Rathfinny Wine Estate

Thinking about wine storage

We are starting to work on the next phase of Rathfinny’s development, and one of the most important projects involves the storage of wine whilst it matures on the yeast lees in the bottle.

Between bottling the wine and disgorging, the bottled wine will be stored in cages. They are literally metallic cages, each approximately one metre long, one metre wide, one metre high. Each cage holds 504 standard bottles, and the cages are stackable, which is rather practical for storage.

Cages

Imagine this: when the vineyard is completely developed, the plan is to produce 1 million bottles a year. That means, we’ll have to store about 2000 cages for the first peak year. Say that our stacks are 5 cages high, it would require 400 stacks that would occupy a floor space of 400m2.. But we need to be able to move these cages, and separate the different types of wine: we’ll have to create alleys to allow for forklift traffic, and leave a bit of space to work around. Maybe an additional 30% space would be useful. This ups the floor space requirement to 520m2. Assuming a square room, it would have to be 23 metres by 23 metres, and 6 or 7 metres high. As we are planning on ageing the wines for about 3 years, we need 3 times this storage space. We are now at 1560m2. As one square room it would have to be 40 metres by 40 metres, at the same 7 metre height. Now, this is the minimal workable space. I’d like a bit more for operational flexibility, maybe rounding up to 1700 or 1800m2. This would be quite a large building: an 1800m2 footprint, to give a sense of scale, is 7 tennis courts. Or, if the cages were not stacked, they would cover an entire rugby pitch (don’t mention Rugby!).

Instead of using cages, we could go the old fashion way. Sur lattes, which means “on (wood) slats”, the bottles are piled with wood slats between rows to stabilise, as shown on this picture:

Sur lattes

We’d have to dig and carve caves in the chalk like producers have in Champagne, such as this one:

Cave

It would be very pretty, no? Unfortunately, I estimate it would have to be over 1.5 kilometres long…

Form versus function: which do you prefer?

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker

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Labels

Wine drinkers: what role does the packaging of your wine and, more precisely, the label play in your decision to purchase? Does it influence your enjoyment of the product inside?

To me, label quality is very important. I have tasted fantastic wines with labels of mediocre quality (cheap paper, unimaginative design, neither classic nor original), but I often prefer a bottle that is nicely packaged. After all, the whole wine experience starts long before the liquid has been poured into a glass.

If a bottle is attractive, with a label on thick, textured paper, it lends an additional dimension to its enjoyment. The tactile sensation of the fingertips running along a finely embossed, debossed, or foiled label is an additional sensory component to evaluating a product.

Rathfinny is in the midst of designing its label and, as with other new brands I’ve been involved with in California, it is quite an exercise to achieve an elegant, informative, original label that both respects tradition yet stands alone.

Famous Champagne house Veuve Clicquot is, interestingly, suing an Italian sparkling producer because of label colour, which Veuve Clicquot views as an infringement on their iconic image: the yellow-orange Champagne label. Clicquot claims that the design and, specifically, the colour are too similar and would confuse customers.

My preliminary, non-legal viewpoint from online label images is that the prints on the labels are distinct, with only one commonality: the word Brut.  Particularly interesting is that this legal battle is being waged not against another Champagne brand (where one would think the real marketplace competition would be), but with what appears to be a small, seemingly innocent Italian sparkling producer.

At first glance, like in the image below, I see little room for confusion. But, as I browsed online for various pictures of either label, it is interesting to see how the difference in angle, lighting, and photography can influence our perception of the label. For online shoppers, it becomes increasingly clear how this may lead to consumer confusion.

The article I read on wine-searcher.com justifies my above opinion, as you will see that while both labels are a bright colour that would pop on a shelf, one is salmon, the other gold:

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While the above appear to be printer’s proofs, when the Italian label is photographed in a different context (an actual label on a bottle in the real world), it’s easier to see possible room for confusion:

original-veuve Ciro Picariello

That said, I can see two other Champagne labels whose label colour closely resembles that of Veuve Clicquot’s iconic yellow-orange one, depending on photography:

DRAPPIER LOGO

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Unknown

Has Clicquot taken legal action against those colleagues/competitors as well? Not that I’ve heard. But the text is totally distinct, and each label here has a unique image unlikely to be confused with Cliquot. It is most likely a different colour in person.

