Monday, September 27, 2010

Case mountain

Not so much Disney's famous Space Mountain, but actually Castro Martin's Case Mountain!

Once the bodega has had its first post-harvest clean we turn our attention to the cases that we use for collecting grapes. Like everything else in the cellar they are coated with a layer of sticky grape juice, which if allowed to dry, ends up like a coat of solid lacquer.

We subsequently spend about 4 days, with two pressure washers, cleaning each case individually (about 2,000 cases in total). Once dried they remain untouched for the next 51 weeks in our grape reception, awaiting the following harvest. Actually, when I stop and think about it, we actually have a lot of equipment that is only used once a year at harvest time. Not forgetting that there are also huge sections of the bodega itself that are used only once a year  - the grape reception and pressing room, for example. Not exactly the most efficient use of our resources.

If only we could work out a way to share these facilities with our counterparts in the southern hemisphere, or perhaps have two harvests a year as I believe they do in some parts of India......

On second thoughts, no thanks, one harvest a year is more than enough!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Our small tribute to Arthur Guiness

Did you know that today, 23rd September, is offically Arthur Guiness day? No? Well, neither did I.... To be honest I am still not quite sure what it celebrates but I believe that it is a 'follow-on' from last year's 250th anniversary.

Purely by co-incidence we were seeding some tanks this morning when I looked at the foam being generated by the re-hydrating yeast. It reminded me of a pint of Guiness (actually 200 litres of Guiness to be more accurate).

Now that's what I call a head!

As you may have gathered from these comments we are now busy in the cellar transforming our wonderful grape must into even more wonderful albariño. This year we have already calculated that no malolactic fermentation will be necessary as the acidity level of our grapes at harvest was pretty much perfect.

Nearly one week after we finished picking at Castro Martin, there is still much activity in many of the vineyards of our denomination. I would be very interested to see the analysis of the grapes being gathered today and to find out whether the cellars concerned will feel the need to artificially acidify at a later date....

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A minor gong

In all the excitement of the harvest I forgot to mention that one of our wines picked up first prize in a local Galician competition for Albariño. As you may know if you read my blog regularly, we do not actively enter too many wine concourses, but now and again an odd bottle slips in, and this is usually the result! In this particular case one of the plus points of winning the competition is this rather attractive trophy, which I think is actually quite tasteful - much better than any cheap-looking silver cup that we sometimes receive......

Meanwhile, back in the bodega, the post-harvest deep cleaning programme is well under way, and we have pressure washers working everywhere to remove the sticky, dried grape juice. As you enter certain parts of the bodega you have to be careful when you open the door that you don't get a blast of water in your face, as nearly happened to me this morning (or perhaps it was on purpose?).

All the musts have now been racked, and we are about to start seeding the tanks, but before we do, I made one last, comprehensive taste of the juice. 2010 has produced a light, fragrant must, with a slightly lower acidity than last year (probably a slightly better balance). In the mouth there are floral overtones with hints of lime blossom, fresh apple, stone pears and as always, a very piercing fruit - very typical of the Albariño grape variety.

Of course we are a very long way off the finished article, but I am pretty confident that our customers will not be disappointed with the resulting wine. Now over to Angela to work her magic.....

Friday, September 17, 2010

Harvest 2010 Day 7½ - The sun sets on yet another harvest

Sunset at the rear of the bodega

In one way the 2010 harvest was similar to last year - mopping up the last few grapes on the morning of an eigth day, but that is where the similarity ends..... This year we have more fruit than last year; not necessarily because of higher yields, but simply that we have found some great new grape suppliers. As our sales grow, so we need to keep pace.

As always, the final day is a bit of an anti-climax, especially when there are so few grapes coming in. The adrenaline that has been supporting the whole team throughout the last week has finally stopped pumping, and the tiredness has started to hit home - we are finally on our knees (or perhaps I am just speaking for myself, and the younger members of our team will be out on the town tonight).

I have to make a special mention this year to Angela's sister Elizabeth (or Bebe to her friends). For the first time this year Bebe took over responsibility for organising our picking team of  around 50 people. I have to say that everything went like clockwork - grapes arriving faster than ever from our vineyards, all the pickers happy and smiling, and most importantly the vineyards left clean and tidy - not a plastic water bottle, nor one coke tin in sight.

