Liberty Wines Apprentice 2017
Devaux, Champagne, France - 2018 vintage
"2018 is set to be a historic vintage in Champagne, and it was fascinating to be a part of it."
I arrived a few days before the first grapes were picked and it didn’t me take long to see that every occasion is an excuse for drinking a glass of Champagne – whether it’s after a business meeting, a trip to the vineyards or morning of hard graft cleaning tanks. I was at a cooperative winery in a small, southerly Champenoise village called Les Riceys in the Cote des Bar. The winery primarily makes still base wines from Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay for Champagne Devaux, but also produces a still red and rosé wine.
During my first week I visited the vineyard plots with Devaux winemaker, Michel Parisot to test the ripeness of the grapes and schedule harvest dates. It was really interesting to find out the correct way to taste grapes – you’re meant to suck the juice out first, then bite into the pips followed by the skins, Each element can tell you something different about the maturity of the grape and most importantly whether it’s ready to pick.
The hard work started when the first tractors full of grapes started to arrive at the co-op, which they did every day for two weeks from 10am until 8pm, so all the tanks were at alternating stages of development throughout my time there. Every day was different – from conducting laboratory analysis to more hands-on jobs like mixing up frothy, warm yeast, digging out boozy-smelling red wine tanks (very satisfying) and chaptalising white ferments. A lot of time was also spent disconnecting and reconnecting giant hoses that were used to pump the wines between different types of tank, depending on their stage of fermentation. One of the best parts was noticing the wines change and develop from sweet, fruity grape juice to dry, balanced wines over a few weeks, tasting each day to check their progress.
I was working in a team of around 30 and eating breakfast, lunch and dinner all together made for a really great atmosphere – there was always Champagne, wine and cheese which made the long hours in the winery more manageable. 2018 is set to be a historic vintage in Champagne, and it was fascinating to be a part of it – especially when yields had been so low in 2017.
Giant Steps, Yarra Valley, Australia - 2019 vintage
"It's been really interesting to pick [chief winemaker] Steve Flamsteed's brains about what goes on in the vineyard and how that affects the wine."
Mid-February: I spent my first few days at Giant Steps getting my head around winery systems and processes again, cleaning tanks and barrels and power hosing grime from dusty corners - surprisingly satisfying. Then grapes from the Tarraford and Sexton vineyards started to come in so I've been learning how to operate and clean the press, fill barriques for oak-fermented chardonnay and how to process the fruit for reds. They do a lot of work with whole bunches and carbonic maceration, so it's been fascinating to learn about how it works, and how they decide which blocks of fruit are best suited for different styles of winemaking.
It's set to be a condensed vintage - some cooler weather and rain has delayed picking slightly, so last week I had time to learn the ropes with a few parcels of fruit that arrived. It's a very well-equipped winery - there is even a crane to lift the fruit from the ground floor to the open-top fermenters on the first floor. I've also spent a couple of days in the vineyard, one riding on the back of a tractor helping pick leaves and sunburned fruit out of the harvested fruit, and another with chief winemaker Steve Flamsteed tasting grapes and assessing their ripeness so he can set the picking schedule - it's been really interesting to pick his brains about what goes on in the vineyard and how that affects the wine.
Mid-March: The last fruit has been picked and vintage is wrapping up at Giant Steps. A typical day starts at 7:15am with coffee and a team catch up. Then we split into groups - one of the team with a winemaking degree will be on lab work and start getting samples from all of the chardonnay in puncheons, then two people will be in charge of pressing, and two on red cap management. The press is placed under the fermenter, and the skins are physically dug out and pushed out of the door of the fermenter, down a chute into the press. It's a very good work out, especially if it is 100% whole bunch, because they get very compacted and tangled. It's actually a lot of fun though, and there's always an element of competition around how quickly you can get it done.
At 10 ish we pause for coffee and (a lot of) toast - a break called 'smoko', despite the lack of smoking. We stop for a quick lunch cooked by the Giant Steps restaurant team. If it's sunny and we have time, we'll sit outside, creating a makeshift table out of pallets and crates. On busier days we take it in turns to wolf it down in the staff room. At 5ish, Steve shouts across the winery that it's time for a 'safety meeting' - essentially beer o'clock, when we catch up on the plan for the next couple of hours. Over the really busy weeks we have generally finished up around 8:30pm, collapsing in the winery office with a few glasses of wine. On Wednesday and Saturday evenings we eat dinner all together, either in the Giant Steps restaurant or someone might BBQ outside on the crush pad.We take it in turns to bring wines for blind tasting, which has been great practice for my impending exam. My cut hands, bruises, scratches, blisters and sulphur rashes are starting to heal and I'm looking forward to the farewell dinners and drinks over the next week or so...