I took chemistry once.  It was fifteen years ago, during first year of university.  “Baby Chem,” as it was nicknamed, (not even Chem for Dummies or Chem 101) represented the bare minimum amount of science I needed to progress to Intro to Food Science (aka. cooking class) and then to the restaurant course (which also had a real name that nobody ever used).  From that initial chemistry course, my vague recollections indicate that carbon chains exist, and are somewhat important, but the remaining details seem to have escaped me.  I’m sure it’ll all come back very organically.

This idyllic scene from week one has been replaced by this terrifying depiction of tannin polymers in week two.

Last week was a much gentler introduction to the Master’s program than yesterday’s crash courses in the chemistry and phenology of grapes:

Our first day involves a meet and greet with all of the students (16 of us in total; although one is currently wrapping up an internship in Chile and can’t be there) and many of our professors.  Two hours later, our first day is over.  This is my first introduction to French higher education, a significant departure from the first day of my MBA at Queen’s over five years ago. Queen’s day one involved a full day of class, hours of reading assignments, and an incredibly uncomfortable team bonding moment that probably worked but need never be repeated again.  I can get used to the French style.

The next day we visit the school’s own Chateau Luchey-Halde, a vineyard with Roman roots (cultural roots, not physical…) but replanted completely in 1999 after the school purchased the land from the French army.  It is located in Pessac-Leognan, which is the northern part of the Graves region of Bordeaux, and is of course not too far from the school.  They are on their fourth and last day of harvesting the Merlot, and will start harvesting the Cabernet Sauvignon the day after our visit.  We are treated to a fabulous lunch, complete with several bottles of the 2010 vintage, and just like that, day two is over.  A few glasses in, I am convinced that returning to student life will be a breeze…

Harvesting Merlot, destemming the berries, and inspecting the crop before doing a little of our own taste testing!

Bringing the grapes in from the vineyard, destemming the berries, and inspecting the crop before doing a little of our own taste testing.

Iphone First Wk School 035

2-3 years’ worth of stock on hand sits outside to be abused by the elements.  I could barely keep the (locked) ice cream freezer at work stocked for two weeks!

Day three involves a visit to the cooperage, where oak barrels are made. Nadalié is one of the largest cooperages in the world, and provides insight into a wildly different business model that I have never seen before. The barrel making industry is certainly quite old, and they’ve probably been doing it the same way for a very long time, but I’m impressed at how well thought out the entire value chain is.  (You can tell I haven’t completely thrown away the supply chain hat!)  Inventory sits outside for 2-3 years; exposure to wind, rain and sun cleans and weathers the oak so it ages too, before becoming a vehicle for wine aging. This process ties up expensive inventory for a long time, so the cooperages need to be quite large in order to support this kind of stocking program.

The production floor is a curious blend of manual and automated labour. Staves are cut by machine, and the ends are thrown into the fire, so only oak is used to toast the barrels, and there is no waste.  It smells like a campfire; oak barrels are being toasted in the middle of the room and the toasty/nutty/woody aromas (plus a sudden intense desire for giant marshmallows) permeate the air. Once toasted and the aromas are right, the heat also allows the other end of the barrel to be formed; barrels are checked for leaks, sanded, branded and packaged.


The barrel is formed on one end before it goes to be toasted.  Marshmallows or a hot dog on a stick would not have been out of place here.  Barrels climbing over each other to escape the warehouse. Err no.. sitting quietly, waiting to be shipped.

Another long lunch (it is France, after all), with a few more samples of wine to taste, and we return to the school to complete our French placement tests.  After all the time I’ve spent in Bretagne chez Henaffs, I’d been convinced that my French would be… looser… after the meal, but it turns out to be one of the toughest French tests I’ve ever taken.  Je ne veux pas parler de cela plus.

Mine, of course, contained mostly pictures of snow and ice.

Drinking icewine is how 100% of Canadians keep warm at night.

Day four, and the final day of the week, is our opportunity to present our countries to each other in the class and share wines from home. It is a pretty fascinating experience – we represent 9 different countries (Canada, China, Colombia, Finland, France, Greece, Mexico, the Netherlands, and the USA – not including our absent Italian classmate), plus living, working, and wine-making experiences from even more countries around the world.  There is a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds, not to mention different cultural perceptions and norms around wine and alcohol, so each person’s approach to the presentation is a great insight into class dynamics. It’s probably pretty obvious that I’m from a business background, as all I do is show pictures and talk about the market numbers; it hasn’t occurred to me to present the more technical aspects like rainfall, heat, soil types, etc in any quantitative way.

We wrap up the week with our international wine tasting over some slightly less well-travelled pizza (probably a good thing). I’m also finishing this post at the end of the first week – you’ve already gotten some hints that week two changes quite a bit, and that I’ve had a chance to get my hands dirty harvesting in St Emilion.  I’m hoping it’s not the only harvest opportunity I’ll have this season, so I’ll write more about it when I’ve got a few more experiences under my belt.  (Soon, I promise.)

*Update* – French test results are back, and I can breathe a sigh of relief that I haven’t completely forgotten my years of mandatory French (though no guarantee that I still won’t embarrass myself linguistically).  Intermediate French lessons start on Thursday. Now, back to the reading for tomorrow on Grapevine Structure and Function…

At the fireworks last night with everyone else who lives in Bordeaux. And my night-time beauty routine: the mosquito room spray (doesn't work), the mosquito-repelling lavender sac (doesn't work) and the mosquito repellent (works for about 2 hours at a time).

My night-time beauty routine: the mosquito room spray, the all-natural mosquito-repelling lavender sac and the mosquito repellent bug spray. Judging from the bites, I’ve been had!  (I blame marketing…)

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