Domaine Michel Noellat et Fils, Vosne-Romanee – Vendange Day Eight, Thurs 24th Sept 2019
The last official working day of the 2019 vendange for the picking team and one with a difference, in location, for the majority of the day at least. I was, at last, to also find out today why we hadn’t, to my slight frustration cum disappointment, picked any of the domaine’s Vosne premier crus, nor Savigny or Pommard vines – but that came much later in the day so hang on a little !
The first absolute confirmation I think now I had that today was indeed to be our collective last day came from fellow snorer room mate, and other sub team leader/chauffeur/porteur, Jean-Claude1, who mentioned it as we roused ourselves. In the same conversation the other member of our room triumvirate, Jean-Claude2, mentioned he’d be ‘shooting off’ later ( I understood at the end of the working day) & was gone after lunch, without staying for the Paulee (first tangible mention I’d heard of that also) as he was meeting his daughter somewhere else in France that evening.
Usual early morning routine and gathering to await our transport. Weather unremarkable i.e cloudy, overcast, grey but no sign for now of rain albeit drizzle/mizzle was to come and be on/off through the rest of the day. For Team Gilles I was intrigued, if far from sorry, to note the no great unexplained absence/loss absence of Martine – no reason given & I certainly wasn’t going to ask. Initial destination wasn’t far, as a second visit to the (presumably) Bourgogne Rouge or Coteaux Borguignon plot down by the railway, indeed extremely close to the unfenced railway, reached from Vosne off the RN/D974 down the Rue de Boncourt le Bois. Right turn by industrial unit ‘sheds’ before the road goes under the railway but today we went further along than previously past some more newish looking ‘sheds’ without occupant signage until parking up with just a rough looking field between roadway and railway embankment. Our focus were the vines on the other side of the track going up towards the rear of properties along the main road. We picked away quite steadily, Team Gilles collectively moving, without much undue effort, ahead of the other sub teams until we reached the top to finish our individual rows, Donna and myself just heading the others. Yet more just occasional ‘rogue’ white grape bunches evident. I reckon Team Gilles must, leaving aside the disgraced in my eyes Martine, have been comparatively an effective bunch as, through the vendange, we were invariably first to finish our allocated rows, or ‘right up there’. An amusing sight met my eyes as I straightened up from my last vine onto the grass beyond – canine team leader Borja had found a concrete ramp to an elevated door on the building above us and she’d run up this to stand, elevated ‘queen of the castle’ like, serenely gazing out at the scene below her. Bless ! She is such a sweet dog & was a highlight of my vendange with her two canine ‘partners in crime’. After a brief collective breather & obligatory boot cleaning Team Gilles were suitably directed to assist another sub team who were lagging so, doubling up individually with them, we helped them finish before the whole team returned back down the rows to the vehicles on the track and took a leisurely casse-croute break. Weather by now becoming a little more damp & dank.
Casse-croute break over we embarked the transports and, returning to the main road, headed towards Nuits St-Georges. Coming to my least favourite traffic lights anywhere (almost always seem to be on ‘red’ !) on the northern side of NSG by the Moillard premises we turned right on to the D25 as if heading into the Hautes-Cotes past the Intermarche but almost immediately took a left and then weaved thro the back streets of NSG crossing to the far side of the Le Meuzin water course back down the Rue de Moulin. At that street’s junction with the Rue de Chaux (D8) we turned onto the latter and continued on and upwards out of NSG, initially past the Louis Max premises, then with Chateau Gris above us heading towards, and coming to, the Hautes-Cotes village of Chaux – first time visit here for me but we only passed through – seems a very neat & tidy little village though. Through Chaux we continued, still on the D8, but somewhere along the latter took a minor road into & through high trained Hautes-Cotes vines, turning off onto a stony track which brought us to our next plot. These were again high trained, as common in the Hautes-Cotes, Pinot Noir vines rising up a not overly steep slope to grassy sward below a forested tree line. The weight of fruit on the vines here, once foliage stripped, was quite impressive, as was quality, no signs of rot or other undesirable for me. As always happened with the Arlaud Hautes-Cotes Chardonnay the pickers were paired to each vine, one each side. I was happy to be with Jean-Philippe, a quiet, grey haired, pleasant older guy of few words – in fact now can hardly recall us speaking much if at all whilst we picked together – total empathy ! The dogs were in usual riotous, racing about, mood all around us. In the far distance through semi-brouillard was the village of Villars-la-Faye – another on my to be visited ‘list’. Can’t recall now if we did more than one paired row here, think not, but whether one or two, such took us up to departure back to Vosne for lunch. Ahead of departure myself and an older vendangeur separately had the almost ‘obligatory’ piece of fun old vine wrestle & throwing with/for Borja whilst an over excited Morsi jumped around. It was here, in his exuberant excited state, that Morsi attempted to give me a nip on the posterior but fortunately I saw him ‘coming’ and side stepped him, also with a gentle hand off to his jaws otherwise I’d probably at the very least had one or two holes in my waterproof overtrousers! Morsi has absolutely no malice though – I can’t imagine at all he’d bite anyone seriously – as a young dog he just seems prone to occasional over excitement!
