When bees attack!

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It is part of my life plan to become an eccentric old beekeeper. But not yet. I might have to grow a beard…. I am not sure Amanda is ready….

In spite of the name of our wine – Domaine of the Bee – there are actually no ‘in-house’ bees on our land. There are plenty of wild bees – bumble-bees and solitary bees, and there are nearby honeybee hives – less than 100m from our Coume de Roy vineyard.

I wandered over for a look this evening. Two bee-keepers, dressed in their space-suits, were inspecting the hives, and harvesting the honey.

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It has been a difficult year. Very hot and dry, and not a great year for flowers, so not a great year for honey. And lots of the hives have been attacked by ‘frelon’ – or hornets. Several of the hives have been abandoned.

No wonder the bees are jumpy.

Within 20-30 metres of the hives, already disturbed by the spacemen, squadrons of patrolling workers are alert to any possible threat.

I hadn’t appreciated quite how persistent and aggressive a bee can be, when it is defending its hive. Once a single bee has decided that you are the enemy, it attacks with immense determination and impressive vigour.

Anyone who has read Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ books will remember the blind iron-willed monomania of the spy flies, and I couldn’t stop thinking about them as a single bee no bigger than my thumbnail hurled itself repeatedly at my face with not a thought for its own safety.

My hand connected with it just as it grazed my cheek below my left eye, and the faintest hint of a sting scratched at my skin, raising a small weal.

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Sadly, I fear the bee may have been mortally wounded during the encounter. As was my sang-froid, and my confidence that I could cope with a whole hive.

Even with the full gear.

Perhaps it is time to shave my face and stop thinking hippyish thoughts about living off the land.

And tomorrow is an important day, as it is then that we harvest our Grenache….

 

What skills does a winemaker need?

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A great palate? Years of training? Respect for terroir? All important skills, but at harvest time, what you need more than anything else is to be a flexible, can-do problem solver.

Winemaking is all about making decisions, and trying to get the ‘best-fit’ result for the maximum possible quality.

But there is no such thing as a perfect vintage, and in the words of John Lennon, Life is what happened when you are busy making other plans.

So, however well-prepared you are, there are always lots of ‘seat-of-the-pants’ decisions that need to be made.

When our Carignan vineyard turned out to have nearly 1 tonne more of grapes than it had ever had before (3.5 Tonnes vs a maximum in 10 years of 2.5 Tonnes), we had to do some improvising.

We had a 1,600L stainless steel tank, and 2 x 500L barrels lined up, plus a third 500L barrel in reserve ‘just in case’. And you can only fill your vessels to 85% of their capacity, so they don’t overflow when the fermentation gets underway

The stainless steel tank is too big to be lifted up to the new vinification area for barrels, so we had to position it between the concrete tanks, at a point where we could lower down a cooling plate, looped in to the chilled water circuit, to enable us to chill down the crushed grape soup for a pre-fermentation maceration.

Then, to fill it, we had to attach the receival hoppers to the fork-lift, and drive them into the winery to hover over the tank.
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And when we found we had filled the stainless steel tank, both planned barrels and the third ‘emergency’ barrel, we had to find a plastic bin to hold, temporarily, the last 200Kg of grapes.

And today we have picked another 30 boxes of grapes to make up a full barrel.
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And since we don’t have one to hand, we have put the word out, at very short notice, to buy an extra 500L barrel (€1,200!).

Normally, you need to tell coopers at lease 2-3 weeks in advance if you want to buy a new barrel but luckily this year, with the small yield especially of Grenache, a few wineries are cancelling orders, and we have found a couple of barrels for delivery on Friday.

So we are holding the 30 boxes of grapes in a chilled container at 5 degrees C until the barrels arrive, and we can crush our precious grapes.

At every stage of the harvest, a winemaker’s intention is to make the decision that leads to the best possible quality in the rapidly changing circumstances, using the resources available.

And sometimes that means finding unconventional answers to the questions raised by each and every vintage.

And usually you also need a fair bit of luck!

Harvesting thoughts

We are now into October, and we still haven’t harvested a single grape.

It’s been a funny old year. Difficult flowering, especially in our Grenache, a pleasant early summer – breezy, with enough rain. And then the last significant rain fell on the 23rd June, and apart from a brief storm on the 3rd August, not drop of rain until mid September!

And hot, sometimes very hot.

