Jo Black

Liberty Wines Apprentice 2013

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Baron de Badassière, Languedoc, France - 2014 vintage

"On first arriving at the winery, I was greeted by a seemingly endless maze of pipes and hoses."

I have been sent to Caves de Pomerols in the Languedoc for my first ever vintage. While I am here I am under the expert eye of Graeme Paul, a Kiwi winemaker who has been coming to Pomerols for the past six years to make wines exclusively for Liberty Wines in a fresh, easy drinking style. From him and from the French team I have learned the importance of experience and knowledge that a wine maker must have.

On first arriving at the winery, I was greeted by a seemingly endless maze of pipes and hoses, as well as local French spoken with an unusual accent. I quickly found my cellar feet and brushed up my French, poring over the dictionary to find the words for 'bucket', 'tap' and 'tank'. I wish someone had told me how important numbers would be.

Working in a team of three, we check the progress of the ferments daily by taking readings using an integrated hydrometer and thermometer. From these readings, the Chef de Cave can make decisions about whether to chill the fermenting must, whether there is still time for us to add some nutrients to the must to help the ferment along, or if the yeast has fermented the wine to dryness. There is no laboratory on site so these decisions must be guided by instinct and our simple measurements. It is little wonder that many of the wine making team have spent most of their lives working at this winery, developing their intuition.

This vintage has been fraught with difficulty all over Europe, but in the Languedoc the grapes are of excellent quality and concentration. The Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are particularly impressive this year, with the latter showing intense dark plum. Due to a mild winter the harvest started early, with the Picpoul grapes a whole three weeks ahead of time. The worst news for the growers at the co-op, who are paid by weight, is that their yields are down at least 20%. Graeme remarked that by this stage in the harvest the Chef de Cave is generally desperately trying to figure out where to put all the juice. By contrast, this year there are several tanks that are still empty. While it is a joy for the wine making team to have such ripe and concentrated fruit to work with, one has to wonder what the local community will be drinking this year...

The next two weeks will see the last of the Picpoul arrive along with the late-ripening red varieties. From a winemaking perspective, this year's harvest has been short and sweet. I have just ten days left at the winery to try to soak up as much knowledge as I can ahead of my longer Southern Hemisphere vintage next year.

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Tinpot Hut, Marlborough, New Zealand - 2015 vintage

"Besides the practical wine making aspect, working in a busy cellar has given me a renewed appreciation of the importance of team work."

Like much of the apprenticeship, I spent the first few days feeling fairly baffled but soon got into the swing of things. Working non-stop 12 hour days for four weeks was both physically and mentally difficult. I was very glad to have several years’ worth of long days working in a restaurant behind me. Not only did this experience help me to cope with the long hours on my feet in the cellar, it also meant I was able to remain calm and keep smiling even as the cellar master bombarded me with work orders.

The 2015 vintage in Marlborough has been short and mild this year, a sharp contrast to 2014’s protracted, damp harvest. The fruit quality has been excellent but the yields are significantly lower than average due to spring frost damage and rain during the growing season. While I feel lucky to have escaped the five whole weeks of rain that marred last year, the experience was nonetheless incredibly challenging and rewarding.

Marlborough Vintners is a contract winery, which means that the wines made there are for many different clients, including Tinpot Hut for Liberty Wines. The winery employs four full-time winemakers, who manage the production of wines for their clients. On my first day I was told that I would be working in the white cellar, and that I would “learn a lot”, which was something of an understatement. While my theoretical knowledge was sound thanks to the WSET diploma and my first vintage in France, there’s nothing quite like being soaked head to toe in lees to help you remember the practical importance of opening the right valve. I also learned to always know where your spanner is and that a good stash of o-rings is vital to having a productive day!

Besides the practical wine making aspect, working in a busy cellar has given me a renewed appreciation of the importance of team work. Even when you work alone, there is always someone behind you who needs the tank that you’re emptying or who will inoculate the juice that you’re racking, so it pays to be thorough and fastidious to make others’ lives and jobs easier.

On my last day at the winery I had the chance to taste through the tanks that are destined to become Tinpot Hut’s 2015 wines with winemaker Fiona Turner. She talked me through the reasons for the differences in character of the various tanks which gave me a greater awareness of the importance of site and vineyard management for grapes and resulting wines. We tasted two tanks of Pinot Gris whose fruit had come from the same vineyard but had their canopies managed differently. You could tell which tank had been made from fruit with more leaf shading as it was more elegant and restrained, while the other tank had a fuller body and more honeyed note. Fiona was very happy with the quality of all of her tanks, leaving the winery with a big smile.

While the yields are down, the buzz around Marlborough is that quality this year has been fantastic and it’s shaping up to be a classic vintage.

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