Clearly, the digital environment offers a different consumer experience than shopping in person: browsing the shelves, touching the labels, seeing the real-life colours and logos. It can influence our decision to buy, or not buy. Where a product might be confused online, it might be totally distinct in person, or vice versa.

However, I maintain that, in order to understand the actual possibility of brand confusion, it must be done on a physical label, on bottle, in hand.

I guess what I am asking is: can anyone send me a bottle of each so I can make a proper assessment?

Jonathan Medard – Winemaker

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Beaujolais Nouveau!

I always make a point of tasting Beaujolais Nouveau—and it’s that time of the year again. Beaujolais Nouveau often gets a bad rap (sometimes deservingly so), but it’s more than that. It’s a celebration of the most recent harvest, and a time for community celebration. The pub next door to my house even offered a French cuisine menu to celebrate the release of the 2013 vintage, which was well received in my local Sussex community.

Beaujolais Nouveau is not a complex wine—after all, it is usually sold a mere six to eight weeks after being harvested—but nonetheless is an interesting wine, at least for being quite atypical. Because winemakers use whole berry carbonic maceration (anaerobic fermentation) instead of a crushed berry aerobic fermentation, the wine is driven on fruit aromas and lower tannin levels.

By keeping the berries whole or intact, in an environment artificially saturated in carbon dioxide, the fermentation process does not extract as many potential harsh compounds (tannins, for example), and the overall metabolism produces fruitier molecules compared to a “classic” fermentation.

In fact, it is technically very hard to achieve a pure carbonic maceration: filling a tank with several tonnes of grapes will automatically generate grape crushing because of the weight applied to the berries at the bottom of the tank. What occurs is that both anaerobic and aerobic fermentations occur simultaneously.

In practice, a tank is filled with whole berries and goes through carbonic maceration for a week or two. Then it is emptied, pressed, and the wine produced goes through the aerobic alcoholic fermentation.

Beaujolais Nouveau can be very soft and quite light. Some may say that it lacks of complexity, but what you are looking for when you taste such a wine is that it is simple, straight forward, and affordable. No snobbism there.

Frankly, I feel it can be nicer than some of the wines found in supermarkets in the same price segment. But if you don’t care so much about drinking it, maybe you would consider bathing in it?

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker

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VITeff 2013

I’ve just come back from Epernay where the biennial VITeff trade show was taking place. All the usual suspects were there: manufacturers of tanks, presses, pumps, packaging/labelling, and bottling lines, in addition to vineyard equipment and vine growers, and more.

Wednesday being the “Winemakers Technical Day”, I attended a conference on the filtration of white wines and, more specifically, of Champagne wines. The goal of filtration is to obtain a clear, sediment free and microbiologically stable wine.

Wines do not have to be filtered – it depends on the kind of wine produced. For example, in the case of either a red or white still wine barrel aged for 18-24 months, filtration may not be necessary before bottling: solids and yeast/bacteria might have all settled sufficiently, resulting in a clear wine that can be bottled as is. As an alternative, or in addition to filtering, winemakers can also use fining agents to help clear the wine of undesirable components.

With regards to sparkling wines, the base wine first goes through a primary fermentation, possibly a malolactic “fermentation”, and cold stabilisation. These processes generate a lot of solids including yeast, bacteria, and crystals that need to be removed by filtration prior to tirage (when a base wine is inoculated and bottled for secondary fermentation).

You might wonder: what happens to the solids after the second fermentation in the bottle? During tirage, we include adjuvants that help particles to settle and aggregate in the bottle, making riddling and elimination of the sediments by disgorging easy.

Deciding on the filtration method and medium is not always easy, since not only each vintage but also each “batch” of wine are different. From experience, one learns when and how to filter, bearing in mind that bench trials and experimentation help pinpoint the final setup.

Each method of filtration has its pros and cons, and methods might need to be combined in order for the winemaker to get the expected result. I will not go into detailed descriptions today, but here is a (short) list of some of these filtering media: D.E. (diatomaceous earth), cellulose, polymeric membranes, ceramic…

At the VITeff conference, one manufacturer unveiled a new high-performance cartridge filter, adding to the list of options available to winemakers.