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By the end of August the younger vineyards hearabouts started to show signs of stress. The vines struggled to find the water to draw the nutrients up from the soil, and feed the leaves that make the sugar. So the vines shut down, and the grapes stopped accumulating sweetness.

If you are a grower, paid on volume, your main concern is to deliver a healthy crop as soon as the minimum ripeness is achieved. If the grapes are swelling and the bunches getting bigger, then you wait. But if there is no rain forecast for 2 weeks, and the sun is just shrivelling the grapes, then there is no point in waiting.

So, after the ‘rentrée’ when everyone comes back from the long August holidays, some growers started to pick. And once you have started picking, the easiest call is to carry on until you have finished.

So now, by the end of September, pretty much everyone around us has brought in their entire crop. Which makes our three small parcels a bit of a magnet for the hungry wild boar.

A good 20mm of welcome rain 10 days ago has given our vines a much needed boost, and ripening has recommenced, so we are planning to pick our Carignan on Monday 3rd Oct, which is a week later than last year, but 2 weeks earlier than both 2013 and 2014.

Our potential alcohol should be over 14 degrees, which is where we want it to be, and the crop is large, and the grapes small, with thick skins, which is a great combination.

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Pity about the lousy volume in the Grenache – Domaine of the Bee 2016 may be a Carignan dominated blend!

How do we know when to drink Domaine of the Bee?

Superhero

This is probably the question that I get asked the most often.

Since we have just sent our Wine Club Members a mixed case of reds (instead of the 2014 vintage, which we are not releasing), I thought it would be good idea to conduct a vertical tasting of all of the wines that we have ever made, and then to update our drinking recommendations.

First of all, the most important thing is to understand your own personal taste.

Do you like bright, juicy, deeply coloured, powerful and fruit-forward wines?

Or do you prefer mellow, smooth, full-bodied and richly flavourful reds?

(Sorry, we normally don’t make light reds here – if you like your reds delicate and refreshing, then you should try ‘The Bee-side’ – that’s the closest we get!)

If the former, then drink our wines 0-2 years after they are bottled, and if the latter, then you may prefer to wait until 3-6 years.

Or if you are in both camps, like me, you might want to mix it up a bit.

And trust your own opinion. The views suggested here are not ‘facts’. (Nor are the views suggested in Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine book, Hugh would be the first to admit….)

So, here’s our notes on all of our wines – maybe it is time to pop down to your wine rack and remind yourself of what you have left. Or perhaps to order up some of the older wines where we are running short of stock?

The Bee-side 2014 – just delicious now, and certainly good for a couple more years, but this is not a wine designed for long ageing, so enjoy it now!
Drink 2016-2018

Domaine of the Bee 2013 – One of the lightest vintages to date, this is still brightly fruity, and quite a bit bigger and punchier than The Bee-side. Drinking very well now, and will soften and round out more for couple of years –
Drink 2016-2019

Domaine of the Bee 2012 – Just coming out of a slightly awkward phase, and starting to display some delicious, seductive red fruits. Simpler than the 2011, but very enjoyable to drink. And still has legs to age a couple more years
Drink 2016-2020

Domaine of the Bee 2011 – One of the best wines we have made, and while this tasted great from the outset (and still tastes great now!), it will still age very gracefully for several more years. No need to delay drinking it though!
Drink 2016–2022

Domaine of the Bee 2010 – This was the star of the recent tasting, and illustrates what a great year 2010 was across France, as well as a good guideline that in a normal vintage, Domaine of the Bee takes about 3-4 years in the bottle to show its best.
Drink 2016–2020

Domaine of the Bee 2009 – Another great vintage for lovers of really BIG reds, that is in its absolute prime, and while it probably won’t necessarily get better, it should remain on top form for a good couple more years
Drink 2016–2018

Domaine of the Bee 2008 – One of my favourite years from the outset, with a high level of acidity and plenty of tannins, this has always been a keeper, and has tasted great pretty much every year since it was released. It will be interesting to see how this ages over the next 5 years. LAST BOTTLES LEFT –
Drink 2016–2020

Domaine of the Bee 2007 – Perhaps not the greatest wine we ever made, with rather tough tannins that took a while to come round, this is still tasting good, but shouldn’t be kept more than a year or two. SOLD OUT –
Drink 2016–2017

Les Genoux 2013 – Tasting delightfully fresh and delicate (in spite of nearly 14.5% alc), this has plenty of life left ahead of it, and will evolve and develop over several years. But with 30 mins in a decanter, it is already hedonistically delicious….
Drink 2016–2022