So, a big thank you to Bebe and her team, and also to our Bodega team - Fran working as hard as ever on the presses, Luisa on her computer (recording every single basket of grapes), and not forgetting David & Juan charged with transporting all the grapes from our own vineyards. A great vintage for many different reasons.

Thank you and good night!

Harvest 2010 Day 7 - Wrong again!

There are more than 40 people picking under this canopy - can you spot any of them? 

Suffice to say that the weather forecasters were wrong again, with nearly every website forecasting rain for today. For once I am really happy that they miscalculated as it opened the way for us to make one last charge at the vineyards.

Strangely, the climate within the bodega itself is probably more changeable than outside at the moment - the grape reception and pressing room can certainly get quite warm, not just because of the ambient temperature, but also because of the nature of the work itself.... enough to make a gentleman perspire. In stark contrast to this we have the tank room, where the temperature control system is working flat out to keep the tanks well and truly chilled. My guess is that there must be a variation of up to 15°C (I have to measure this). This is why we always keep a warm jacket handy just inside the tank room door!

By about 7pm our own vineyards were finished for this year, but as always there are still one or two stragglers to come. Indeed, we already know that there is still one small vinyeard to be picked tomorrow morning - hopefully just enough to fill one last press.

2010 has certainly yielded a big harvest of good quality fruit, and as always, we are very thankful for this. I am also given to believe that the denomination of Rias Baixas itself is anticipating a record year, with more than 30 million kilos predicted for the whole area. If this figure is correct, it will beat the previous record of 29 million kilos in 2006.

The other official news is that our Consello (Rias Baixas) have increased the maximum permitted yield per hectare by 8.33%. Personally I think that is probably because of pressure from the 'big boys' (co-operatives)to squeeze every last drop out of the vineyards. To be extremely honest I have always been vehemently against this approach to wine making. It is quite clear that the best wines are always produced by the lowest yields, so for me this is very much a step in the wrong direction. Having said that, our customers should rest assured that we will not be changing our policy at Castro Martin..... Low yield = Better wine

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Harvest 2010 Day 5 - Groundhog Day

Our pickers take a break after lunch (I know how they feel)

Of course the truth is that it is really Day 6, but it just seems like we are repeating the same day, over and over again.... it's never ending!

So, just after I pushed the button on my computer to post my blog last night, claiming that we had harvested the same amount each day, it appears that I might have been a little premature. In fact we have created another new record. Now, I'm not quite sure if it's an all-time record, but it's certainly the most grapes that we have pressed in a single day since I arrived here 8 years ago - a  great team effort all-round.

The last few days have been fairly manic for those working in the bodega (including me!), not only have we been handling record amounts of grapes, but also, as I mentioned yesterday, we are busy racking wines too. The greatest motivating factor for all our hard work is the excellent quality of the fruit coming in through our door, which is yielding an intensely sweet, clean must. It would appear that we might have some good raw materials to work with in the cellar this year. Only time will tell on this score.

As the afternoon wore on, so the cloud cover started to increase, and we even felt a few drops of rain on the wind, but nothing more than that - for now.

By 6.30pm, just as the pace was picking up for the evening, we suddenly lost one phase of our three phase electricity supply, together with our presses and the temperature control system..... Disaster!

After one frantic phonecall, and a delay of only 20 minutes, help arrived in the shape of the local electricians that do all our work, and remain on 24 hour standby (for all bodegas) during the harvest period. As quickly as they had arrived, they assesed the situation, changed one rather large fuse, and within one hour we were back up and running! An impressive result that averted complete meltdown in the bodega.

Who ya gonna call?....

With only one day left to go (weather permitting) and tank space in the cellar diminishing rapidly, we headed home to try and grab a decent nights sleep.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Harvest 2010 Day 5 - Alone again

Today's picture is not quite so glamorous - it shows the 'fangos' left at the bottom of the tank after settling. Following a gentle pressing, the grape juice (or 'must') flows by gravity into our tank room and is then left for a period of time to allow it to settle. During this time all the debris, that may include pips, skins, stems and even a little soil (or dust from the grape skins) will slowly fall to the bottom of the tank, after which we do our first racking. We simply draw the clean liquid off the top of the fangos using the rather odd-looking bent pipe that you can see in the picture. What's left on the tank floor is not necessarily very pretty, but it's better than allowing it to reach your glass!

