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Harvesting in the Priorat 2009: The Theory Behind “Unnatural Selection”

Harvesting in the PrioratRecently, a friend of ours Raymond Magourty (Raymondo) was given the opportunity to work the harvest for a Mas Doix, a prestigious wine producer in the town of Poboleda who’s recent Parker Points have elevated it in popularity, is located in the Priorat. With his background in wine, and desire to learn more about about the Priorat, the winery took him on as an apprentice during the harvest. Hence over the next few months, Raymondo will be chiming every now and then with his day to day experiences working a Cataluna harvest! You can also read about his experience at the start of the harvest, visiting local wine festivals, and the uncommon debate of when to pick the grapes and barrel topping.

Unnatural selection

It’s no secret that the harvest this year in D.O.C. Priorat is one of the most challenging encountered in recent memory.It’s quite common for there to be a day or two of significant rainfall here during July and/or August but this year, as with 2006 & 2007, that didn’t happen; there were weeks with high humidity but no rain. Furthermore there was an excessively hot spell during mid-late august where temperatures were in the 40’sºC. During the night the temperatures also remained frequently in the mid-high 20ºC. The grapes simply didn’t get a chance to cool and there have been manifold issues. The secret to vine/grape health is balance and this was disturbed this year – lots of talk abounds about climate change. Some varieties are more severely affected than others but this is not a vintage year for Garnacha Tinta (Grenache) in these parts. Garnacha, apart from Merlot of which we only have a tiny amount, is our earliest ripening red variety and has seen the brunt of the issues .The result is that we have grapes coming in that are in all different stages of development and frequently we have problems within the same bunch. There’s Botrytis Bunch rot, Oidium, Mosquito, Wild boar (I kid you not) & bird damage; we have ‘secos’, (sun-baked, dry fruit without juice, but with high sugar), unripe berries (quite astringent in the mouth – these occur when the vines ability to photosynthesize is shut down due to excessive heat stress and the berries cease ripening), ‘water berries’ (late pollination fruit clusters from the vine that look OK but have no real flavour profile and often have astringent tannins), we have ‘Pansas’ (semi-dried with a rancio or cooked aroma when tasted). It’s a cornucopia of everything. Fortunately we also have mostly healthy fruit that looks and tastes right, the problem is we have to separate the bad from the good and this process is the key to maintaining quality this year.

How do we deal with these problems?

In Priorat every thing is done by hand. The landscape is an undulating series of terraced hills with most vineyard parcels being quite small. All vine treatments at Mas Doix are applied by hand. This quality selection process at Mas Doix is comprised of several stages. The first action taken to deal with this years issues was the decision by the team to leave appropriate leaf cover in the vine canopy to protect the maturing grapes from the sun. During harvest the pickers in the vineyards are instructed to cut from the bunches any damaged or unripe fruit and to discard water-berries & raisoned clusters. This slows down the picking process but is a crucial step in quality control.

When the grapes reach the bodega we sort prior to crush. This year the process is elongated significantly due to the fruit issues. I’ve worked a harvest in California and visited wineries in many countries during harvest but I’ve never seen anything to rival the amount of work that goes into grape selection here. Consequently it is probably the most important element of this years efforts, but it comes at the price of continuous long days and a lot of man-hours. The crop is down significantly but the costs of processing the crop have conversely gone up, as we’ve taken on more people to work the selection tables. Every member of the team must also know the types of vine/grape ailments to look for and there’s quite a degree of education involved. We frequently also do a pre-selection outside the bodega before the cases reach table 1.

The sorting table is situated prior to the de-stemmer and is full-time operated by between 3 – 6 people. Each 20-litre container of grapes is emptied onto the table where the team sorts, inspecting every single individual bunch, removing by hand or with secateurs anything that is damaged or affected by any form of malady. Only after the bunch has been examined is it passed to the de-stemmer, which rotates at high speed shaking the berries from the stem.

The berries are then conveyed to a slow-moving specially designed selection table where 2 – 3 people remove individual berries that escaped any earlier quality controls. This selection table also vibrates as the grapes moves along and all MOG (Material Other than Grapes) drops through specially designed narrow slits. We’re dealing with a natural product growing on hillsides in the countryside so when you separate out a bunch you find all sorts of insects and other fun things inside. There’s a strong fan build into part of the table that blows any leaves, bits of stem or lightweight grapes (‘secos’) into the bin as the grapes drop onto the table. This is all frustratingly slow and hugely labour intensive but we are not dealing with ordinary wines here – if we were the days would be a whole lot shorter. Two Dutch distributors that visited this week were literally gob smacked to see the degree of work and attention to detail involved. The smiles below partly belie the true story of two weeks on the selection tables.

The vast majority of wineries do not do anything like the level of inspection we do at Mas Doix. At times it has been far from enjoyable as a five hour shift spent watching little berries bounce along, all the time searching for the odd ones, is somewhat trying and doing this continuously for days on end is enough to make you go a little funny upstairs. This is one of the key points of differentiation between a premium producer and the rest of the pack.

We also purchase a small portion (circa 15%) of our fruit from local growers, not all of whom are as judicious with their vineyard selection techniques. This has led to a degree of friction at times. The price of grapes has not decreased despite the obvious issues with certain varieties in certain sites and some suppliers have brought in below par fruit. I’ve seen one grower have up to 30% of his grapes returned as unfit for purpose – the day we sorted his fruit was a low point for morale.

I’ve included the some photos of the issues encountered with young vine Garnacha Tinta– Please note these are pictures of rejected fruit, that we don’t use and are presented here to illustrate examples of this years vine or grape issues. I’d have loved to go into more depth on why each type of problem occurred here this year but alas apart from the bog I’ve also got a spot of work to do.

I do however plan to take a large sledgehammer to the selection table after all this is over as it has taken so much of my precious time. Last word on the selection table goes to the ladies. Woe betide the fool who shares the table with the matriarchs of the bodega, this is one of the higher-risk areas of the winery. Last week while sorting grapes, I was stuttering through my family history in Spanish; when I told them that my brother was about the same age as myself but that he had three young children; the comment back to me in Spanish was ‘pero con el trabajo hecho eh?’ – ‘but with the job done eh! Help.

What’s happening with the wines?

We’ve harvested the white varietals and all were whole cluster crushed then pressed and are now fermenting separately. The PX was first in, followed by Garnacha Blanca (White Grenache), then Macabeo. We’re barrel fermenting the Garnacha Blanca in new French oak and the Macabeo in 2nd fill French oak barrels.
Of the reds Merlot, an early ripening variety was first in and we’re fermenting in stainless steel at about 25ºC. We’ve also got old vine (100+ years) Garnacha Tinta in, also fermenting in tank. I’ll go into more detail on what we do during fermentation with each in a future post. Lots of Garnacha has come in this week so we’ve 4 or 5 tanks in various early of fermentation. Let the games begin.

Check out more photos on my Flickr account!

More soon….


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