Les Genoux 2011 – A highly impressive red. The charm of the young red fruit is less evident, but there is a core of ripeness, weight and power, and an enormous length of flavour. Lush and sexy raspberry fruit, and slatey minerality. LAST BOTTLES LEFT
Drink 2016–2022

Les Genoux 2010 – Showing less of the fruit, and more of the slatey power. Pretty close to the 2011 in quality, and they all share the almost salty minerality that this vineyard gives us. Surprised and impressed by this. NONE IN WAREHOUSE – SOME BOTTLES AVAILABLE FOR PICK-UP from SW14 8EQ.
Drink 2016–2015

Les Genoux 2009 – We only made 267 bottles of this, so there are very unlikely to be many still out there (we only have about 5 bottles left). This is very open-textured and lush, and starting to develop a slightly animal edge that may result from the lack of filtration. For those of you who like your bottles in the funky side, you’ll love this – if you are lucky enough still to have a bottle. But I’d recommend drinking it in the next couple of years. SOLD OUT
Drink 2016–2017

Field of the Bee 2013 – We keep back 6 bottles of everything for research purposes, and we cracked open one of these for this tasting, as we sold out of this over a year ago. This was definitely nicer a year ago – while still OK, it was a bit neutral and dull. Not a wine for long ageing, I think. SOLD OUT
Drink up.

Field of the Bee 2014 – Just delicious right now, if you have any left! Don’t leave it past Christmas – our style is probably at its best within 2 years of the vintage. SOLD OUT.
By end 2016

Field of the Bee 2015 – Really starting to open out now. This is a bit richer than the 2014, and will be a great autumn / winter white, adding rich, soft pineapple and peach fruit flavours to whatever you pair it with.
By Autumn 2017

Bee Pink 2015 – Designed to be drunk within 1 year of bottling, this will still be lovely in early 2017, but may not make it to next summer tasting quite as fresh as it was – and why wait! SOLD OUT (except a few bottles put aside for mixed cases)
By May 2017

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In search of cool

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When the days hit 30+, and the sun warms the rocks, the air and the very earth, the vines have no escape from the heat.

An old vine, with deep roots, draws water up from the cool damp stones many metres below the surface, and has no fear of a summer’s heat and a month without rain.

The steady tramontane keeps the dry air moving, and the evaporation of water from the leaves is what helps pump nutrients around the vine’s sap system, and helps keep the canopy cool.

The vigneron, on the other hand, must rise early, and do what he must in the relative cool of the morning, before retreating to a shady riverbank, and spending the afternoon soaking dusty feet and sweaty brow in the crisp, fresh waters of a limpid pool.

And evenings must be spent easing the corks from chilled rosé bottles, and opening the windows to let the evening breeze clear the stifling air from the house.

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A very difficult decision….

I don’t really know how to tell you this.

We spent a lot of time and energy working hard in the vineyard to try to grow the tastiest grapes possible, but in 2014 we had a run of things that went against us, with two of the grape-grower’s worst enemies getting the upper hand towards the end of the summer..

This year we had four generations of ‘eudemis’ of the grape berry moth. Normally, there’s only three. But their numbers grow exponentially, and with a fourth generation, we had a lot of damage.

Secondly, we had an attack of the dreaded Asian fruit fly – drosophila suzukii. Unlike ‘normal’ fruit-fly, which only attack grapes that are already damaged – Suzukii will bite a hole in a healthy grapes, and turn it to vinegar very quickly

I recorded a rather down-beat video during the vintage-time, and reported on how we had to select out, and throw away, around 50% of our grapes.

We have spent the time since then ageing the wine in barrels, and tasting and blending, to see if we could produce a wine that is up to our usual standard.

After a lot of careful consideration, we have decided to take the rather expensive decision not to release any Domaine of the Bee 2014.

We have some plans to release a very limited quantity of our Grenache later in the year, but apart from that, there will be no red wine from 2014.

Luckily, we will have enough bottles of 2013 and 2012 to keep us trading until this time next year when the 2015 will be released (and the 2015 is looking epic!).

And we have made some more white, and for the first time a rosé!

So some silver linings in a rather large cloud.

Unearthed – the true story of the birth of wine

By our archaeology correspondent A Fuehl

Researchers from Domaine of the Bee have rediscovered a primitive winemaking culture deep in the Caucasus mountains who have been making wine the same way for thousands of years.