I mention the fact that we are alone, simply because I have noticed that there are many bodegas in our area that have still not started to pick. Of course what other people decide to do is not really of concern to us, and I guess that the decision of when to pick is one of the elements that helps create variation in the style of wine between different bodegas (and long may that difference continue). For example, the grapes coming in today from our largest 'El Pazo' vineyard are perfectly balanced (sugar, pH and acidity) for our own style of albariño, and that's all we need to know. To make a very crude analogy, it's possibly a bit like roasting a chicken.... you leave your grapes on the vine until you consider them 'done', in the same way that you would leave your chicken in the oven. The only thing that I can say is that I prefer my roast chicken juicy and not dried out!

I should also comment that the pace of this year's harvest has been relentless - from the moment we started the flow has been non-stop (pretty much the way we planned it). Obviously the more we do, the quicker we finish, and then we can breath that sigh of relief when all the grapes are safely gathered in. In fact, in the last four days the amount of grapes that we have processed has only varied very slightly, by as little as 3,000 or 4,000 kilos, and so you could say that the flow has been unwavering.

Until now, weather has not been an issue, but there is a possibility that the dry spell could break before the end of this week - we shall see.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Harvest 2010 Day 4 - Little boxes

I made a very casual comment on Saturday about the fact that it had been a busy day, without realising that it had been our busiest day since the huge 2006 harvest. It is a real tribute to our team, both in the vineyards and the bodega, that the day passed so smoothly - processing a huge amount of grapes in a well-ordered and timely fashion.

So, after one day of inactivity on Sunday (we decided that certain vineyards might actually benefit from one further day of sun), we re-launched the campaign on a bright, sunny Monday morning.

Picking normally starts at around 9.30am in our vineyards, despite the sun coming up at 8am - and the reason? Well, at this time of year there can be a bit of dew in the early morning, so we simply allow a little time for the grapes to dry off. Apart from this our people pick until 7.30pm, so even with a leisurely lunch break, it is still a very long day out in the sun.

Of course the secret of a successful harvest is logistics, and today we got off to a great start. By mid-morning we were loading the first press, and managed to get a couple done even before our short lunch break (the break in the bodega is usually much shorter, and I'm not quite sure why). This makes an enormous difference to our whole day, especially if we can keep this early momentum going. There is never a queue of grapes waiting to be loaded, and they pretty much go straight from the delivery vehicle into the presses. Of course this can make a huge difference to a fresh, fruity white wine like ours as any possible fruit oxidation is our enemy!

Ah! Now I remember, the subject of today's post, my little boxes..... The boxes that you see neatly lined up outside the bodega are full of 'bagazo' (grape skins and stems from the presses). These are collected on a daily basis, not by the refuse men, but by the distillery who covert it into aguardiente for us (grappa or eau-de-vie, depending on where you live). Until a few years ago we used to do this on site, but a change in the law now prohibits us from doing this under the same roof as our wine making - again, don't ask me why!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Harvest 2010 Day 3 - 9/11

Today, just a short moment of reflection as we remember the terrible events of 9/11 in New York City, back in 2001 - one of my favourite cities of the world.......

As you may recall from my long history of posts concerning the weather, like all Brits, I am a little obsessed with the subject (it must be something in the English DNA). Anyway, to cut a long story short, today's picture shows a photo of my computer screen taken yesterday - and the reason? Well, a very localised forecast taken from Spain's National Weather Service AEMET, indicated that yesterday and today would be completely cloudy, but as you can clearly see, the sun is streaming in through my office window. Hardly a cloud yesterday, and hardly a cloud today - perhaps AEMET would be better served by employing someone to simply look out of the window! At this time of year, when we rely heavily on weather predictions, this hardly inspires any confidence.

Our first Saturday appears to be passing with peaks and troughs of activity - one minute hands in pockets, the next like headless chickens, as trucks of grapes seem to arrive in unison. There is an old adage in England - that you can wait an hour for a bus, and then suddenly three buses arrive at the same time. This is certainly the pattern that we are experiencing today....

Any Saturday, during any harvest is always the most frantic day of the week. Many of our grape suppliers are only part-time, in other words they hold down full-time jobs and only grow grapes in their spare time. (Of course many of the vineyards in Galicia are so small that this income alone could not support a family). The result being that Saturday is always the most popular day for harvesting, as the family and friends of our growers provide abundant cheap labour.

