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Leaving town – Off on a harvest

On the 10th of October I packed my bags and set off for the Domaine La Liaudisaz, in Fully, in the Canton of Valais, in Switzerland. The Domaine is the property of Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, an amazingly charismatic and talented woman, a true “vigneronne” who not only makes wines but also tends to her vines. This she does with formidable determination. Believing that the quality of her wines cannot exceed that of her grapes, she nurtures her vineyards as she would her own flesh and blood. Indeed, herbal teas and bicarbonate of soda are a few of the preparations she administers to her vines, having embraced biodynamics some fifteen years ago.

If her wines are phenomenal, her vines radiate exuberance. In the summer, in particular, her vines stand out from those of others. Erect, lush, with vibrantly green and undamaged leaves the vines grow in symbiosis with their surroundings. Aromatic herbs such as thyme and hyssop mingle with wild strawberries, round-leaved pink geraniums, miniature pansies, poppies, grass and colourful flowers a plenty. Lizards, bees, grasshoppers, butterflies, flies and the occasional snake are seasonal residents.

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I arrive with perfect timing just as the harvest pickers are having lunch. A hearty meal of venison stew and rice, bread and cheese served with the Domaine’s red and white wine has been laid on trestle tables amongst the terraced vineyards. The sun is shining brightly, the temperature is in the high 20s centigrade and the atmosphere is lively. A German photographer has joined in for the day to take pictures for an upcoming article featuring Marie-Thérèse Chappaz that will be published in the French nature magazine GEO (www.geo.fr).

After lunch the crates of grapes are collected and taken down the mountain to the winery by “chenillette” (tracked vehicle) and then, once a road has been reached, by car. The pickers are despatched in groups to the various vineyards dotted around the Rhône valley to resume the day’s harvesting.

As we drive down to the winery Marie-Thérèse explains to me the difficulties that they have had this vintage with the arrival in the area of a new pest: the Drosophila suzukii, an Asian vinegar fly. This tiny fly, yellowish-brown in colour, 2-3 mm long, is recognisable by its red eyes and by the single black spot that males have on the tip of each wing. This pest attacks soft fruit such asstrawberries, raspberries, blackberries as well as cherries, elderflower berries and grapes, to name a few. Its modus operandi is particularly destructive. Unlike the regular fruit or vinegar fly that is attracted to damaged or rotting fruit, the female Drosophila suzukii perforates healthy, ripening berries and lays her eggs inside. The larvae then hatch out and grow within the berry, leading to a rapid decomposition of the pulp. The small hole in the berry’s skin lets in bacteria and rot, which then attracts native fruit flies. For Marie-Thérèse, this year’s harvesting is taking longer than ever requiring a greater team of pickers working longer hours. Grapes have to be properly inspected and carefully sorted. All the affected berries and surrounding ones have to be removed from the bunch. The task is not made easier by the fact that the current weather conditions have induced the development of botrytis. If noble rot is desirable, grey rot and acid rot is not. Harvest pickers must therefore be able to make the distinction, keep what is good and get rid of the unwanted berries or bunches.

This is not so much a problem for the labourers who work regularly for Marie-Thérèse. Indeed her specialty is late-harvested and sweet white wines, which also requires selective picking. After our visit to the winery we head back up to a vineyard plot situated on a steep slope at an altitude of approximately 500 meters. The grape variety is Petite Arvine, a white variety native to the Valais. The variety is sensitive to rot and this year, as in 2011, the weather conditions have been such that the grapes have been attacked by noble rot. We work our way along the rows and using our fingers only, pick the botrytised berries off the bunches. Any berry that can still be further consumed by rot is left on the bunch to be harvested at a later date. These grapes which have literally been harvested a berry at a time will make Marie-Thérèse’s prized sweet “Grain par grain” Petite Arvine, Les Claives. The berries in their shrivelled condition will yield very little juice, but the sweet wine produced from it is of extreme concentration and complexity.

The small quantity of botrytised Petite Arvine berries is then pressed with a small wooden vertical press and the juice transferred into glass demi-johns where it will start fermenting.

 

Harvest on location at the domaine of Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, Domaine La Liaudisaz, Fully, Valais, Switzerland (www.chappaz.ch).

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