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INTERVIEW|The four seasons of a Bordeaux winemaker

· Wine Culture
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What better day than Labour’s Day to pay a tribute to winemakers and show them our gratitude for their hard work ? Today, while most of us are enjoying a day off, they are probably busy in the vineyards. But let’s not pity them too much, as they are passionate people who like their job !

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Land ploughing with the help of horse, a peaceful moment for the winemaker

Winemakers are farmers with strong personalities. During their career, they might demonstrate their skills only 40 times, once per year. It’s very few compared to the restaurant’s chef who does so every week.

While most of us know that wine is made from grape juice, how many really understand the process of winemaking and all the steps that happen before putting the wine into a bottle? Let's understand, season after season, what are the main tasks of the winemaker.

After these steps explained, find an exclusive interview of Marc Milhade, winemaker in Bordeaux !

Winter: Pruning the vines

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Pruning in Château Cheval Blanc, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru AOC

During winter, vines are dormant. They are not active, they are in hibernation. It is time for the winemaker to prune the vines, meaning to cut the canes which produced grapes during the previous year. The pruning strategy depends on the region’s climate, the composition of the soil and the desired output quantity. It generally occurs in December and finishes in March, right before the first buds appear.

Spring: The growing season begin

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Winemaker in Chablis lights up fires to protect the new buds from frost

After a winter rest, the vines wake up and then appear the first buds, which will give birth to shoots. This is the first stage of the growth cycle. It is crucial to protect the new buds from spring frosts which could kill them. This is a common problem in cool regions such as Champagne or Chablis. Winemakers can use dramatic methods to fight against them such as lightning fires or spraying constant water over the vines to avoid the temperature to drop below 0°C.

Summer: Flowering, fruit set and colour change

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Flowering (on the left) and « véraison » (onthe right)

In June, flowers appear on the tips of the young shoots, looking like buttons. The tradition goes that harvest will take place 100 days after that moment. At the same time, the winemaker will remove some leaves in order to maximise flowers’ exposure to the sun. Soon these flowers will turn into fruits, and this is only until August that the grapes will turn from green to red for black grapes and translucent for white grapes. This is called « véraison ».

Autumn: Harvest and winemaking

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Everyone works as a team to collect the grapes under the sun

Harvests usually take place in September in the Northern Hemisphere and in March in the Southern Hemisphere. This is a the most critical time of the year. The winemaker monitors the grapes every day, waiting to pick the grapes only until they have reached the exact desired degree of maturity. Heavy rains at that time can have a terrible impact as the grapes could become swollen and lose their concentration.

After harvest, a second phase can start, the winemaking. We will come back to that crucial process in a future article.

A Bordeaux Winemaker Intervie

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Marc Milhade happy with his Carmenère grapes before harvest

Marc Milhade is the Milhade winemaking family owner and general manager of Château Recougne (Bordeaux Supérieur AOC) and Château Boutisse (Saint-Emilion Grand Cru AOC). Today, Marc is completely devoted to his 125 hectares of vines, located across the Bordeaux region, which he cherishes all year long to produce top quality wines.

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Marc and his sister Elodie, also involved in the family business

Good morning Marc, how did you learn winemaking ?

Marc: Being from a family of winemakers, I was born in the middle of the vineyards. I learned the winemaking job’s basics during my childhood. At harvest’s time, I would run back home after school, rushing to the estate to take part in the vinification processes. That’s how I first learned

Then, for a few years, I pursued engineering studies, as I thought to start a career in industrial production. Although my studies were not related to my original passion, I kept on being active in wine : I created an oenology club, I did an internship with a barrel-maker…

One day I left to Paris for 18 months to work at PSA Peugeot Citroen (France’s largest car manufacturer) to validate my engineering’s degree. However, I realized it would be sad to pursue an industrial career. The world of wine is way more diverse, fulfilling and filled with fascinating human relationships.

That’s why I took over the management of our family estates in 2005. It was like being back at school, and the learning process was very long. My basic understanding in winemaking was still limited and I had to read a huge amount of books. But besides reading books, I rather learned the job in the field during the past 15 years, in a very humble way.

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Marc tasting the new vintage of Château Recougne

What is a typical day in the life of a winemaker ?

Marc: There is no such thing. Each day is different as we depend on the weather, the vine's cycle, wine tastings, business and promotional trips, customers’meetings… This is what makes the magic of this job. Few other jobs are as complete and varied as this one.

What relationship do you have with nature ?

Marc: In our estates, nature is the foundation of our work. We do everything we can to respect it. Our vineyards are certified « HauteValeur Environnement 3 », a sustainable agricultural certification awarded to eco-friendly farms in France which respect its strict standards. We chose the most ethical methods to cultivate our soils (green fertilizers, zero herbicide, very few works on the soils…) and we are constantly thinking about how to reduce our environmental impact. If we don’t respect nature, the quality of our wines will definitely suffer from it.

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Marc grows mustard in the middle of his vineyards to galvanize the soils

What time of the year brings you the most satisfaction ?

Marc: The moment when we release our new vintage is one of the most exciting times of the year. All the players from the wine world gather in April to present their last vintage. It is the achievement of a hard-working year in the vineyards and the cellars. Wines are tasted again and again, compared and graded. Obviously, it is also a stressful period, as we are waiting for the verdicts from the different judges, which will influence the following sales.

Can you recall a particularly demanding and difficult year ?

Marc: 2013 was very difficult. Harvest had to be done in a very short time as the pouring rain was threatening the quality of the grapes, which were swelling up very quickly. We had to work day and night for three weeks to save the crops and that was exhausting.

Do you have memories of a wonderful year ?

Marc: 2015 was one of these years when nature can be merciful and clement. Weather was stable, the harvest was done under a bright sun, punctuated by light rains happening at the right moments. These were just perfect conditions.

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Marc pressing the grapes early in the morning with his intern

Do you ever take some time off ?

Marc: I do ! August is generally a calm period as we wait for the grapes to quietly ripen, before harvest. January is also a tranquil month, as the vines are resting. I usually use these periods to go on holiday with my family or to visit our customers.

What would you like to tell to our readers who take great delight in drinking your wines here in China

Marc: I would like to tell them that it is important to keep in mind that a bottle of wine is coming from a vine stock. This represents a year of work to make it grow, to protect it, to train it, to prune it and to harvest its fruits. Afterwards, we have to turn the juice into wine, to age it and to bottle it. After all, this comes the selling, the travels and the commercialization.

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Thus, it is a long-lasting, precise and difficult job to put this bottle on your tables. I think it is crucial to learn how to taste this wine, in order to appreciate the final product and give it the attention and respect it deserves. I would like to give you all the advice to take the time to taste wines, rather than just drink them, and also think about quality first.

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