I was also able to view this Pierre Guérin egg-shaped tank which is the only one of its kind for the moment (some exist in concrete or oak, but not in stainless steel like this one).

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It is a bit pricey, but the buzz a statement cellar piece like this can generate amongst the winemaking community is priceless. Plus, maybe it’s cheaper by the dozen!

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker

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The French press

There was great excitement at Rathfinny last week when our gleaming new French grape press arrived.

Our new grape press, manufactured by Coquard, near Reims, France, in the Champagne region, required a specialised lifting system to lift it into place at the eastern  entrance of the winery.

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Note the customised red colour – it should be bright enough to keep the press operator awake even late at night!

There are 2 main types of presses, horizontal and vertical, but the Coquard breaks the mould:

– A vertical press, as traditionally used in Champagne, is a circular structure with a vertical axle. It gets filled with grapes and a plate moves down and compresses the mass, allowing juice to flow out.

VerticalpressOnce grapes have been squeezed and juice has been extracted, the mass becomes a “gâteau” (cake), quite compact and hard to keep pressing. In order to extract some more juice the press releases the pressure, and using forks, the press operator has to turn up that cake, to uncompact the mass and rearrange it so it can be pressed again.
This action is called, in Champagne, “la retrousse”.

– A horizontal press is a metallic cage rotating on a horizontal axle.
Nowadays, lots of presses use a technology combining compressed air and a membrane (some say a bladder).
horizontal-press

The membrane inflates, creating pressure and squeezing juice out of the berries.
The cycles consist of alternating inflation and deflation. Sometimes, while the membrane is deflated, the cage rotates a few times, rearranging the mass of grapes within the cage, facilitating further cycles of pressing. This rearrangement or “turn up” mimics the “retrousse”.

The Coquard press is hydraulic. Its principle is that, with 2 plates, one immobile and one moved by a piston, it replicates the traditional vertical Champagne press. But having both these inclined, when the moving plate releases the pressure, and creates space, the cake is inclined and its weigh makes it fall, creating a natural “retrousse” by gravity.

The press sit 6 meters over our heads in the cellar, which will allow juice transfer by gravity, rather that having to use a pump – it is considered a more gentle process.

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker

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They’re here!

Blog July 1

It’s been a very exciting week here at Rathfinny as our stainless steel tanks were finally delivered and set up.

The French team made everything look easy but it was actually not that simple: both their confidence and efficiency were very impressive.

This one tall tank barely made it in!

Blog July 2

We now have a total of twenty-four tanks, manufactured by Pierre Guérin in Niort, France. This year’s order was for four different capacities: 2400, 4200, 4700, and 13500 liters.

The smaller tanks will be used mostly for settling of the juice after pressing and for fermentation, while the larger tanks will be used for blending the different lots prior to bottling. Here you can see the difference: 2400 liters to the left, 13500 liters to the right:

Blog July 3

The gantries (I call them catwalks!) with the handrails allow access to the chimneys at the top of the tanks. It makes it much safer for us than having to climb on a ladder.

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You can also see the jackets circling around the tanks: glycol runs through these, which can either cool down or warm up the wine, depending on our needs at the moment. Recall, temperature control is critical in a winemaking environment.

At least for the first couple years we will be cold stabilising the wines using this cooling system.

The following picture shows the red fermenters that have an additional access door at the bottom, which we’ll use to evacuate the skins after fermentation.

You can also see the fittings—valves, tasting valves, temperature probes—all customized to our specifications.

Blog July 4

We will keep you posted with upcoming equipment deliveries soon!

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker

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Tanks

I have just come back from a trip to the Pierre Guérin factory in Niort, France, where Rathfinny’s tanks are currently being fabricated. I met up with Gerard, our winery engineering consultant, to inspect and make sure that the tanks are built exactly to our specifications. It is amazing to see the different techniques and tools used to assemble cylindrical tanks from flat stainless steel sheets.

Sheets are first welded together, then cut to desired dimensions to become one tank. Welds are then completely polished, to the point where they become difficult to detect. You can see on the pictures before polishing.

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After polishing, they are then curved to size and welded along the seam to form a cylindrical shape, at this stage there is no top or bottom. Those are different pieces built separately, welded onto the cylindrical body form.

