The next task is to take samples of each of the fermenting wines and test their density - this tells us how the fermentation is progressing for each wine. Our barrel runneth over! On occasion we need to top up the barrels, but depending on the fermenting activity of the wine in the barrel and the wine being added - in this case, causing the wine to mousse aggressively! The cellar needs to look neat and clean once we're finished with the morning activities and return to the reception area to receive the grapes.

It’s hot in the press! Each morning begins with cleaning the pressoirs, inside and out. The next task is to take samples of each of the fermenting wines and test their density – this tells us how the fermentation is progressing for each wine. Our barrel runneth over! On occasion we need to top up the barrels, but depending on the fermenting activity of the wine in the barrel and the wine being added – in this case, it’s causing the wine to mousse aggressively! The cellar needs to look neat and clean once we’re finished with the morning activities and return to the reception area to receive the grapes.

Once the grapes start coming in, they are allocated to a pressoir, depending on their quality and which wine they’ll go into. This part of the day is incredibly physical – pushing the full botiches around, then cleaning and stacking them once they’ve been emptied. It’s not hard to see why I suddenly find myself with the appetite of a wolf. Or maybe a pack of wolves. (Hold on a sec.. is that meat over there?.  … I’ll just be a minute…)

Pressoirs prepped and ready as the trucks come in with their grape delivery. The big yellow botiche is moved around on a metal hand chariot, this one contains Muscat a grape variety that has is both lighter and darker skin. Not usually found in the same grape, but this one time it is! And with the aid of this botiche elevator, the grapes are moved into the pressoir.

Pressoirs prepped and ready as the trucks come in with their grape delivery. The big yellow botiche is moved around on a metal hand chariot, this one contains Muscat a grape variety that can have both lighter and darker skin… not usually found in the same grape, but this one time it is! And with the aid of this botiche elevator, the grapes are moved into the pressoir.

The harvesting activity slows down for the final two weeks of my stage; with pockets of rain and cool weather, the maturation of the grapes slows down, and it becomes a waiting game for the remaining parcels needing the most time to ripen: the Clos Jebsal Pinot Gris for late harvest, some of the volcanic rock parcels at Thann (Riesling and Gewurztraminer), and the Gewuzrtraminer Grand Cru (Hengst and Goldert).

Autumn view of the Rangen Grand Cru, overlooking the town of Thann. The Riesling is being picked today, and the view of the Chapel giving the name of Clos St Urbain to Zind-Humbrecht's famous wine.

Autumn view of the Rangen Grand Cru, overlooking the town of Thann. This Riesling is being picked on Halloween, and this is the Chapel giving the name of Clos St Urbain to Zind-Humbrecht’s famous wine.

Even though the harvest is on hold, there are many activities requiring our attention out in the vines. We gather samples from the parcels not yet harvested, to help guide the decision on when to harvest. The parcels that have been harvested also need some care in the form of biodynamic preparations. Two important preparations for this time of year are Maria Thun, or biodynamic compost, and 501, a silica recipe that has been interred in a cow horn for 6 months. First, each application needs to be dynamized, or stirred vigourously in water such that a vortex is created. This energizes the preparations, which then need to be sprayed in the vines on the same day for greatest efficacy.

Biodynamic preparations need to be dynamized (energized by stirring in water with the creation of a vortex). Happy Halloween! This bewitching outfit is necessary as the 501 preparation is sprayed overhead. This spray helps the vines prepare for winter, while we take a quick break to look for nuts. The Maria Thun application, however, is sprayed directly onto the ground as it is a biodynamic compost. A run-in with a swarm of Suzuki flies - thank goodness we've already harvested these parcels! And red leaves this bright are only seen on the Pinot Noir vines.

Biodynamic preparations are dynamized before we head out to spray. Happy Halloween! This bewitching outfit is helpful as the 501 preparation is sprayed overhead. This spray helps the vines prepare for winter, while we take a quick break to look for nuts for our own winter preparation. There’s no need for raingear with the Maria Thun application, as this biodynamic compost is sprayed directly onto the ground. A run-in with a swarm of the dreaded Suzuki flies – thank goodness we’ve already harvested these parcels! And red leaves this bright are only seen on the Pinot Noir vines.

As the temperature cools down, the colours are starting to change all around us. Each foray into the vines yields an opportunity to observe this majestic transformation. Though I miss the brilliant reds of maple leaves from Ontario autumns, the golden-vined slopes of Alsace give them a run for their money. (Sometimes it’s a little distracting from the work…)

View from Sommerberg Grand Cru

Working hard (obviously) while admiring the view from Sommerberg Grand Cru, with the village of Niedermorschwihr to the right.

walk-to-nied

And looking the other way early one Saturday morning, with the village of Niedermorschwihr to the left.

On the final day of my stage, I find myself working with the horses, on the Brand parcels above Turckheim. We’re doing the buttage, or light earthing up to cover the base of the vines. After a lovely day in the sun, and some sore arm muscles from manning the plow, my stage is over.

Nikita demonstrates proper form for the buttage; hilling up of earth over the base of each of the vines. Nikita strikes a pose, while Quidonc enjoys his close up (mostly because he knows there are apples in his near future)... but not until after he takes a turn in the vines.

Nikita demonstrates proper form pulling the plow for the buttage; or hilling up of earth over the base of each of the vines. She strikes a pose, while Quidonc enjoys his close up, mostly because he knows there are apples in his near future… but not until after he takes his turn in the vines.

It’s a quick turnaround – my flight to Bordeaux is first thing the following morning, but I’m finding it more difficult to leave Alsace than I thought. Turckheim is by far the smallest town I’ve ever lived in, and it’s been an intensive immersion experience in vine-growing and wine-making. Listing everything I will miss about this place still doesn’t quite do it justice, even though the list is long (the views, the mountains, the easy access to nature, the people, the choucroute, the wine, the hearty portions, the special love for pork and potato dishes….I think you get it…) Suffice it to say that I am saying au revoir and not adieu, as I haven’t seen the last of Alsace.

Views from around Turckheim in the fall.

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2 thoughts on “when autumn leaves start to fall

  1. Seems your time in Alsace was spectacular overall. Enjoyed following you along the way. Makes me want to get there soon. But first, I’ll pick your brain over a glass of Alsatian wine ;-D

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