It’s still October, it’s still harvest season, and I’m still finding pieces of my trip to Alsace to remember and relive. To refresh readers’ memories, I spent a few weeks last October harvesting at Sipp Mack, a family owned and operated winery in the northeast corner of France. Here are more stories from the vineyard.
October 2, 2012
The dining room is a warm shade of deep walnut with accents of toasted things: wood, bread, sugar, fruit. Everything a little caramelized. Everything warm.
In the early morning before dawn, the group is comprised of seven people, ranging from about 30 to 70, and none of them speak English. “Café?” they ask. This I understand. I sit with my cup as each takes turns gesturing at various foodstuffs on the table: bread, all sorts, sliced and piled in large plastic grocery bag, butter, Nutella, assorted marmalades. We begin. Even here, in the subdued glow of a few yellow lights, there is laughter.
The fields are much wetter and much colder in the morning and we arrive just as the sun is up. Distributing ourselves down each row, pairing off and standing on either side, we pick along the vines looking for hiding little morsels, filling buckets and yelling “un seau” when we need a new one. Mostly I am wracked with self-consciousness regarding my Americanness, so I position the bucket to strategically get the attention of somebody who will be needing un seau around the same time I will, and they say “deux seau” instead. We finish (I never realize we’re done until there isn’t anymore vine to clip…the process is so strategically calculated and easy to lose one’s self in) and we hop in the vans and go again.
Invariably, somebody asks for music, and almost invariably it’s a forgotten American pop song from about 28 years ago, or a contemporary French song that sounds strikingly similar. There is singing and scolding.
Next vineyard is higher up, right under the castles in the Vosges Mountains. Not quite Gran Cru yet, because I think we only are harvesting Auxerrois, and there is almost nothing noteworthy made with Auxerrois on its own. It’s a blending grape. We mow through a lot of them, quickly, and pack up one more time to a Riesling vineyard where we are only to tend to the canopy. Cautiously, because once again I realize I’m a link between this vineyard and Sipp Mack’s profitable business, I pluck leaves from around the Riesling grapes (“they need to breathe,” says Jacques) and let the sun in. They’ll ripen more evenly now and the vine, free from spending excess energy on leaf production and maintenance, will have more energy to focus on the fruit.
In the afternoon, we tromp to more fields. This time Pinot Noir, which has taken on some noble rot, though with Pinot Noir, it isn’t as noble and we don’t want it. We pick, we scrape it away, we fill our buckets. Harvesting Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, the others was joyful and became rhythmically mindless. Harvesting Pinot Noir is quiet at first. It takes a little focus, and it’s hot this afternoon. Jacques calls me from the vineyard, though, because I’m going to the winery today.
At the winery, task one is to wash buckets. Many, may, large yellow industrial trashcan-sized rectangular buckets used to dump our field buckets into when they are full. Huge. About 20 fill a tractor wagon, about two of those came in today. A good Pinot Noir harvest, a good Pinot Noir year, Jacques says, and for Alsace, that’s saying something. Doesn’t happen often.
Sylvan (who is probably about seventeen years old, French to the max, very nice, winery help) and Carolyn show me the press, which is huge…maybe 20 feet across (two sit side by side) with a cylindrical case suspended over a large bin. Grapes are hoisted via the truck Caro is driving, dumped in, and juice starts flowing. Apparently, Jacques says there’s a mechanism in there like a balloon that does the pressing (context: he was saying “don’t drop your cutter into your bucket, because it will break my very expensive balloon press”).
There is a lot of moving to and fro in a winery—things needing to be adjusted here so that other things have a place to go, negotiating flats, moving grapes from outside to in, moving juice from one tank to another—and then there’s a lot of waiting. For the grapes to arrive, for the tank to stop pressing, for the grapes to be sorted, for the right things to happen so that the next steps can be taken. We waited a fair amount, Sylvan and I. Washed a fair amount of buckets. Then came all the Pinot Noir, which is apparently the only red they ever make and are the only grapes they ever sort. Out comes the sorter, used twice a year, a big sort of whimsically angular giant tuba that vibrates to level the heaps of grapes being dumped into it while Sylvan and I simultaneously hunch over, hold a lamp, and find grapes with Ignoble Rot, leaves, bugs, underripe berries, etc. Hours, it seems. Actually, I think it was hours. Hands sticky and back sore, I jump off a jerry-rigged platform for me to stand on and wander back to where dinner will be.
Jacques opens so many bottles when people who like wine are there. Tonight, a sort of flying winemaker/consultant named Frederique is here and they visit and talk at the far table. Everyone has a juice glass in front of them (serves as wine, water, coffee, tea, whatever), but he always makes sure I have a wine glass. Makes me feel special. He opened several bottles, but began with the Tradition Pinot Noir 2009, I think, unoaked, and then the same vintage aged in Barriques, their reserve bottling. Pinot Noir is finicky, but the best of the best ends here ends up in oak barrels and a richer end. Like caramelly, sweet cherries with aromas of soft flowers and red fruit.
Tonight’s dinner was some assortment of leftovers reinvented rather artfully with ratatouille on the side. Leo, the cook for these two weeks, is a genius.
Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.
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