Post lunch we returned again to approximately the same location to, uneventfully, pick further rows a little lower than the morning. I’ve always really enjoyed trips into the Hautes-Cotes, be it working or otherwise, and even in the grotty weather today I still appreciated the location, geography, ambience etc, sorry to leave. After this, our Hautes-Cotes sojourn done, for mid to late afternoon we headed back to Vosne and, to my deflated surprise, once again headed down the Rue de Boncourt le Bois. This time however we went under/beyond the railway and to my greater surprise pulled over on the left side of the road with quite an expanse of vines around us on both sides of the road on effectively a plateau. From going under the railway the road had a short upward climb until levelling out such that one could see easily over the railway to Vosne beyond. All this was quite a surprise to your’s truly as I’d never come across vines, never mind to this extent, beyond the railway. In fact I’d never gone beyond the railway working or not & hadn’t known such vine plantings existed !!! Here we separately picked Aligote and Pinot (or vice versa) in doubled up style, but nevertheless ‘hard work’, for the rest of the afternoon as a rather ‘unexciting’ end to our vendange. I could hardly believe the amount of overall vendange time we’d spent picking grapes from rather lesser classified, ‘ordinary’ terroirs – not exactly what I’d ‘signed up for’ – but kudos to the Noellats for hand picking rather than using a machine. When ‘time’ was eventually called, I think somewhere around 17.00 hrs, it was something of a fatigued relief as by now, eight days on, I was rather ‘feeling it’.
In terms of gear whilst gloves, or a single (in my case left hand only) glove, might seem notably unexciting whilst I’d come with several pairs (mostly kitchen ‘rubber’ type gloves) I’d started with a more robust garden type glove. This turned out to be excellent & very hard wearing indeed. I only discarded it at lunchtime this day and that because something had happened to the lining which prevented me getting all my fingers back in. I need to work out where I’d picked up this glove and get more for next year ! As some of you who have read my reports previously will know I’ve also long (several years) used knee pads, such as joiners or other tradesmen might use. For me they are essential as with a longstanding dodgy back I can only pick standing up bending for so long and then there are the awkward to get to lower bunches of grapes such that I can spend quite a bit of time on my knees or up and down ! Its always intrigued me why more of my picking colleagues haven’t ‘picked up’ on the benefits of knee pads and used the same. For this vendange & new domaine for me I came into it initially as the only knee pad wearer but several of the others initially noticed & commented approvingly such that by the end there must have been 3 or 4 of the others wearing similar. One chap had a very impressive large pair (of knee pads) the likes of which I’ve not seen before; sadly I am a connoisseur of knee pads & like my gloves came to the vendange with three pairs but needed only one.
At our picking conclusion I reached for the camera with this my best opportunity for some photos after earlier grabbing some on the Hautes-Cotes. As a very pleasant postscript of camaraderie & ‘wind down’ bottles of Champagne Gremillet Brut appeared, nice (!), courtesy of boss Alain Noellat, served from plastic cups, Alain moving between sub teams to thank, congratulate and share a cup with us all. A superb touch from a really fantastic bloke whom it was an absolute pleasure to work for. Whilst all this was going on Borja and Morsi undertook their own, over excited ‘celebration’ at our feet by going briefly bonkers attempting to dig up a piece of earth with much scrabbling and whining before being persuaded to desist – truffle I’d briefly wondered ? I also noted small flocks of starlings congregating on nearby electricity pylons and occasionally wheeling into the late afternoon sky but not in the substantial (murmuration ?) numbers that can be seen.
