Domaine Michel Noellat et Fils, Vosne-Romanee – Vendange Day One 19th Sept 2019
Sharing with two others I’d decided going to bed the night before I wouldn’t bother setting an alarm and equally I’d ‘go with the flow’ in terms of getting up, ablutions, moving to breakfast etc etc. Whilst I’d have preferred to have been an early starter (as I’ve been all my life), particularly in a new scenario, I certainly didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot with my room companions. As it was they rose at c7.00 a.m. with my already awake and with collectively just quick top and tail wash we headed for early morning coffee, breakfast if wanted (not by me), then being ready to commence action. More folk evident than the night before, now including those living locally/not staying over on site, and family/cuverie staff also joining us.
The make up of the team was something I idly noticed during the initial hanging about i.e we were a notably mature bunch. We had only two real youngsters, Louis from Le Havre, and another young guy. The rest of us, predominantly male, certainly had plenty of years between us, other than 3 youngish Italians but they must have been late 20s/early 30s. I was much taken with our location in terms of Michel Gros’ Clos des Reas gateway being literally across the road. Also, the views from the two small windows of our communal shower room were of ‘the pinch me’ variety for anyone more than usually interested in Burgundy with one, looking left, down on Clos des Reas and beyond the Vosne side NSG premier crus, the other looking right to the Vosne GC & premier crus – amazing. I always meant to take photos from the shower room to illustrate the above but never got around to it, not taking my camera in there ! A word re the Noellat premises – the buildings we were inhabiting are the domaine’s original buildings in Vosne’s Rue de la Fontaine, which are essentially an L shape and besides the areas I’ve already described contain cellars (I was to see later), kitchens (two – a domestic one and commercial one used for us), bureau/office all modern & swish, and an impressively fitted out tasting room/shop – this closed though for the duration of the vendange. To the rear of the premises, behind the vehicle garage element was a large area of bottle store, with bottling line, racking etc etc. The cuverie is a more modern building, can’t be more than a few years old, and fronts to the RN74 being the first building after where the Avenue du Monument joins the RN74 before one comes to neighbour, Domaine Guyon. It was only after we’d finished picking that I visited the cuverie properly – we’ll come to that in due course but very impressive it is.
Weather was a bit nippy and grey first thing requiring a few layers but the day improved quickly & ultimately turned out well with blue skies and strong sunshine (without being ‘too’ warm). Being morning one there seemed a lot more to sort out before we got going than a regular day. I was ‘armed’ as usual with camera, knee pads and right hand glove – in this case a gardening glove type which, unusually/impressively, almost saw me thro the whole vendange. I was initially puzzled on this first morning at the total absence of vehicles for us but all was to become clear. Around 8.00 a.m. we were all shepherded/herded into the bottle store/storage room accessed through a serious roller shutter door to the rear of the garage, taking a pair of secateurs on the way in which we then ‘kept’/were responsible for during the duration of the vendange (another small departure from Arlaud practice which saw Herve collect them all at the end of a day). Here, Sophie Noellat, with father Alain watching on from in front of me, genially issued what I can only assume was some general words/instruction etc re the vendange – I had no idea what was actually said and no one translated (not that I expected the latter). Quite why we had no transport became clear after Sophie’s words as we were guided to exit an unmarked door at the rear of the room we’d been standing in and found ourselves at the top of vines looking downslope (well, not much of a slope othe than very gentle fall) to the rear wall of the cuverie with main road t’other side. Subsequently using my Climats & Lieux Dits ‘bible’ I figured we must have probably been looking at/about to pick vines in Vosne’s ‘Aux Communes’ village terroir or possibly ‘Aux Genaivrieres’. Getting ahead of myself once we’d picked down to the cuverie and ‘turned around’ to pick the next rows to the south back upslope then we’d have more likely been in ‘Aux Genaivrieres’ than at the outset – but I’m not sure !
