Domaine Michel Noellat et Fils, Vosne-Romanee – Vendange Day Two 20th Sept 2019
After an ‘interesting’ first day, in more ways than one, Day Two opened with the ‘senior’ (in terms of number of vendanges) Jean-Claude room mate asking me if I’d slept well. I hadn’t actually, finding the bed and pillow less than comfortable, but his seemingly innocuous opening question was a ‘teaser’ for his then proceeding to rib me gently at my (known to me) snoring. I had to take this ‘on the chin’ but subsequently found it more than ironic over following nights that I was myself disturbed/kept awake by J-C’s own, ahem, ‘impressive’ snoring in ostensible deep sleep which was quite something. I guess over those following nights I had the opportunity to ‘get my own back’ but never bothered.
The first few days of the vendange also saw me grappling with a couple of most unwelcome health issue distractions – anything amiss less than ideal given the manual labour being undertaken. My first issue was with my eyes/contact lenses (or rather right eye specifically). I’d had a problem discomfort bad timing issue with this just prior to coming away such that I’d been forced to resort to my spectacles – am not a fan of wearing specs (glasses) and massively prefer my contact lenses (as a long time wearer). Am not sure what caused my pre vendange right eye issue – trying new lenses made no difference – but I had been trimming substantial shrubs & hedge to the front of my home so guess I must have got some muck or dust in my right eye. I popped into my local opticians on the afternoon of my departure and they checked my eye over, could see no specific problem, sold me some small bottle medication as a 5 day course for use without contacts wear icon, and agreed with my assertion that my drive to Burgundy would give my eyes an appropriate break from the contact lenses (as I forego the lenses for that long period night & day time drive). I wore my spectacles on Vendange Day One but put my lenses in this morning. Straight away there still seemed to be an issue with the right eye but I resolved to persevere thinking the lens would ‘settle’ – that was a mistake with hindsight as my right eye streamed constantly all day and was quite sore. I did without (lenses) for the immediate days hereafter.
I can’t actually remember if Day Two saw my other problem. I think it did but could have been Day Three but I’ll get out of the way now. Whichever morning it was I woke with an absolutely incredibly uncomfortable stiff/sore left side of my neck/shoulder which made it initially difficult/painful to get out of bed & thereafter move my head even slightly – particularly to the left as almost impossible. Feeling a proper ‘comedian’ but nevertheless really ‘struggling’ I was very grateful, and highly appreciative, of Alain Noellat’s solicitous concern, together with his immediate provision of some ibuprofen tablets and a tube of Voltaren (Voltarol in the UK) gel ointment (other pain relief gel ointments are available !).
Anyway, my male weaknesses aside, morning routine was the same. On this occasion there was no on foot amble to any close by vines so it became clearly apparent (to new boy me at least) what the practice with the minibuses ( rentals x 3) and van was. From our gathering at the Rue de la Fontaine gate the designated drivers were taken by Hubert in the domaine’s Mercedes Van to the cuverie, where the vans were parked overnight, and returned with them for us to embark & load buckets etc. So, off we went. At first, I thought from the direction of travel we must be bound for a Vosne 1er cru or maybe Echezeaux. For some reason I hadn’t considered Clos de Vougeot but the latter was indeed our destination on what was becoming a nice, bright, sunny morning, to become an equally nice day, but fortunately with just enough of a breeze to make ideally comfortable working conditions. I had absolutely no desire for any repeat of 2018’s excessive heat/temperatures !!!
