In the vineyard, the deceptive quiet of winter

The end of March will be mark second year in France. I can hardly believe I’ve been here that long, or that the time has flown so fast. New friends, new experiences, continuing struggles with the language, but best of all a great sense of contentment. I seem always to be busy–finishing this, starting that, dreaming of new projects. Below is my most recent article written for the Languedoc Sun, part of an on-going series called A Year In The Vineyard which profiles the work of vingeron Brigitte Chevalier at Domaine de Cébéne,

Life in the vineyard
The deceptive quiet of the winter months

Sometimes the many years that I lived in the United States come back to me as alarms of sorts, usually delivered during my walks along the narrow and very quiet roads through the vineyards. The smoke off in the distance, for example. Surely a wildfire, the kind that consumed houses and vast tracts of land in California. And those solitary vans parked on the side of the vineyard, what are they doing? Who are they waiting for? One winter evening, with the light rapidly fading and still some distance to go, I saw one of these vans parked up ahead and actually detoured, convinced the occupant was just biding his time until a lone female walker happened by.
So much for the paranoia of the city dweller. I now know that the ubiquitous white vans and small cars are part of the winter landscape in the vineyards. On subsequent walks, I’ve looked out and seen the pruners— bent down over the vines, slowly and methodically moving along the rows as they clip the long vine tendrils. The smoke, I later discovered, is from small bonfires of clippings set at the edges of the vineyards; the scent of woodsmoke drifting over the villages, is another signature of winter in the Languedoc.
But while winter around the vineyards might seem quiet to an outsider like myself, all languid pace and drifting smoke, it is in fact a busy season for the vintner. As the vines slumber the soil must be prepared for the coming season. At Domaine de Cébène, Brigitte and Stéphane began pruning the Mourvèdre and Carignan back in January, and continued with Mourvèdre, Syrah and Grenache over the following weeks. The vines are pruned using a ‘gobelet’ technique which requires no wires to attach the plants. “The same as the ancients have done before,” Brigitte explains.
In March, one sunny and blustery morning, I walk with Brigitte through the rows of Carignan—the old ladies as she calls them, some of them planted around the time of the First World War. As befitting their age, they are gnarled and fragile, barely clinging to life it would seem. Brigitte stoops to snap off a branch, it is as dry and dessicated as charcoal. Hard to imagine that in a few months these ancient vines will produce the fruit that is basis for the Domaine’s award winning Felgaria.
But while the old ladies are taking their long winter’s nap, the weeds and wildflowers all around them are energetic with new growth. Since they compete with the vines for needed nutrients, they must be removed. “This is a job we do for one or two hours a day, we don’t have time to do more.” Brigitte explains, as she yanks out a clump of yellow flowers. “But if you don’t remove them, they will eventually invade the vines.
A German buyer I met at Brigitte’s a few months ago, told me that most of his conversations with Brigitte had taken place in the Domaine de Cébène vineyard while she simultaneously pulled weeds from around the vines. “I barely saw her face,” he recalls. His comment is a perfect illustration of the year round work involved in the vineyard. If it isn’t the sanglier who like to eat the grapes — and they’ve been a problem especially in areas where the vineyard borders on oak groves — it is the competing weeds and vegetation. To help with the weeding, Brigitte sometimes brings in fortification. Just as she’s telling me that for once there she has enough people on hand, her mobile phone rings. Stéphane, who would oversee the work has injured his knee and will be out of action for a while. She shakes her head. “Just when you think things are under control . . .”

Behind us though, work is finally underway on the mazet, the ancient stone hut that by spring will serve as Domaine de Cébène’s tasting room. A small parcel under the mazet will be planted with additional Carignan vines. At the entrance to the estate, tractors have been preparing the ground for construction of a decorative stone wall to welcome visitors. Work on the mazet and stone wall were supposed to have been completed last winter in time for the summer season, but there were numerous delays. “Now it is finally happening,” she says. “I am so happy.
With only one regular employee, Brigitte must take on most of the work of running a business —both physical and administrative — herself. Regardless of the season, this creates a varied, if exhausting, quality to her days. A recent morning, for instance, spent removing trees to make way for more Mourvèdre vines. “Lots of noise, lots of wind,” she says describing the work, “And the taste of schiste in my mouth and between my teeth.” The same afternoon, a meeting with a group of tourism officials to discuss plans for a vintage car ralley planned for June, the first such event in Faugères with participants arriving from all over France.
Compared to the various projects and work in and around the vineyard, winter in the cellar is comparatively quiet. Still there are things that must be done. “Wine ‘disappears’ quite quickly when in barrels,” Brigitte says. “ We call it “la part des anges”—the angel’s portion. To compensate for the work of the angels, and to avoid too much exposure to air, the wine levels in the barrels must be regularly topped up. The 500 liter barrels, placed one upon the other to a height of around three meters, are a dizzying challenge. “It’s rather acrobatic, climbing up to fill up them,” she says, “ So I only do that when I am not alone, in case I fall down.”
All the work involved in making wine of course requires work to market the product. Trade shows—in the past few months Brigitte attended events in Scotland, Germany and Brussells—offer the opportunity to gain exposure for her wines through contact with old and new customers. Of all the events, the Montpellier based Millésime Bio attended by organic, or bio, growers from around the world is the most important and prestigious. Although attendance at such events take time from an already.packed schedule, Brigitte says it is part of the work and definitely worthwhile.
A visit to Domaine de Cébène by wine journalists back in January presented an opportunity for Brigitte to show off her product and also a challenge calling for some quick thinking. “To celebrate their first visit to the new cellar I wanted to organise one of my first ever full vertical tasting (different vintages of the same wine type) to emphasize differences between various vintages.“ Comments would offer valuable feedback on her wines since the beginning of Domaine de Cébène, she explains.
Since all the bottles from the older vintages had been sold, she had to contact customers with supplies still on hand. “We were able to provide almost all the older bottles, except one,” Brigitte says. “Which is probably lying in a cellar waiting to be opened in a few years. Perhaps if they read these lines!”
Never a quiet moment, even in the dark of winter.

By La vie en France

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