Calm has been restored, Les Hollandais have been repatriated and the liver is slowly returning to its original size. In this Slurp! we report on the two weeks grape harvest with the help of a group of Dutch wine lovers. Allez, on y'f!
'Pas une grande annee,' says manager Paul. A great start to the 2011 vendanges! It doesn't look promising. The grapes are lacking in tannins. Due to an overly sunny spring, the setting of the fruit started early. Too early as it turns out, because due to a summer lacking in sunshine the grapes didn't quite ripen properly.
'Aout fait le mout', as they say over here; August makes the grape must, but in Aout the sun stayed away and indeed many grapes aren't ripe.
'So maybe we should put the harvest off a while, Paul!'
'No, there's no point in doing that, because of the early setting the grapes have reached the end of their life cycle now anyway, they won't get any riper even if we leave them. So we better just harvest them, there's no escaping it.'
But, as is often the way, it's not as bad as it seemed.
The ripeness of our grapes turns out to be somewhere between acceptable and good. I'd say around an 8.
This notwithstanding we have to apply rigorous sorting methods. Every single bunch that's not quite ripe goes straight into the bin.
Another method that we use to increase the quality and taste of the end product is 'bleeding' (saigner); which means we let out some of the juice from the cuves to concentrate the remaining grape must.
Out of this reject juice we vinify a second wine. Which sounds worse than it actually is; because at some stage this formed the base of our La Tulipe Rosé. In my opinion it is because we were strict in cutting away the excess grapes during the vendanges vertes (as well as lovingly singing to them), we have been able to keep the quality of 2011 at an acceptable level.
The good news is that we can drink this millesime right away, because Bordeaux 2011 most certainly will not be a wine to be stored to age.
Sunday the 28th of September
The castle park is slowly filling up with tents. 'Les Hollandais sont arrivees', 26 Dutch volunteers are coming to risk their backs and fingers in order to turn this year's harvest into the most beautiful wine in the world.
Picking grapes is war. The grape-generals decide on the strategy in a staff meeting. Which plots will see their grapes go first and where do we leave them hanging for another few days?
It's not unusual for all wine producers in the village to start their harvest at the same time. Being run over by a tractor full of grapes might seem like a beautiful way to go, but just to make sure that the Dutch wine tigers survive their first day, the wineboer takes the precaution of placing warning signs around.
Monday morning the 19th of September
Caroline hands out the new t-shirts.
Castle carpenter Frederic is unaware of the fact that we design a new shirt for every harvest. He's pleasantly surprised as he puts on the fresh shirt over last year's one.
The wine harvest is surrounded by ancient rituals; in complete isolation, whilst softly whispering a prayer to Bacchus, the wineboer is busy baptising the secateurs in a bath of grape leaves, toad-sweat and Domestos.
Meanwhile outside, the camp commander Caroline explains to the freshly arrived troupe what grapes look like and how they should be harvested. Please note the second picker on the left; Dutch tradition has taught her never to let go of your milking stool.
The first morning it rains. And the morning's harvest is cancelled before it has even started.
The weather clears up after lunch and the grape picking can begin in earnest. Here we see how dog-grooming specialist Marianne proudly presents her first findings: 'How lovely, a wine harvest! And these little unusual purple balls? Do we throw them out?
Professional sky-diver Fenna laughs; 'No, you halfwit, those are grapes! Chuck them into my crate!'
The next morning it's beautiful and sunny, the weather would stay like this for the entire remaining harvest.
In the afternoon it gets roasting hot, so Chef d'Equipe Caroline needs to lubricate her throat with a nicely chilled bottle of Tulipe Blanc to ease the barking of commands to the troops.
The atmosphere is better than ever and our Dutch wine tigers bring in a wonderfully smooth harvest.
We're right on track so we can happily take our lunch break. Of course we don't drink wine but Chateau de la Pompe.
Halfway through the first week of the harvest during their lunch break the pickers are surprised by the arrival of Bas Leinders (30) who has cycled to our Chateau from Sittard (in the south of Holland) to help with the harvest. Did he come on a light-weight carbon fibre 18-speed racer? No he came on his granny's old bike (zero speed).
Upon his arrival at the chateau he pitches his tent and joins the rest of the pickers crew in the vineyard. Barely half an hour after he got in he's already filled up his first crate of grapes.
The grapes from our very best plots turn out to be completely ripe. In spite of this, maitre de chai Philippe and wine giant Regis are very strict in their selection.
Like every year we will fill 12 barriques with our best grapes for the 'Vinif Integrale'. This means a lot of hard labour at the 'Table de tri', the sorting table. This is where the grapes are relieves from accidentally left over bits of stem, ladybirds, little spiders, lizards and other by-products of the organic wine production.