We ‘entered’ Vougeot by what I’d guess one might describe as (looking north) the south west corner, or from the RN 74 looking towards the chateau, top left where there’s a gap in the Clos wall. Exciting ! There was just enough of a non vine planted area to park the vehicles before getting ‘stuck in’ to picking. It was only at this juncture did the main organisational Noellat in the vines practice become known to your’s truly – as somehow I’d not been aware of it on Day One – and no one had told me !!!! Essentially, ‘below’ Gerald & Hubert, the organisation was by way of ‘sub teams’, each led by a porteur who was that sub team’s minibus driver (other than those in Hubert’s van who’s porteur was not the vehicle driver). Turned out I was in a sub team of eight in all – porteur Gilles, ladies Donna, Francoise and Martine, gents myself, Jean-Philippe, Jacques and (drat it) another very ok chap who’s name my dodgy memory now can’t at all recall. Jacques had an unfortunate start that morning as somehow the minibus tailgate (which opening was the type rising on struts to the vertical rather than being door[s]) came down as he was moving back from loading and caught him flush on the upper nose, or rather on his spectacles, snapping them neatly in half on the bridge and causing a nasty cut on his nose – ouch ! Temporary tape repair enabled him to continue & he also had a pair of what must have been prescription sun glasses with fetching lime green frame.
Gilles was/is an interesting character & for the most part he and I rubbed along well thro the vendange after I’d submitted to the usual ’20 questions’. I inferred he respected my vendange background. A tall, semi distinguished, well turned out chap, he’d had a career in Sales & Marketing for a pharma company multi national (he told me which but I forget), lives in Dijon with his wife, has two obviously intelligent, achieving, in their mid/late twenties daughters (one a dentist, one a lawyer), and is a serious golfer. In essence, he’s a departure, as well as a sort of posh, ‘upmarket’ porteur than those I’d long been used to. His management style was friendly, caring and relaxed with us (doubtless whilst we did as we were told !) although there was to be an ‘interesting’ brush between us both near the end of the vendange. He was a regular at Noellat hence his status. Usefully, for me, his career & related travel meant he had a modicum of English. Only in initially embarking (or being directed to) the Gilles piloted minibus, and then being directed to line up for our individual row of vines, did I learn of the team that I was a member – none of this obviously apparent on Day One !!! Quite bizarre ! This sub team set up/culture did prompt a couple of issues from my perspective, namely: 1) for me, given the delegation etc, it meant even less reason/rationale for having two ‘management’ above, namely Gerard & Hubert, with surely just one of them being adequate; and 2) it kinda meant the teams were rather focussed on themselves, rather than the wider team with, for example, when we’d finished our designated rows it was not uncommon for us to be stood around, the others chatting, me restless, not least/whilst other teams could still be some way off finishing their rows. At Arlaud there would have been absolutely no question of as and when individuals finished rows they would be immediately directed by Herve, Damian or Climent to any lagging vendangeur with biggest need for help. Not good chez Noellat. On one notable occasion a few days later when I did use my ‘initiative’ and stop to help another really struggling group, whilst ‘my’ team walked off up the vines, my reward was a volley of angry direction to leave those I was helping and re-join the others. Hey ho.
Anyway’s, upper Vougeot was very pleasant indeed on this calm, sunny, morning & I told myself this was just the sort of ‘new’ (to me) terroir that was in part behind my decision to leave Arlaud. If someone had told me in 2006 that I would have the vendange career I’ve had, and this morning be picking in Vougeot Haut, then I’d probably have thought them ‘barking’ mad. In terms of barking (chien x 3 variety) I think, not recalling them on day one, this second day was the first occasion the ‘wolf pack’ belonging to the three Italians came along with us – as they would every day hereafter, often also amusingly present in hopeful scrounge mode at meal times. As a dog lover all my life (albeit never owing one since leaving parents/getting married – a long time ago, never deeming it fair whilst having a career to leave a dog at home) I was delighted to have the dogs present. There were three. Two were similar, in being rangy, lanky, slim cross breed (I assume) types. I’ll spell the names of the dogs as I heard them but could be actual spelling might be different (I never asked). The sandy/golden brown bitch, the most reserved and way quietest of