After spending two weeks working on a biodynamic vineyard, I have a newfound respect for wine and wine producers. Caring for grapevines, harvesting grapes, and turning the juice into a delicious but complicated product is hard labor, and takes more knowledge, time, and dedication that I ever imagined.
Mas de Libian winery in Saint Marcel d’Ardèche, France is owned and operated by the Thibon-Macagno family – and has been since 1670. Twenty-five hectares are currently farmed by Jean-Pierre (lovingly called Papounet), his wife Jacqueline (whom we call Ou-i), their daughter Hélène and her husband Alain, and their second daughter Catherine. The families’ dedication to the quality of their product is evident in every facet of their lifestyle. They live, breath, and – of course – drink their wine day in and day out.
The winery is certified biodynamic – a farming philosophy and lifestyle developed by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. The basic principle is simple: using a spiritual, ethical, and ecological approach to agriculture, farmers work to create a diversified and balanced farm ecosystem that maintains the health of the land. This means no chemicals, no monoculture, and minimal use of unsustainable energy.
Before coming to the winery, I had no idea how wine was made. Upon arriving, I dove in head first – literally, spending most of the day bent over at the waist with my head and arms submerged in the middle of a grape plant. While grape vines are an annual plant – most of the vines at Mas de Libian are over 50 years old – every winter they retreat to a short stump of “old wood.” In May the stumps sprout again, producing “new wood,” from which sprout long vines, on which the flowers and eventually grapes hang. This is when the season begins; the family and team (three full-time workers, plus other WWOOFers and inters) work from May until September pruning the vines, controlling weeds, fighting to keep viruses and pests in control, and (finally!) harvesting the grapes, during what is called the Fête des Vendanges.
The bulk of the work is done manually – every single plant is hand inspected multiple times. At the beginning of the season we prune the vines, removing excess shoots in order to ensure the plant will produce healthy grapes and providing room for them to grow. Then, we attach the vines to stakes to help support them against the strong winds (not all the varieties are trained in this way). After that work is completed, we go back through the vines, removing excess leaves and grapes to ensure steady, uniform growth and an easy harvest. All the grapes are harvested by hand and sorted in a span of 15 days in late September.
The grapes are crushed and pumped into cuves (large vats where the wine will ferment), with different varieties and different plots being combined to create different types of wine. For white wine, the skin is removed, leaving just the juice. For red wines, the grape skins are left to ferment with the juice, producing the red color and the tannins that are only found in red wines. From there, the vignerons (winemakers) taste the wine daily and change the conditions of their wine according to their goals. The wine is bottled any time from a few months to one year after being placed in the cuves. At Mas de Libian, they bottle, cork, and label all their wines in-house.
As you can see, at Mas de Libian each and every plant is personally cared for. Time and time again Hélène shows me individual leaves with tiny circles of lighter green color. That, she says, is mildew, a disease that could wipe out the entire plot. Each time I am awestruck by her attention to detail, how lovingly and vigilantly she cares for her vines. This dedication to detail and incredibly knowledge is reflected in every single bottle of handcrafted wine they produce. I now understand the work – but most importantly, the love – required to create truly artisanal product.
Here are a few of the things I have learned from living on the vineyard:
1. We should all support small business. If you are interested in learning more about wines, a good place to start is at your local wine shop, not at the grocery store. There, you will find wines from smaller vineyards that are not available at the larger stores.
2. Bigger is better. Next time you bring wine to a party or special occasion, consider buying a Magnum (a large bottle of wine that equals the volume of two regular sized bottles). Not only does it look more festive, the wine ages better when kept at larger volumes, and therefore will be of higher quality than buying individual bottles. Magnums are also a good idea if you want to age the wine, as the large volume better resists oxidization.
3. Take time to smell the flowers. In fact, take time to smell everything. Much of what you taste in a wine actually comes from the smell. In order to appreciate more and better describe wines, you must train your nose to attach labels to smells. Every day I see Hélène smell everything – flowers, spices, fruits, etc. She described the nose as full of many different smell receptors. When we smell wine, we link the smells to smells we have trained our nose to recognize.
4. Ask for help. When buying wine at a restaurant or in a store, do not be afraid to ask for help. Describe your personal preferences using words like “acidity,” “smoothness,” and “richness.” Describe flavor profiles you enjoy, like red fruit, apple, smoky or citrus. To better describe your tastes, it may help to keep a wine journal, noting the wines you have tasted and what you liked (and disliked!) about them. Never feel ashamed of your tastes – wine is very personal and a “good” wine is different to everyone.
5. It’s all about the service. My hosts’ most common complaint has nothing to do with the wines themselves, but about how they are served! Many people serve white wines too cold and red wines too warm. White wines should be served chilled; around 45ºF. Red wines should be served between 55ºF and 65ºF. Remember, as the wine sits in the glass it will get slightly warmer, so serve slightly cool. It is also important for some wines to breath before drinking – this means you would open the bottle two or so hours before service. Many wines specify their serving recommendations on the back label, or ask the caviste (wine sales person) for help.
Alexis ZK is an undergraduate at New York University studying French and Food Studies. After spending a summer working on farms all over the US, she spent a year studying, eating, and working in France. Now, she has returned to the farms, this time focusing on wine and value-added products. Follow her adventures here.