In scenes that recall Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s ‘The Leaping Nuns of Norwich’, an elite squad of winemaking monks is being trained in the ancient ways of grape-worship by a mobile-phone toting priest who goes by the name of ‘Bishop David’.

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Clearing away the undergrowth, researchers couldn’t believe their eyes when they found the sect of oenophile acolytes in an almost ruined 6th Century church.

Crucially, the monks do not tend any vines themselves (except one or two pet ones that grow in the grounds of the monastery), but rely on donations of grapes from devout parishioners that almost magically appear on the doorstep of the church / cellar on the day of harvest.

The winemaking technology still has echoes of the pagan sacraments of earth worship that predate the Christian era. But now practices that have been developed over many millennia are overlain with a Christian symbolism:

An earthenware pot made of clay serves as a reminder that God fashioned Adam from clay, and it is shaped into a primitive simulacrum of Eve’s womb. The pot is sunk up to its neck in the ground, and lined with melted beeswax before being filled with the foot-trodden grapes, stalks, pips and stems.

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This symbolic ‘virgin pregnancy’ is visited by the holy spirit in the form of wild yeasts that begin the alcoholic fermentation spontaneously, and once the CO2 has subsided, the neck of the womb is sealed with wet clay and a slate lid, and covered with damp sand.

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After several months of being confined in the dark, the earth joyously ‘gives birth’ to a new wine, as the neck of the womb is opened, and the baby wine takes its first breaths of God’s clean air.

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The clean wine is drawn off into clay jars, and kept until it is deemed to be ready for bottling.

The lees, pips and stalks are then distilled by the monks into a form of ‘Holy Spirit’ known as Cha-Cha, which is believed to be the origin of the name of the dance popularised in Europe at the turn of the 20th century – and said to be based on the stuttering steps of amazed joy that accompany the taking of a deep draught of the sacred libation.

A single bottle of this elixir has been smuggled back from the Caucasus via Istanbul, and will be opened on a secret day this spring at a special convening of the London chapter of the ‘acolytes of the qvevri’

For your chance to join the ranks of the open-hearted believers, and to participate in this extraordinary pre-Christian ritual, please click here.

If you are of a more sceptical frame of mind, and have noticed the date today, please click here.

So it is written.

Congratulations!

Your canny nose for truth has correctly detected that every word of this extraordinary story is true. Well almost. As far as we know, cha-cha didn’t give its name to the dance, but it probably should have!

Bishop David is an architect who took up holy orders in the late 80s, and he has given new life to the monastic tradition in Georgia of winemaking. The monks we visited were based in the Alaverdi Monastery in Kakheti, and Bishop David is founding a new winemaking centre dedicated to reviving the ancient knowledge of fermentation and storage in Qvevri (amphora shaped clay vessels sunk into the earth).

The monks are kindly, humble, and sincere. And making great wines!

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If you would like to taste the Alaverdi Monastery Saperavi 2011 fermented in Qvevri – bottle number 2307, please send me an email to worker@domaineofthebee.com, and I’ll try to find a date and a venue that suits the majority of interested parties.

Commiserations!

You are too sceptical for your own good! You probably don’t believe in Father Christmas either?

You may be used to seeing April Fool’s pieces from Domaine of the Bee, and just assumed that this one was another in the same vein. But no….

Every word wot we wrote was true – honest.

Well, perhaps a little artistic licence was used to ‘sex up’ the story a little, but they’ve been making wine in Georgia for 8,000 years, and Bishop David is leading a revival of the monastic tradition of winemaking that goes back to the arrival of Christianity in Georgia. I have just come back from an amazing fact-finding Masters of Wine trip, and we are all brimming with excitement about our discovery of such an amazing wine culture.

If you’d really like to be present at the opening of the magnificent Alaverdi Monastery Qvevri Saperavi 2011, then drop me an email at worker@domaineofthebee.com, and I’ll see if we can squeeze you in….

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Same time again next year?

Justin

Hart heads East…

We are a very pleased that our gold medal award-winning English fizz, Hart of Gold is now in Hong Kong and can be found at The Flying Winemaker

Hong Kong is a small territory but is one of the world’s most cosmopolitan and competitive markets for wine.

Click here for the related Drinks Business article.

We are really happy to be among the first English sparkling wines to be sold in Asia through, and look forward to seeing how our wine goes down in the fragrant harbour!