the three, was ‘Raja’ who belonged to Italian, Davide, an engaging always cheerful guy. The other two dogs belonged to the young lady who’s name I never actually knew, her boyfriend (of impressive dark beard) being the third of the human triumvirate. ‘Morsi’ was a grey/black mid size, bundle of mega-energy, muscle and noisy exuberance with curling over tail who to me resembled a small wolf type. He was great fun. The third was the ‘leader’ of the three, ‘Borja’ (Borgia ?), a lovely tall, rangy, black (or very dark brown) bitch with dash of white on her front, who had a beautiful temperament and loved a stroke, rub or ear scratch. When let loose at our destinations from the Italians Toyota Avensis car in which they followed our minibuses the dogs went initially crazy, hurtling off at speed through the vines, doubtless looking for wild fauna e.g hares – but I never saw them pursue anything. Whilst we picked they’d be all around us continuing their searching & foraging or loud play fighting . Morsi, about 12 months old, was one to watch if he got over excited as he could be prone to give one a playful nip without meaning to hurt. He almost did this to me one day but I saw him coming ! Borja was definitely the boss and ready to put Morsi in his place (often !) by pinning him to the ground if necessary. She also had an ongoing penchant for finding great big old pieces of pulled up vine which she carried high, almost as a trophy, and would love a protracted tug of war with anyone who’d try to get the vine off her. She had some grip and strength but never growled or threatened. Sometimes it was eventually possible to get the ‘wood’ off her and hurl it a way for her to chase, fetch back, and start with all over again. Borja was touchingly, lovingly, affectionate with her young female owner at evening meal times and similar. On occasion we’d follow the Toyota when one could see one or more dogs silhouetted upright in the centre of the back seat which looked amusing. They gave us a lot of fun and distraction.
Vougeot Haut was very interesting. The grapes were nice if not notably abundant and the ground firm and stony. Both here and in the lower part of Vougeot to follow, and as was to become a far from uncommon recurring theme daily in other Noellat terroirs, I came across white grapes (see photos), sometimes just on the one vine, sometimes a vine with white and black grapes. Such seemed much more prevalent than I remembered from Arlaud. My ‘ability’ to get ahead of other pickers with my ostensible ‘speed’ was useful in allowing me windows to grab a few photos without falling behind. At the start of the vendange someone had made a cryptic comment, ignored by me at the time, that I would not have time to take photos – yeah, right ! We picked steadily & without issue until the casse-croute break back by the vehicles which I think (not sure now) might have coincided with our finishing these top part of Vougeot rows – yes, it did, I’ve just checked photo timings. The dogs loved the casse-croute breaks when they ceased their vineyard roaming to stand around looking mournfully hopeful someone would give them some charcuterie or similar. During our break I had the ‘temerity’ to give Morsi a very small piece (morsel for Morsi) of chocolate. This brought a volley of shouted criticism my way in front of everyone else from the obnoxious Gerald in terms of chocolate being bad, implied poisonous, to dogs. As someone who’s family, if not myself directly, has had many, many dogs over the years, often more than one at one time, I found this absolutely ludicrous and very annoying in context of what I’d given Morsi as a one off. His owner stood close by me made no objection. I responded angrily with Gerald then turned my back away from him dismissively. I’m not sure if it was in Vougeot this morning, recollecting might have been in the afternoon’s NSG Village, but for the 3rd time in two days I was to be admonished in angry, public fashion for again being too fast. Ridiculous. Fortunately it never happened again or that might have been the end of my vendange but within a couple of days curiously I noted a softening of approach from Chief Gerald towards myself – whether something was said I’m not sure – but I maintained a cool, detached, correct approach with him. Of Hubert I had little interaction other than occasional direction in terms of our positioning/being set up to start specific rows. One aspect of Gerald & Hubert which stood out for me was their seeming & surprising lack of awareness of the terroirs we were picking. They were much more focussed on the lady team members. Obviously the GCs were the GCs but when it came to lesser sites my request/enquiry as to the name of the lieu-dit etc we were about to start, or in, was often met with a shrug or ignored. I only ever got a knowledgeable answer on the occasional moments when Alain Noellat was present.