After a busy day, with presses working flat out throughout the night, it's time to catch up on a little sleep.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Harvest 2010 Day 2 - Working at home

Our car park runneth over

Often the lack of sleep that we endure during the harvest is not necessarily to do with the number of hours that we physically spend in the bodega, but can, more often, be attributed to the dreaded nocturnal 'to do' list. That horrible feeling that you get in the middle of an (already truncated) night's sleep when you either think that you have forgotten to do something important, or that you must remember to do something important the following day. The body might be desperate to rest, but the brain is still clocking up the overtime - hence the 'to do' list..... a piece of paper strategically placed at your bedside on which you can make notes in the faint glow of your digital alarm clock. I have to admit that this is a phonomena that seems to get worse with age, and boy, do I feel old this morning!

Anyway, back at the harvest, we have another bright sunny day as you can see from my photo. You can also see that our car park is full, which can only mean one thing; today we are playing at home - picking our one hectare vineyard that surrounds the bodega. With a team of around 50 experienced pickers this year, we expect to have this done within a few hours, when the whole team will then relocate to our much bigger Castrelo vineyard. It goes without saying that the order in which we decide to pick is 100% determined by the ripeness of the fruit in each site. Indeed, in our larger sites ripeness even determines the route in which we work our way around the vineyard.

Of course one of the great advantages of working on home soil is that the cases of grapes are removed from the vineyard immediately - they are in the grape reception within minutes, and pressed within the hour. You can't get fresher than that!

As the day progressed, so the momentum started to build and by the middle of the evening we experienced the usual 'sunset rush'. The sunset rush is simply caused by the sun dropping in the sky - as the gloom gathers, people stop picking, load up their truck or tractors, and make a beeline for the bodega.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Harvest 2010 Day 1 - A misty start

One of the first grape suppliers to collect cases on day one

When I opened the shutters at home this morning I doubt if I could see more than 100 metres as a heavy sea fog rolled in from the Atlantic, but by the time I had shaved and showered the sun was already beginning to penetrate. By around 10.30am the sun had done its job, and was now dominating the sky over Galicia.

By mid-afternoon the first grapes arrived and the temperature had risen considerably, both inside and outside the bodega - the first signs of stress.... Despite our the careful plans and preparation we always find some small detail left undone. This year, for example, we have altered the concentration of sulphur that we add to the unfermented grape must, and the exact amount that we use is calculated automatically by a computer spreadsheet. As the first grapes entered the press we were still re-calibrating the whole sheet, and finished just in the nick of time. So much for being prepared!

As the first grape must emerged from the press, we were obviously anxious to taste the juice, and we were not disappointed. Fresh, clean, zesty, and as always, an intense, piercing fruit, everything we have come to expect from our vineyards. Of course the first real tasting of our finished product is still some months away.

We ended the first day on a high by creating a new record in the bodega - receiving more than 6,000 kilos on one truck from one single vineyard - as you can guess, it was a pretty big truck, full of really good quality fruit. A good first day all 'round.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Follow the yellow brick road

Well, maybe not so much yellow brick, more a bit of brown cardboard really, but 'follow the brown carton road' doesn't have quite the same ring to it. (At least we do have yellow walls!)

When I was writing about my old harvest shoes the other day I mentioned that when any spilt grape juice starts to dry it becomes really sticky and gets everywhere, well, we do at least take a few precautions in an attempt to minimise the effect. One such effort is to simply stick a bit of carton to the floor and make a walkway between the cellar and the offices.... it may not look very pretty, but it does save a bit of scrubbing when it comes to the big clean-up after the harvest.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, the early part of this week has been wet (as predicted), but a return to warmer weather looks like it's on the way. We only need a couple more weeks of dry weather and we should enjoy quite a good vintage. The grapes that we have tasted so far are quite sweet, and already have good potential alcohol. As always we are just waiting for the acidity to drop a little more in a few of our vineyard sites. For those that already have a good balance, we will start picking tomorrow, so watch this space.....

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Preparing for the big 'Kick Off'

This will almost certainly be the last quiet weekend at home before the 2010 campaign gets under way, but even so our thoughts never stray too far from the enormous task to come. Ensuring that everything, and everybody is organised, knows their place, and knows exactly what to do - it's all a question of detail.

