Doing the counter-intuitive

“So, “you may be asking, “what’s the mad old bat been up to this week?” The answer, dear reader, is doing what you’d least expect of me.  No, that doesn’t mean growing a sensible head, or anything approaching it.  It’s weirder than that.  Last week, I spent an afternoon putting wine INTO bottles.  As I said, doing the counter-intuitive.

Regular readers of my outpourings of drivel may recall that in the autumn I enjoyed a day picking grapes for Chateau de Claribes’ 2016 rose,  A fortnight ago I received an email from Helen seeking assistance with the bottling of the rose I’d helped pick, and their 2015 Bordeaux Superior.  I couldn’t text a “please count me in” fast enough.

I left Les Terraces just after lunch and enjoyed a glorious drive through the hills on a picture-perfect day  and arrived at Claribes at 13:30, as requested, at the same time that the mobile bottling plant did.  My orientation was short and undertaken at the same time that equipment was unloaded from a panel truck.  The brief was simple: bottles through the machine, and into metal cages with a capacity of 600 bottles each.  The catch was that bottles must only be handled by the neck, as labels would be applied later and fingerprints on the body of the bottle might affect the adhesion of the labels.

The filter unit connects to the filling/corking unit. which connects to the conveyor belt

The plant was of a type that had not been used at the vineyard before and was the cause of a modicum of consternation.  However, all was swiftly resolved and, before long, the sterilisation process completed and the first empty bottles were rattling along the short conveyor belt and presented to the nozzles that would fill them.  I had asked Helen how long it took for a bottle to travel the length of the assembly line, and she guesstimated it at 4 minutes, the reason being that a bottle needs to remain vertical for 3 minutes following the corking process in order for the cork to expand and prevent air contamination of the wine.

The bottling unit is sterilised


The corking element. It makes a satisfying clunk as it secures wine in bottle.
We all stand by as the technician starts the run
Bubbles rising to the surface of the palest rose.

The task allotted to John, Debbie (the other 2 volunteers) and yours truly was to stack the bottles in the cages.  Hardly an exacting task one might think, and you’d be right.  However, as with many such jobs, there’s a knack and a science to it: each crate of bottles was 10-across, 4 rows to a layer, 15 layers high (checked my maths ?? Good).  Bottles stored horizontally shoulder-to-shoulder and base-to-base spread their weight evenly.  Helen showed us how to lay them down.  Once a crate is started (getting the first 3 layers right is the trick), it is a simple task to continue; but I was interested to note how easily the eye’s depth of vision is fooled, and avoiding holes requires a smidge of vigilance.  Get it wrong and leave a hole and it will be spilled wine you’ll be crying over.  It’s a bit like playing 1-oblong Tetris in 3-D, but with consequences!

Progress down the assembly line (spot how gorgeous the day was)


The bottles laid down in their cage. Rose isn’t my thing, but it’s far more photogenic than red!

There’s a big difference between picking grapes and bottling the end result of the vinification process, and I’m not talking about the obvious.  The picking is a very social occasion during which you either get to meet someone new across a row of vines, or continue conversations with friends.  At bottling, you work as a team with few words spoken.  Scant waved gestures replace gentle conversation, and you’re a member of a team whose pace is dictated by the conveyor-belt’s capacity and the need to get each bottle into the crates before a log (bottle)-jam occurs to a sound-track of clink-clink-clink.  It is one of those rare jobs whereby too many hands don’t make light work!

600 bottles of rose, ready to be labelled and dispatched to appreciative palates


The filters following service for 1800 bottles of rose, and 3000 bottles of red.

On balance, I prefer the picking.  But it was very satisfying to see a few thousand bottles of wine emerging at the end of a few hours’ steady work.  I’m signed up for the next phase of volunteering in a few weeks time, so watch this space for the next chapter of the vigneron’s calendar.

For those of you who may be interested, I took a short film of the process (mainly to time it – 3:31 minutes, Helen!).  You can find it here



4 thoughts on “Doing the counter-intuitive”

  1. What FUN!! You’ll be opening a winery before you know it!! How many bottles did you come home with????? 😉

  2. Alex, you have the ability to elevate the mundane into something exceedingly interesting and all in the space of 3 minutes and 31 seconds! Sunshine, blue sky, pink wine,shiny bottles, clink, clink,clinkety clink. I very nearly poured myself a glass or two. The idea of a mobile bottling plant appeals to me. Why have all this expense in-house for one or two days of the year when you can hire it. A bit like combine harvesters. They sit there for 50 weeks of the year then WHOA. 24/7 for 2 weeks but they’re rubbish when it comes to bottling. Too much wastage! In this neck of the woods, on one day of the year a beaten up panel van arrives carrying a mobile still. Yes, you read that correctly. A mobile still! Now there’s an oxymoron if ever I could spot one. It’s like a scene from the film “Deliverance.” He lights a wood fire under the boiler bit (probably not the technical term in french), the locals bring their cider apple/dead rat/cat litter mixture in large plastic containers and 3 minutes 30 seconds later,to the tune of “Duelling Banjos” hey presto out of the end of pipey bit (technical term) dribbles clear liquid. Eau de vie or in Gaelic, Uisce beatha or water of life. He beats you by one second but who’s counting. It would appear to be legal as it all takes place just a stones throw from the local Mairie. Friends who bought a farmhouse just up the road from oxymorons pitch, inherited many bottles of wire topped cider bottles, the contents being very tasty on a hot summers day. On another shelf lurked clear liquid labelled “Eau de vie” and dated. As a bet I tried a glass and my lips became quite numb. A little like the after effects of novacaine (not too sure of the spelling) after an extraction when you go to rinse your mouth out in the bowl and it goes everywhere and you can’t talk. On that sobering note I bid you au revoir and await your next blog.

  3. No wine, which would have been savoured of an evening, but a story for life instead.

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