Baignade interdite!

baignade-interdite

On the way back from buying some food for my Sunday afternoon solitary barbeque, I decided to pop up to Tautavel to see the man who owns the hives close to our vineyard.

He wasn’t there. Probably hunting sangliers like most of the rest of the vignerons on a Sunday morning.

So I swung by the Caune de l’Arago – a wonderful cleft in the rock where the river has carved a gorge, and enters the valley of Tautavel by way of a deep pool. I had my towel and trunks, and thought I’d go for a swim.

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But approaching the pool, I was saddened to see that the place was now plastered with ‘baignade interdite’ signs, threatening a €35 fine.

Tautavel has been occupied by humans for over 40,000 years, as some of France’s oldest hominid remains have been found in caves up the side of the valley, and men and women have no doubt been swimming in the pool at the Caune de l’Arago for 39,999 years.

It is such a shame that ‘health and safety’ culture has spread even to this little corner of France.

Luckily quite a lot of the locals choose to ignore such strictures, though sadly not today. Only Englishmen swim in October.

And I did not feel inclined to brook the disapproval of picnicking families and rock climbers who gather in the mouth of the gorge, so I sauntered back to the car.

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As I drove home through this perfect little banana-shaped valley, with Canigou crouching on the horizon with its first dusting of snow, I felt a sudden surge of happiness.

The harvest is in. The volume is good overall. The quality is excellent. Amanda and Sam are coming out on Thursday. I have a whole afternoon ahead of me, and the ingredients for a good feed in my shopping basket, and my tummy is beginning to rumble….

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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?

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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.