After suitable rest, congratulatory handshakes, and more champagne we embarked vehicles for the final time, the latter adorned by traditional bunches of vine and flowers tucked under windscreen wipers & anywhere suitable, for the obligatory (& traditional noisy vendange finale) with horns sounding etc convoy return to the domaine. Hubert’s Mercedes Vito as usual was in the lead but rather than go direct to the domaine he led us along the main road and then to what must have been two or three very noisy circuits of the village via lots of different streets with folk at other domaines, locals, and others all clapping, cheering and smiling as we passed. A whole lot more exuberant, and some, than the rather restrained finishing ‘efforts’ I’d been used to/seen at Arlaud ! In our minibus on this occasion for some reason (as he was from another sub team) we had young Louis from Le Havre alongside me in the front – he has a beatbox type speaker which he held out the van window playing vendange related tunes at max volume – hilarious. Eventually we fell out of the vehicles back at the domaine – sting in the tail for Team Gilles with it our turn again to clean buckets etc – but for the last time. Somewhat ‘easier’ mentally to do when you know there’s no more ! Martine missed out again !
After that a weary, if happy & contented moi, deciding I could leave all my gear, boots etc to deal with the next day, just had to get changed, shave & shower ahead of the evening Paulee to come. An interesting day with the usual satisfaction from end of vendange feeling of a hard work job well done. Oh, that question of why we hadn’t picked Vosne premier crus, Savigny, Pommard & Hautes-Cotes Chardonnay ? I mentioned it to Gilles whilst sipping my Champagne Gremillet in the vines as earlier. He immediately asked the same question on my behalf to the close by champagne bottle wielding Alain Noellat. The answer:- the domaine had employed a team of contract pickers (the word Africans was mentioned) to pick the vines in said locations. I was rather taken aback but omitted to ask what I subsequently realised was probably the obvious follow up question i.e when did the contract team(s) pick those vines ? Thinking about it afterwards I’m guessing, given the ripeness in what we picked, which saw me squirted in the face with grape juice on occasion, and I realise I’ve forgotten to mention what we picked seemed, in some places, very ripe; the domaine, having committed to a start date for our vendange team, but perhaps faced with quickly ripening grapes in several of its sites, probably had little option but recourse to whatever means were possible to quickly get grapes in from those sites. That we went to the Grand Crus very early in our 8 days work perhaps supports this ‘theory’ ? I can accept, and readily understand, the above but nevertheless I guess if I have an overriding disappointment from this, my first vendange for a Vosne based domaine with 27ha from Marsannay to Savigny/Pommard, it was to ‘miss out’ on working in those sites I’ve mentioned ☹ . Hey ho, maybe 2020 ! I was though to get close to the ‘produce’ of the Vosne premier crus later – more re that to come in Days Nine & Ten !
So, to the Paulee ‘wrap up’ ! Deciding what to wear for the evening, including how ‘smart’ did I need to be, from my limited non-working clothing, I was conscious that whilst bucket etc cleaning I’d noticed quite a few vendangeurs from other sub teams who’d got ready whilst we were still cleaning had dressed in, or were carrying, their red Domaine M Noellat tee-shirts as handed out to us on Day One. Not wanting to commit any faux pas I sought to enquire if there was a ‘three line whip’ requirement to wear said tee-shirts but couldn’t get a definitive answer – indeed some folk seemed as unsure as me hence carrying rather than wearing the garments ! I decided to cover the options by wearing mine under casual shirt such the latter could be removed later if necessary ! Such sartorial niceties out of the way I employed the time up to being summoned to our ‘dining room’ by attempting once more (and again failing) to log onto the domaine wi-fi, then grabbing a drink (beer) from the gazebo table, whilst downloading photos to my laptop and starting the usual resizing and captioning (all to be fully completed over the next few days). I usually bring a few ‘nice’ bottles with me from England either for evening consumption with fellow diners and/or any social meet up with Mr Burgundy Report ! Given the nature of the splendid vinous offerings we’d enjoyed thus far from the Noellat family, and as generally there were too many folk around me on our usual table to meaningfully share one bottle, I’d restricted myself previously to just producing & opening one bottle a few nights earlier – this was a Domaine Michel Gros 2008 Vosne 1er Clos des Reas (Monopole). Needless to say it had gone down well, including with Alain N for whom I’d saved a pour, such that he insisted on taking the empty bottle and setting it in elevated ‘pride of place’ on a shelf above the coffee machine. For this night I selected a Caroline Morey 2008 St Aubin 1er cru Les Murgers des Dents de Chien (a favourite terroir) and, wanting to chill it, went in search of a fridge. Ended up seeing chef in the amazing, full commercial stainless metal kitchen set up which had no idea existed. If that kitchen is only used for the vendange then we are lucky but seems incredible if that’s the case & no other use thro the year. Initially I think chef thought I was gifting him the wine so I felt a bit rotten and tad embarrassed explaining just wanted to chill it for later (he has no English, my French limited for this purpose !).