For me it was time to dig around in the back of my wardrobe and drag out my old faithful 'harvest shoes', (complete with go-faster stripes).The shoes in question were originally purchased many years ago as football boots made especially for all-weather surfaces - as you may see they have a number of small rubber studs, designed to give a good grip on slippery surfaces.

At harvest time, the grape juice that inevitably ends up on the floor is thick and viscose, that makes it extremely slippery. By contrast, when it starts to dry, its properties change completely and it becomes more like glue, horribly sticky and finding its way into every small corner of the bodega on the bottom of your feet.

Quite naturally, strong and appropriate footwear is essential at all times in the cellar (as the health and safety guys would tell you), but my experience in recent years always leads me back to the same old harvest shoes. Heaven only knows what I will do when they are eventually forced to retire!

Friday, September 03, 2010

First cases of 2010

My photo, taken only this morning, shows the first cases being delivered to a vineyard site, in anticipation of the 2010 vintage.

For the last week or so Angela has been busy in her hovel  laboratory analysing grape samples from different locations - it would appear from her analysis that some of the southern most vineyards might be picked as early as next week. Time and weather will determine exactly when....

After a long, dry summer our focus on the weather forecast becomes more intense - some weather sites are predicting rain at the beginning of next week, but with a return to fine weather by the end of the week. If this is correct, and the rain is not too heavy, then this will serve to clean the fruit, which may actually be a little dusty after the prolonged dry spell.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

No ifs, no butts..... please

A pretty disgusting picture, which to be honest, turns my stomach - I have never smoked in my life, nor do I ever wish to. Thankfully I have never understood the need.

So why have I turned to cigarettes today? Well, actually, I haven't, but our local government and police have, and believe it or not it is related to the weather. Having experienced virtually zero rainfall for the last two or three months, it is not only our vineyards that are dry, but it is also our local forests and vegetation that are suffering too. This of course equates to an acute fire risk, such as those we experienced in 2006. Indeed, only about 60 or 70 kilometers south of here, just across the Miño river in Northern Portugal, severe forest fires have now been raging for some time.

Therefore, one of the precautions taken by the authorities is to remind motorists, using the matrix signs on our motorways, that disgarding cigarette butts (or is it cigarette ends?) from your car window can lead to a penalty of four points on your driving licence if you are caught - and in this case points do not lead to prizes!

Following on with my drought theme, if you look carefully at this photo you might think that the lady in the white uniform is watering some plants..... not so, she is washing the ground. This is a daily ritual, come rain or shine, whereby two ladies with hosepipes spend about half an hour washing the entrance and pavement area outside a local hotel (which I will not name simply because this is not the point of my story). There does not appear to be any such thing as a 'hosepipe ban' over here in Spain, and in this way the Spanish appear to be neither considerate nor concerned when it comes to the waste of water.

It was only a day or two ago that Angela's uncle Fernando (a local plumber), was telling us that his most frequent call-out at the moment is from consumers who rely on underground wells to draw their water..... the wells are starting to dry up, and so we have to assume that the situation must be pretty serious in some places.

Just as a footnote, I have always rather suspected that the Spanish may suffer a little from what I call "escobaphobia" - a morbid fear of brushes or brushing. The reason I say this is that if they see a few leaves or a bit of dirt on the ground, their automatic reaction is to reach for the hosepipe rather than simply taking out a brush - as I mentioned before , a serious mis-use of water in my opinion.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Last minute chores

With only a week or two to go now we continue with our programme of pre-harvest chores - sometimes catching up with a few of the jobs you have been planning to do, but never quite got around too. One such job is laying a bit of concrete......

There's actually something quite satisfying about putting down concrete, adding a new part to the building and its surroundings that will hopefully be around for years to come. This time we have made a small improvement to the entrance of our grape reception, making it just a shade easier for the grape-laiden vehicles to enter during the coming weeks.

As you may notice, our fashion conscious vineyard manager David is modelling this autumn's latest uniform, incorporating some rather fetching 3/4 length pants, revealing just a modest amount of bare ankle (either that of he is growing rather too quickly for his age). Actually, the truth is probably more to do with the prolonged period of baking weather that we have been experiencing over the last couple of months - it's hot work out in the finca!