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Oct. 22, 2020 | Thursday
Local News
Harvest time: Behind the scenes bringing in the grapes

 

 

Early mornings, long days and always at the mercy of Mother Nature

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It was still dark when Amélie Boury crawled out of bed at 5:45 on a late September morning.

Boury is the vice-president for winemaking and operations at NOTL’s Chateau des Charmes Winery and she had big plans for that day.

Harvest season was in full swing and Boury had her crew set up to harvest 50 tons of premium Chardonnay grapes that day, starting at 7 a.m.  

Skies were overcast and rain had fallen overnight, more rain than the forecast had predicted.

“When I woke up and opened my curtains, I said, ‘Oh my God!’ because everything was so wet,” she recalls.

 “I had to tell the crew, ‘OK guys, we are not starting at 7 a.m. Come for a walk with me through the vineyard at 9 o’clock and we will see how things are.’”

Boury says it’s important for the grapes to be dry when they are harvested, “because if they are wet, the water will dilute the sugar level of the juice” – and that’s bad for the wine.

When she and her crew walked the vineyard at 9, the vines were still wet. “So I said, we’ll do it again in two hours. At 11 it still wasn’t dry enough, but finally, by noon, the grapes were dry, so we got started.”

Paul Bosc, whose father Paul Bosc Sr. founded the winery in 1978, explains that these particular grapes are growing on the Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard and they are used to make their most premium Chardonnay, so it’s especially important to have the right conditions to pick them.

Walking through the estate vineyard, Bosc, president and CEO, points at the vines with obvious pride, saying, “These vines were planted in 1983 and 1984. Who would have thought they’d still be here today, producing high-quality grapes?”

That makes the vines 36 years old. “I see great beauty in that. Most commercial vines only last 20 to 25 years,” he says. 

The delayed start of harvesting on this day means “now we’re racing against the clock. We’ll pick until dark, or they’re done, or it rains.”

The mammoth bright orange harvester lumbers through the vineyards at a distance, leaving a slight cloud of dust in its wake and vines stripped of their fruit. 

Bosc bristles at the old debate over machine versus hand-picking, saying, “It’s incredible how sophisticated these machines have become. There may be stylistic reasons to hand-pick, for example for sparkling, but there’s no quality issue.”

Bosc bought his Gregoire Harvester from Bordeaux, France, in 2003 at a cost of $350,000, and he says it’s very efficient. “There’s very little MOG (material other than grapes). The stems are left on the vines and just the grapes come in, ready for pressing.”

The harvester straddles the row of vines and gently shakes them, so the ripe grapes fall onto a conveyor belt and are delivered up into the bins.

Timing is everything at harvest time, so “speed is of the essence” and the machines are dramatically faster than hand-picking.   

Boury is high up in the cab with maintenance manager Cassandra Weighaas-Barber at the steering wheel. Their enthusiasm is palpable.

For Boury, this harvest has special significance, for two reasons. “This is my 10th harvest at Chateau des Charmes and it’s my first year as vineyard manager, as well as winemaker, so the first time to do it from beginning to end. It’s really rewarding to see them grow all year, then come to this point. Plus, it’s been such a great growing season.”

Boury is from France, where she earned two master’s degrees, including an M.Sc. in viticulture and oenology from the prestigious University of Montpellier. 

Though her smile is wide and authentic, harvest time is not for the timid. “How do I describe harvest time? It’s mixed. I always say exciting first, then stress. I feel happy, but I also feel stressed and tired.” 

There are a lot of variables to juggle. “We’re always looking to balance sugar and acid. In recent days we had several hot days, and everything jumped so quickly, we had to make fast-paced decisions.” 

“Last week we went 24/7, to pick grapes in their optimal condition. When you get that perfect window, you gotta go!” she exclaims, adding, “Everyone knows it’s hard, but we gotta get it done! This team is great.”

When the harvester bins are full, the grapes are tipped into big plastic bins and hauled to the winery.

Bosc Sr. himself is in the yard when the grapes arrive.

Bosc Jr. says, “They were harvesting grapes from his personal vineyard, that’s not something he’d miss! My dad is 85 now. This is his favourite time of year. He seems to draw fresh energy during harvest time.”

Boury is hands-on at every step of the process, from the vineyard to the winery yard. Once the grapes arrive, she checks the sugar level of the juice before they head inside to be pressed, the grape juice flowing down to the cellar to be cooled and settled.

Also on hand for that process is associate winemaker Chris Robinson, Boury’s husband. The two met in 2012 at the Icewine Festival on Queen Street and married in 2016. Robinson has been at Chateau des Charmes for a year now. 

Boury laments, “We both have harvest birthdays, one in September and one in November, so we never celebrate on our actual birthdays.” 

She and her crew worked until 10 o’clock that night, when they had to stop harvesting because of rain. Twenty rows of Chardonnay grapes stayed on the vines that night, waiting for the next window of good conditions so they could be picked.  

There’s a moment each harvest season, “when the last bin goes in to the yard and there are no more grapes out there. In that moment, I am so happy,” she says.

That moment, still some weeks away, will come once the red Bordeaux grapes have been brought in.

The roller coaster ride of harvest season will then be over for another year, though the work will continue in the cellar. Wine will be fermented, aged and tasted.

It will be months or years before the wine from the 2020 harvest is bottled and ready, but Boury is confident it will prove to be an exceptionally fine vintage.

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