From the initial Vougeot parcel & post break we embarked the vehicles and drove through the vines directly past the front of the chateau when, despite the bucking/bouncing on the vineyard track, I managed to grab a few chateau photos through the windscreen. My seat throughout the vendange was the front one adjacent to driver Gilles. The others seemed entirely content to sit in the rear which suited me as I’ve always preferred the front. We exited on the northern side past a couple of other domaine teams and turned right onto the tarmac road dropping down towards the RN74 with the Vougeot premier crus, including Clos de la Perriere and Le Clos Blanc, on our left. On the main road we went south past the village before immediately pulling onto the verge just past the first lower gateway entrance to the Clos which had Jean Raphet and Jacques Prieur stone plaques to either side. With the dogs charging ahead as always we were directed up the rows of vines to start part way up and pick back, down to the wall. I think now, as a group, we might have been split with some of us working down the rows, others up from the wall to meet somewhere in the middle.
This element of the morning/picking was notable for a couple of aspects. Firstly, anyone with a marked interest in Burgundy will, I’m sure, often read about different elements of terroir within the Clos and desirability of having vines in the ‘better’ part(s) ? I certainly had – and was now seeing exactly what was meant to bring all those digested words home to me. The soil was much heavier & different to the lighter, stonier upper part of the early morning. The vines seemed to have more prolific leaf bearing, different volume and type of bunches than higher. If I was to be uber critical I’d assess this lower part we were working as more appropriately akin to premier cru than what I’d happily consider more grand cru like higher. When I eventually came to consider buying some domaine wine later (all the vendangeurs were offered a 15% discount from retail) I thought long & hard about which GC to buy between Vougeot and Echezeaux. I wasn’t going to buy both (guess I could have had say 3 of each but that didn’t appeal) but ultimately it was the difference between the two parcels of the domaine’s Vougeot, notably my thoughts on the lower element, which made me choose the Ech (from its well situated vines – see Day Three). I also took into account I do already own some Vougeot e.g Grivot, Engel.
The second aspect of our late morning activities was something I’d never, ever, considered I’d see or be close up to in the vines but I suppose the spread of technology mean this was inevitable !!! Some beyond normal buzz of comment at one point ahead made me look up to see some of the others pointing to something skyward which was over the lower group coming towards us. With surprised intrigue and then amusement I realised I was looking at a drone ! Turned out, confirmed minutes later, this was being operated by a pleasant, grey haired older chap who was also using a Sony Cine/Video Camera of some size. This chap subsequently approached me and I thought belatedly was actually formally interviewing/filming me – with hindsight a shock ! I think he said something about Canada so whether I’m going to be on You Tube (shocking – sincerely hope not !) or some Canadian film medium I’m not sure. I also learnt he’s a long standing friend of Alain Noellat who’d commissioned him to film our vendange – for this day at least. There was also a young lady professional looking stills photographer with serious looking Nikon kit whom I didn’t notice at this time but was in my vicinity in the afternoon – when this amateur took a photo of the pro !
Whilst on the subject of flying objects (!) this vendange was also, for me, particularly noticeable for the incidence & number of aerobatic team, or jet fighter type, formation flying we saw. I’ve long been used to seeing (and hearing !) French Air Force jets flying low over the Cote but this year we seemed to see formations of 7/8 jets almost every day, morning or afternoon – at least whilst the weather was ok. The way some of these planes moved, whilst very low, almost above our heads, slickly between very closely grouped formations was highly impressive, reminding me of the British Royal Air Force Red Arrows aerobatic team.
Completion of the second Vougeot parcel neatly took us to lunch, so a return to Vosne – and today what a lunch, one of the best. Very impressively our chef (kitchen professional – a great guy), or possibly Madam Noellat, had gone to the trouble of posting typed menus (for lunch & evening, today and tomorrow) on the big wooden door to our dining chamber. I was highly ‘taken’, and amused, by the little picture of asparagus which embellished today’s menu ! As the menu (hope Bill posts the relevant pic !) quotes we had a super entree of a prawn and avocado salade. If this wasn’t yum enough what followed was right up my alley delicious, namely large solid pieces of delightfully cooked chicken with rice and supreme type sauce. Another day we had a cracking pork dish, but that and today’s chicken etc were my stand out favourites. I decided, after cheese, to swerve the most tempting tarte dessert so as not to likely cripple my afternoon’s performance !