Tank tops and bottoms start as circles, from which a slice is taken out so that they can then be bent into a cone. Those cones are finally welded—yes, that is a lot of welding—to each end of the cylindrical tank.

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Wine tanks must be outfitted with various items:

  • an access door, to access inside the tank,
  • valves, to connect hoses to transfer juice or wine,
  • temperature probes, linked to a temperature control system.

Openings are cut through the stainless steel, either mechanically or by a plasma ray.
You can see above some the pre-cut of where the door will be assembled.

Jackets, through which a liquid coolant will run to regulate the temperature of the wine, are welded in a spiral shape, either manually for smaller tanks, or with a machine for larger tanks.

Legs are then attached to the bottom of the tank for stability.

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The inside and outside tank surfaces will be polished, producing a mirror finish on the inside, making it so smooth that virtually nothing will stick to it! It may sound inconsequential, but this makes cleaning the tank an easier task than it otherwise could be. It enhances hygiene, which is a critical point in winemaking since contamination of the wine can lead to spoilage.

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Lastly, external components are fitted, including the valves, level gauge, door mechanism and chimney.

Here, Gerard inspects the first completely finished Rathfinny tank. He approved, and so did I!

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We are expecting the delivery, installation and commissioning of our order of 24 tanks the first week of July, along with our Coquard press.

And we’ll be ready before harvest—well, that’s the goal at least!

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Reserve Wines

We’re already well into the year, but still waiting for bud burst, and I can’t stop thinking about the infamous English weather. Last year was a stern reminder how all sorts of crops, including vines, can be dramatically impacted by a poor summer.

Budburst

To me, having spent my last 10+ harvests in California, it looks like we can expect a late bud burst. Apparently, this does not seem to be unusual for England. Which is good, bud burst appears to be about two weeks late so far!

Provided we get a nice summer, and the vines aren’t the only things that could use some sun and heat, a nice harvest could await.

You might ask: what if we don’t? Or, the dreaded question, what if there’s a repeat of last year’s season?

Well, either we’ll get very light volumes, or worse, nothing at all. If that happens, what options do English wine producers have?

This leads me to a vital question: what are English producers’ positions on reserve wines?

The incorporation of reserve wines into a producer’s portfolio strengthens their business plan: it helps both to maintain constant quality, for those who produce a non-vintage, and constant volumes, to cover for low yield harvests over the years.

While I am a strong proponent of reserve wines, one potential drawback is that it requires valuable storage space; winemakers need to be prepared to “sacrifice” tanks for this purpose. It’s part of our long-term winemaking vision at Rathfinny.

In essence, the debate is whether or not it’s more sensible to produce vintage wines every year, or to produce non-vintage by blending different wines.

Vintage (millésime) Champagne is produced only in growing years considered to be of great quality and, during those non-optimal years, wines are a blend of different vintages.

I can’t help but wonder, as the English wine industry continues to grow is this a trend that will dictate winemaking expectations of English producers?

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker at Rathfinny

PS: I had to share this picture of the grass roof on the winery….

Grass Roof

 

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Rain, rain, go away!

Can you believe that this time last year it was 23C and the environment agency imposed a hosepipe ban? Luckily we are delighted to say that we can now walk through the new winery building without being drenched!

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Progress has been spectacular lately: the entire roof is now officially on.

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As I write, the concrete slabs are being poured on the office and laboratory level, and on the tasting room level the slab is down already.

Casts are visible where the reinforced concrete will be poured around the openings to support the presses.

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So as of today, if you walk inside the winery, you can finally see the three different levels and really measure the working spaces available.

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We are still on track for completion by mid-August, and by then the tanks, one press, wiring, piping etc should all be in.

On a side note, we visited Italy last week to look at bottling equipment which was very informative, we learned (even) more about bottling lines and even had time to visit the Negro winery in Monteu Roero, and taste both still and sparkling Nebbiolo wines. If you travel in the Piedmont area, do go and meet the Negro family in the Roero hills, feel the warm Italian hospitality and taste some great wines.

Now I suppose we just have to keep praying for a better growing season than last year. I’m looking forward to experiencing that ‘English Summer’.

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker

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About bottling…

I felt uninspired when I was reminded that I had to post on the blog this week.
My wife kindly told me that I should talk about what I do—or, what I would be doing—if the winery was up and running.

