From August onwards, French winegrowers are on the alert. The harvest is starting, heralding the new vintage. New wine-grower Vincent Marie is based in Auvergne, where the climate is cooler, and the grapes are harvested at the very start of fall. We take a deep dive.
At Vincent Marie’s cellar, less than ten miles to the south of Clermont-Ferrand, there is a gentle buzz in the air on this October day. It’s the excitement of the harvest; a few days of flat-out work when the growers reap the fruits of a year's labor. “We have to be quick and precise. Once the grapes are ripe, we have very little time to harvest them. Heavy showers or a hot day can damage the quality of the grapes in the blink of an eye,” Vincent explains. The grapes’ ripeness is judged by their taste and texture. Sensory tests which are accompanied in some cases by laboratory analyses to precisely calculate the level of sugar, which will break down into alcohol during fermentation. “Good grapes are a sign of a great vintage!”, Vincent explains.
2021 has not been an easy year in France. In April, a harsh spell of frost ravaged a good portion of the country's vineyards, destroying hopes of a promising harvest. Depending on the region, some growers lost between 30% and 100% of their yields. Vincent mostly escaped the frost; instead, his fight has been against the voracious appetites of birds and the advance of late blight. But Vincent is not easily fazed. He first discovered natural wine in the 2000s, while still living in his native region of Normandy. He founded a tasting club and soon afterwards, organized a show that was attended by the great and the good of French natural wine. “I fell in love with that whole world. A few years later, while I was a traffic manager for a sports brand, I decided to give it all up to make wine and move to Auvergne, where land was still affordable.” His vineyard covers an area of four and a half hectares (eleven acres), spread around Volvic in the Puy-de-Dôme department.
From the vineyard to the cellar
After a quick union snack break, the seasonal workers get back to work. The team includes between twelve and fourteen pickers every day – mainly women this year – along with two porters responsible for carrying the perforated, grape-filled plastic crates down to the bottom of the parcel. Together, the cheerful team makes its way up through the vines, cutting the grape bunches with an épinette – a small tool like pruning shears, but with a thinner blade. Only flawless bunches are harvested; any grapes showing signs of rot are left at the base of the vine.
At Vincent Marie’s estate, the six days of intense harvesting work are carried out by hand. There is no question of using a machine, given that the vines are cared for naturally the rest of the year. The hundred or so crates harvested that day are then taken to the cellar. That’s half a hectare’s (1.2 acre's) worth of Gamay d’Auvergne grapes: dark, juicy, and well-rounded berries which will make up the new vintage of its “Magma Rock” wine. Vincent only produces single-vineyard wines: he does not blend grapes from different parcels. “Each piece of land has its own terroir and history, and that's what I’m seeking to preserve.” After vinification, 79-80% of his wines will be exported, mainly to the Canadian and American markets. Bad news for his French fans…