“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 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 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!
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!
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