As Mark and I are scheduling a trip to Italy in March to go and visit a bottling-line manufacturing plant, it reminds me of the many stressful days and restless nights I had when I first started bottling over a decade ago. (Yikes, that makes me sound old!)

Bottling is easy, right? After all, a bottling line is just a big piece of equipment that, after proper set up, runs by itself. Well, that’s what it SHOULD be.

I started bottling on older equipment, where each machine was a mechanism that had to be set up independently, and also synchronised with all other machines, so the entire line would be able to run efficiently and smoothly.

Human labour was pretty intense: filling the conveyor with bottles, insuring that machines were always loaded so they would never run out of corks, bidules, crown caps, foils, and labels. Finally, transferring the finished product into cases. Any problem—even so much as a wrinkled label or one improperly-inserted cork—would most likely end up stopping the line, requiring restarting it, which felt like a waste of time. This used to be my nightmare. My reality.

The last bottling line I used was a “monobloc”, where all units are built in a single large unit, already synchronised, and the only adjustments were about shape and size of the bottles. It still required the same amount of human labour, but this was much easier to run, and it did not give me as much trouble, just a bit from time to time.

Bottling season is always a very stressful time for me. From making sure that it is a sterile environment, to making sure that it runs continuously and fast enough, and ensuring constant quality of the delivered product. As bottling is an addition of many different steps, there are lots of parameters to control, and it can get overwhelming at times.

And of course, when one thing goes wrong, it usually creates a chain of reactions on the entire line. Translate: late day.

Bottling is a fast paced process that really needs constant attention.

Bottling still wines is usually done in one session, from filling to packaging.

Bottling sparkling wines is a multi-step process: filling/crown capping the bottles for second fermentation, then disgorging, and finally packaging.

I do remember, in my early years (but after all, wine keeps me young), hearing the bottling line in my sleep, the perpetual clinging of the bottles bumping into each other, and dreaming that the line was having problem after problem… and me trying to fix them.

It takes time to get used to a bottling line, to “master” it. It is funny how eventually in such a noisy environment (earplugs mandatory!) any change in the surrounding noises indicates a problem or a fault, and how you do not even have to look at the line because you already now what the issue is. A simple grinding noise, a vibration, or even a subtle change in bottle-clinking. These are the moments when you know that you finally have it all under control.

Domination over the machine is a very nice feeling indeed.

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker

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Bubbles for every occasion!

Plowing_Dec_12.jpg.scaled1000As a year ends and another one is about to start – well, that’s hoping that we actually survive the apocalypse scheduled for December 21st – lots of us are gearing up for celebrating the New Year with sparkling wine.

Champagne has had for decades a dominant role in the end of year celebrations around the world. I had never really looked into the origin of this trend. It appears that prior to 1789, royals drank Champagne as a tradition to celebrate events,  because – being both a novelty and an expensive one – it was a status symbol.

Historians say that Champagne, after the French Revolution, became used in secular celebrations, replacing religious rituals.

The wine became traditionally opened at various religious celebrations, such as baptisms and weddings.

I remember the excitement when Champagne would gush at the podium of the Formula One Grand Prix. I begged my dad, who at the time was working for Moët & Chandon, to take me with him to one of these races, unfortunately this never happened! On the plus side, he would never fail when sabering a large bottle (chopping its neck off with a large sword)  at various events.

Sparkling wine is a lively and festive wine, traditionally consumed all around the world. Symbolically, it overflows in abundance and joy. I have always been a proponent of sparkling wine as an aperitif but also as a wine to accompany the whole meal.

If you are into wine pairing, look into it. There are a broad variety of sparkling wines, from the light and delicate to the full bodied and rich. There are so many different types of sparkling produced all around the world, no doubt you’ll find a gem somewhere.

Try to start with, say, a Chardonnay-based sparkling. Fine effervescence, delicate flavors and aromas to open your appetite. Then, when pairing with food, it can be quite simple, don’t be scared.

With rich foods, try a Pinot Noir-based wine, for it will have the body to stand up to their richness.

For seafood and/or a salty course, pretty much any sparkling will work, as long as it is not too sweet, i.e. avoid sec, demi-sec and look for brut or dry.