Anyway, off we went, and quite easy did I find it, almost as if I’d never been away. I’m not sure now if it was in this first row, or later in the day, but twice that first day Gerald approached me in less than genial, if not verging on the nasty, fashion to tell me off (!) for going too fast !!!!! One of thse occasions was when I’d finished my row, and as long used to, looked for who might be struggling with the intention of helping them catch up. Gerald even directed me not to help – ludicrous. This was gobsmacking to me. I’d never regarded myself as a particularly quick picker at Arlaud and there’d certainly been a few faster than me there over the years. Naturally, with experience I’d got quicker over those years but still…….. I was somewhat unnerved such that towards the end of Day One I was partly wondering whether I’d made the right decision coming to the domaine ! The porteur/bucket emptying system at Noellat is one which encourages, if not in part requires, the pickers working with a porteur to work either side of said porteur and maintain a rough line. One facet I noticed about the Noellat system is that the porteurs are particularly static in their chosen row whereas at Arlaud I’d been much more used to the porteurs quite happily ‘coming’/going to, & proactively working with, the pickers, as well as the better one’s leaf stripping. None of that at Noellat. My take was/is the porteurs all seem an established bunch that appear to have been in role probably for some years and they have established their ‘routines’ without being challenged. Whilst my ‘speed’ saw me out in front of the desired line of colleagues, away from my designated porteur, what particularly ‘got up my nose’ at being told off were:- a) I was on the outside so it wasn’t critical in terms of buckets being passed across rows that I was ahead; and b) I was, as ahead, on the porteur’s route back to the truck so he could easily take my bucket contents when passing & I was quite able to reach to his large back container. Otherwise, such was Gerald’s nastiness in delivery of his message that I could not help but wonder if I was being singled out:- a) for being English/British; b) for showing what must have been unexpected speed/efficiency, and ; c) upsetting the established status quo (whether that was right or wrong). I resolved, being Britishly stubborn, that I’d continue as always and if ‘push came to shove’ I’d challenge Gerald directly that we take it up with the family – reckoning I was on the moral high ground. It also didn’t take me long either to note that Gerald, and partner in crime Hubert, didn’t seem to be contributing a great deal either. The norm was for them to set us up and get us going, but thereafter the authority was devolved to the porteurs (which I had material reservations about), whilst Messrs Gerald & Hubert commonly sat in the vans, or stood by the trucks, often seemingly highly focussed on their own mobile phones (and I don’t mean calls). To me they were lazy, and Hubert’s apparent age was such that one wondered if he should have been retired, with both light years from being of the ilk of the unrivalled leadership and contributions of Herve Arlaud in every possible respect. There was ultimately, to be a very positive, if unexpected, conclusion to my ‘observations’ on the above two gentleman post vendange which were very satisfactory (to me) but that’s for a lot later/another day ! In the vines politics has always been quite something and was certainly evident here. Am I bothered they might read this ? Not a bit although that has to be highly doubtful. Neither had any English in contrast to my French.
The end of the first row’s picking must have taken us to 9.00/9.30 a.m ish and revealed a (for me) utterly gobsmacking, if pleasant routine. Over the years at Arlaud I’d seen grudging moves from no morning breaks at all, to just a short water then coffee break, to a break for limited casse-croute. Here at Noellat, incroyable, almost an extended picnic in the vines !!! A picnic table was set up. On it was a plastic tub of already cut slabs of bread (baguette). Adjacent was a another smaller tub containing those foil wrapped triangular cheeses and the those round ones encased in a red plastic type thing were one pulls a plastic strip around the centre to split two halves to extract said cheese – can’t remember either well known brands ! Additionally, three plastic trays offered differing cooked meats. In essence on offer were all the ingredients to make a very superior charcuterie & cheese sandwich ! For dessert ? Another large plastic tub of broken up pieces of chocolate – dark or milk varieties. Drinks consisted of water, or if one really wanted it at that early time of the morning (I didn’t – there’s a limit !), white wine ! Sampling this en plein aire culinary extravaganza was a highly leisurely affair. I was never sure how long these breaks were but there was certainly plenty of time & no rush ! A great opportunity to ‘recover’ after the initial morning’s exertion and then see us to lunch at 12.00. These casse-croute breaks were highly popular with our three canine companions (not with us yet on that first morning) – more of the dogs in due course with plenty of doggie porn photos to come !
The break against the cuverie back wall gave me an opportunity to scoot around the other side and see the grape processing/triage table/press/waste set up in the cuverie’s open air front space – protected by large ‘tent’ like structure. The cuverie team had their own posh patio table & chairs area for their own case-croute breaks. The waste tray was notable for a complete absence of insect fauna – not a coccinelle in sight here this year !
Post casse-croute break another pass or two took us to lunch – and what a nice lunch. Cheese on tomatoes for the entrée followed by large pieces of salmon with a cauliflower side salade. Cheese course to follow, dessert usually yoghurts or similar, sometimes to come tarte tatin, cake or sponge. Wines at lunch and dinner became particularly notable and generous. I never saw a Bourgogne Blanc, Rouge, PTG or Aligote at any meal time. The default white was a Savigny Blanc with a few years age; red commonly one of Savigny, Chambolle or Fixin village. Lunch was similarly leisurely as other timings in that back to work was 14.00 hrs so a little longer than I’d been used to. The waiting on at lunch & dinner was excellent – from Madam Noellat and two partners of other male family members – great job all round by the ladies. Impressive. A notable event at lunch was Sophie ‘dishing’ out domaine vendange t shirts (v neck, fetching red except for cuverie team who had grey, with domaine MN logo) – nice !
Our afternoon saw us move away from working on our doorstep – in passing the only other occasion I can recall similar working was my first vendange (2006) at Duc de Magenta when we strolled to the likes of Morgeot & other vines around the domaine, only being en vehicule to the likes of the Puligny vines. For our first afternoon chez Noellat though the minibuses appeared and we set off north through the village, past my car, past Liger-Belair (more construction here !), across the square past the Berthaut cave, past DRC then into what I was told was ‘Aux Ormes’ but looking at maps now we started higher before descending into ‘Aux Ormes’ to must have commenced in ‘Bossieres’ or, more likely, ‘Vigneux. Picking here took the afternoon to almost 18.00 hrs by which time fatigue was setting in but nevertheless a very interesting and largely satisfying first day – Gerald and Hubert’s foibles aside. So, back to base, shower, beer in the gazebo then evening meal and so to bed.
The fruit ? Oh, sorry, pretty good, in fact with hindsight amongst the best I was to see through the vendange. Nice grapes, no overt rot at all, little or no sign of uneven ripening, shrivelled berries or brown, dead leaves.
Day Two to follow – a Grand Cru morning & NSG afternoon…