After this we carefully pour the grapes into the oak barrels. Every layer of grapes is topped off with a layer of dry ice to chill them. This delays the fermentation process, which allows the fruit content of the wine to become more concentrated. Dry ice is the solid form of carbon dioxide and has a temperature of minus 78 degrees Celsius. When it melts it again becomes gaseous; so it will not water down the wine.
When the barriques are full, tonnelier Vincent Darnajou from Pomerol arrives. With powerful strikes he hammers the cover on the barrique, so that the fermentation can start.
Meanwhile outside there is a certain fermentation process taking place as well: during lunch many vineyard workers can barely keep their eyes open in the oppressive heat. The sunscreen is being passed around and the yawning seems to be contagious.
The wineboer and his lovely assistants trample a special 'Cuvee du pieds'.
Naturally, this very special 'Reserve' is filtered before going in to the cuves. Regis is left with a pair of authentic purple wine hands.
On the final night of the week we put on a horizontal tasting night, during which we assess, to full satisfaction of our pickers, five different vintages of Chateau la Tulipe de la Garde. Very little wine is spat back out.
There's a sheep roasting on the spit, the wine flows abundantly as if it welled up from a natural spring and the aromas wafting from the cheeseboard are so solid you build a house on them.
Sunday the 25th of September
Yesterday morning the equipe Hollandaise has left. Relationships have blossomed, friendships formed and promises made. Kisses were exchanged and here and there a tear was shed. Then silence took over once again at the chateau. But not for very long, today the park will once again be taken over by the next lot of pickers.
The next equipe is rearing to go.
At the break of dawn the pickers are marching ardently into the vineyards.
Like Moses led his people to the Promised Land, drill sergeant Caroline leads her freshly awoken cannon fodder into the grape fields.
This troupe works like a group of fiery devils and and Fredic's trailer rapidly fills with full grape crates.
'Careful!' her fellow pickers warn extreme-sports enthusiast Natasha. 'Three crates is way too much to carry! One of them on it's own is already 20 kilos'. 'Bullshit!' smiles the merry brute; 'I won't let a couple of those puny little crates stand in my way!' And indeed, to everyone's surprise, the petite little picker happily spends all morning rambling through the hilly vineyard with the heavy pile of crates on her back.
De nieuwe equipe gunt zich geen rust. The new equipe don't allow themselves much time for breaks. We take the Mehari and drive thermos flasks and biscuits into the field for the coffee break.
Lunch is being served back at the courtyard of the Chateau as always, but because of the 32-degree heat, we're eating in the shade.
On the final day the whole troupe is recruited for the finicky task of preparing the grapes for the vinification integrale. This means manually stripping the grapes of their stems, grape after grape after grape...
Amateur gynaecologist Marco proudly displays the authentic beret that he's managed to wheedle out of the wineboer.
Marco, custodian of overseas areas, educates: 'to prevent oxidization of the grapes we must make sure that their skins remain undamaged, in order to do this rotate the grape 45-degrees and then gently pull off the stem.'
Impressed by the sonorous voice of the custodian, the sweet little picker-girls demurely follow his guidance.
Master of the cellar Philippe carefully pours the grapes into the barriques and scatters them with dry ice..
Here's a quick snapshot of the cuvee we vinified in the same manner in 2009. 'Troismille'. For sale from the 1st of December in the SlurpShop.
To make sure that the fermentation process is postponed as long as possible in this exclusive high quality wine, the grapes need to be mixed with the dry ice that we add. To achieve this, the barrels are rolled back and forth along the wooden tracks in the wine cellar, twice a day.
Naturally you can't give a job like that to a bunch of boorish yokels. No, a job like that needs to be done with care and tenderness, because wine is alive. That's why it is only the female wing of our equipe who is allowed this delicate task.
That night again we have a horizontal tasting night of earlier vintages. We spot many serious looks, much profound and philosophical slurping but notably little spitting.
Halfway through the session the sound of slurping is drowned out by DJ Jean-Noel, randomly selected by us from the Yellow Pages, who has arrived to do a sound check and test his smoke machines.
In the middle of the festivities wine writer Marco entertains with a surprise performance act. Diplomas, presents and kisses are dispensed and we dance late into the night at the Chateau disceau.
DJ Jean Noel reveals himself to be a persuasive, very French type of artist, who manages to rejuvenate the somewhat dated expression 'camp'. In addition to that he speaks, as evidenced in the accompanying video footage, at least four words of English.