Rosé wines will work with smoked fish and chocolate.

With meat, have you ever tried a sparkling Syrah? Or Bolney’s sparkling Cuvee Noir?

Keep the sweet sparkling like sec, demi-sec for dessert or try with spicy recipes.

Try to be adventurous, and you’ll surely be rewarded.

Don’t tell, but I am taking English sparkling to Champagne for Christmas!

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker at Rathfinny Wine Estate

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A votre santé, Professor Renaud

Prof. Serge Renaud was a French scientist who pioneered research into the prevention of cardiovascular disease, among other health issues. He participated in broadening research into the role of wine, alcohol, fatty acids and other components in preserving health and preventing disease.

His medical career took him notably to Montréal, Canada, Boston, Massachusetts, and Lyon, France.

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Professor Renaud died at the end of October of 2012, not too far away from Bordeaux, leaving behind so many contributions to science, that he was decorated in 2005 with the “Légion d’Honneur”, the highest French distinction.

Professor Renaud appeared on the TV program 60 Minutes, in 1991, explaining what people still refer to as the “French Paradox”. He challenged people to see the benefits of wine rather than its potential risks.

The United States of America, where 60 years before then alcohol consumption was illegal due to prohibition, saw red wine sales go up 40 per cent within days, like a revolution.

Over several decades Professor Renaud studied the effects of how food and diet relate to health and how some nutrients can promote health: Mediterranean diet, anyone?

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He said one day: “If I hadn’t lived with my grandparents and great-grandparents on a vineyard near Bordeaux, perhaps this idea wouldn’t have occurred to me.  When you see people reach the age of 80 or 90 years, who have been drinking small amounts of wine every day, you don’t believe wine in low doses is harmful.”

Nearly a century earlier, Louis Pasteur said “Wine is the most healthy and most hygienic of beverages”.

Even though some of the wine components’ effects, like Resveratrol, a natural phenol, are still being studied, it is now pretty widely accepted that a glass of wine can be good company to a balanced meal. Alcohol is not the devil it used to be anymore, as long as consumed in moderation.

Professor Renaud’s legacy is without doubt a whole new broader vision of the effects of diet on general health.

My take on this, and I do not expect it will get me the Légion d’Honneur, is that your meal will be even better when started with a glass of English sparkling wine.

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker at Rathfinny 

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Champagne’s Harvest 2012…

This is the first year since I started in the wine industry that I am not harvesting at this time of year – I said “not harvesting”, not “not working”, I figured I should take advantage of it and take the time to go to Champagne to see how harvest is going.

Despite fears earlier during the growing season that quality might be compromised, with a lot of pressure from both oidium (powdery mildew) and mildiou (downy mildew), August turned out very nice and the vineyards in Champagne were able to catch up, with much improved quality.

Some plots will not yield much, by Champagne standards that is, with less than the authorised 11,000kg per hectare.

Unfortunately, it is predicted that the overall harvest will be about 30% less than last year.

Every year, pickers can be seen all around Epernay, but this year more than usual some are just sitting, waiting for a contractor to call them in. Sadly, for a lot of them it looks like it will just not happen.

That being said, the day I was driving down the Montagne de Reims heading to Epernay, vineyards looked crowded with pickers.

A friend of mine told me, as I was walking through his vineyard: “Look, last year, this block cropped over 10,000kg, this year I think I’ll get 5,000 to 6,000kg at best. I do not need many pickers, really”.

I was also lucky to attend the testing of a new piece of equipment at a cooperative, a robotized crate dumper. The picking crates are transferred from a pallet to a conveyor (this is also robotized), and the crates are conveyed to the opening of the press where they are automatically tipped / emptied, before being conveyed to a crate washer.

At another cooperative, it takes 2 workers about half an hour, to load an 8ton capacity press by hand. The bins are quite heavy, each is about 40kg, and so it is a very physical job.

I sometimes wonder to what extent the industry in France will automatize and try to rely less on human labour.

Some tasks will always be done by humans, because it requires the experience and anticipation that a machine does not have, but some tasks will surely be done by machines, because machines are fast, efficient and do not get tired, or grumpy, or go on strike.

Could one conceive that one-day Champagne might just even think about mechanized harvest?

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker at Rathfinny Wine Estate

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