The Video and Photo professionals joined us at lunch, sitting with Alain Noellat at the top of the room’s centre table which was ‘reserved’ for family & the cuverie team. I quickly adopted a favoured regular position on the table at the back of the room, with my back to a highly impressive wall mural of a vendange. I never made enquiries as to who, or where, this mural room feature came from but it was very attractive. My regular dining companion to my left was Claude, an absolutely delightful, very quietly spoken, very well mannered, older gentleman (I’d guess at least in his 70’s) from the cuverie team who eschewed the centre table. He told me he had worked 42 vendanges at Noellat – quite incredible, but this was exceeded by our head of table, Serge, a hale and hearty individual, who’s faithful, constant, terrier dog companion, Noisette was a photo subject from Day One. I was amazed to learn Noisette is 20 years old – good going for any dog ! Serge had worked 44 vendanges at Noellat but he wasn’t working this time. Apparently, he’d been very ill, but was now to a degree recovered, if not fit enough to work & given his ‘old retainer’ type status the Noellats (Alain I understood) were happy to have him present. Serge and Noisette had a room to themselves (lucky, if deserving, them) at the end of the same corridor my room was on. Serge could be quite loud but told me Noisette was ‘his wife’ – touchingly amusing! I guess man and dog must have just pottered about whilst we were working but were always there for meal times. Serge was obviously careful at what he ate, and drank very modestly – perhaps reflective of whatever illness he’d had. I almost forgot, but lunch was also notable for the first ‘outbreak’ of a lusty rendition of the Ban Bourguignon with its accompanying waving/clapping hand/arm motions etc. I’ve naturally heard this many times but, whilst always an occasional occurrence, it was quite rare at Arlaud. There were one or two serious chanteurs here at Noellat on the largest table & they were to constantly lead outbreaks of singing at most meal times.
So, into the still bright & sunny afternoon after our most splendid lunch. To an absolutely new terroir for me but one which instantly became a quick favourite, namely Nuits St-G premier cru Aux Boudots – often described as a Vosne type Nuits. Much as Clos St Denis ‘does it for me’ in ways I can’t properly explain, I found myself on the outside of the team, instantly ‘feeling’ an attraction to the gentle upslope rise before me and whole ambience of the moment, gentle birdsong etc. Highly enjoyable to pick upwards, with decent well drained, stony, ground under foot. It didn’t actually look it but was quite steep once at the top from where the view back towards Vosne was attractive. Once Boudots was completed we moved on foot to another, lower terroir not too far away which Alain Noellat, in response to my enquiry, told me was NSG Village lieu-dit, Aux Barrieres. The rows here were long, reminding me of Arlaud’s negoce wines in Vosne Aux Reas which terroir wasn’t too far away at all. Working Aux Barrieres took us to the day’s finish, tiring for this ageing Englishman, but overall another mostly enjoyable and again, hugely interesting, day. Back to base I dropped into usual routine of getting out of my gear, grabbing a use of strong hose jet to clean my footwear (Merrell strong/robust ‘trainers’ for these early dry days), having a shower and every other day shave, then a beer or white wine ahead of evening meal, which time I also employed to download the days’ camera photos to laptop, edit resize for eventual onward transmission idc to Bill, and also caption. At this early stage I hadn’t had opportunity to ask about/explore use of the domaine wi-fi. That was to come, and with it some frustrations, but the lack of free time was marked & quite how I was going to find opportunity for any diary typing was to be for the future.
Day Three to bring Echezeaux, Chambolle Village, hilarious Gilet-Jaune moments and I think some afternoon ‘exciting’ (not) Fixin Village.