Eventually we were called through for what I thought was to be commencement of the evening dining etc but I was premature as, firstly, instead we were all ‘herded’ into the Noellat cellar(s) – simply to have a tour. Whether someone had asked for this or this was a regular post vendange feature I’m not sure. I’ve seen a few cellars in my time but gotta say this was a pretty good, as in interesting, one ! Entry was via a narrow, very low, short set of steps in the base of the long wall of our dining room which had the longest table along it. Squeezing down the table & bench one almost lowered oneself into the first, upper, chamber of the cellar. Here, under the curving brick roof, was a upturned barrel centrepiece as a table with wooden stools around. Various other artefects were around this chamber including a full set of bottles covering the Noellat terroirs and a full set of (empty) bottle formats from normal 75cl right up to the largest. There were also stone racks of full bottles of various vintages and a few very old, very dirty, muck (cobwebs & mould ?) covered bottles who’s age it was impossible to determine. Sebastien and Sophie were with us as hosts/guides and whilst Sebastien gave a little talk in the initial chamber I went down another small set of steps into the main cellar chamber. This, with another room off it was the main barrel cellar and also had further extensive metal rackings of older vintage bottles – the family private cellar I assumed. I was much taken with seeing some 2015 Echezeaux and resolved to enquire in due course if it might be possible to acquire some older vintages (we’d all already a few days before been handed the domaine carte des vins, with offer of 15% discount to the vendangeur team but all the available wines on offer were 2017s) . Given my age older vintages would be handy for less cellaring time. Barrel cellars are always fascinating to me, this one no exception as quite extensive in both size and contents. Very, very interesting and a ‘neat start’ I thought for the family to give us the tour. I just about managed to avoid inadvertently banging my head climbing back out of the cellar and I’m not particularly tall !I can imagine a few folk have had nasty contacts.
Back in the dining room and once we were all seated, joined also by the cuverie team, we were called to silence (took some doing as there was much noisy chatter, for Sophie and Sebastien to give their own short speeches. I couldn’t get a word of these talks as there was much humorous & noisy interruption along the way but I guess we were being thanked for our efforts and maybe some admin type details were being given out re pay, leaving, buying wine etc etc. ‘Official’ formalities over Alain Noellat commenced serving wine. Initially we had more champagne, intriguingly Champagne Cheurlin Noellat Brut Carte D’Or. This was a new one to me but that doesn’t mean much as I’m no champagne ‘expert’, quite the contrary. But, I assume, from the producer name, this must be from the champagne region family of Domaine Georges Noellat’s Maxime Cheurlin. The fizz (sorry, can’t recall much about that but am sure it was good/nice) was followed, hurrah, by the very nice indeed 2015 Puligny-Montrachet Village en magnum we’d enjoyed (me particularly !) for the grande affaire on the evening of Day 5. The Puligny again supplemented the ‘standard’ unlabelled Savigny Blanc which had been our vendange staple blanc. It continued to strike me as remarkable (superbly so) that we were treated so generously i.e were never served anything less than village. The entrée to go with fizz/white wines was big bowls of smoked salmon with lettuce and lightly toasted thin white bread. This was to be followed in due course by a tasty boeuf borguignon ! I’d nipped to get my St Aubin ahead of us sitting down so just a few of us at my end of the table also enjoyed this very tasty wine – it didn’t go far ! I was happy to be sat with Serge, Claude, Thibault, Louis and Italian, Davide. I should have mentioned, post speeches but before food & wine serving commenced we were treated to a short vocal singing performance from a young lady entirely without music (a cappella ?). This was highly impressive; she had a superb voice, and to sing as she did quite something. Regrettably some ill mannered folk sought to chat through her short rendition, quite unforgiveable, rightly drawing filthy looks from a very cross Alain Noellat and lots of low key shushing hisses. I suppose it was a slightly ‘ambitious’, unusual entertainment ‘offering’ in the circmstances but that didn’t mean good manners needn’t apply.
The red wines, as kept coming thro the evening included Pommard 2014, Vosne-Romanee 2014 (both village) and Echezeaux 2014, latter en magnum. There may have been more but the above were damn fine. The GC obviously a real treat but I recall enjoying both the village wines a great deal in their own different ways without having a favourite – lots of enjoyment about the setting and drinking context though. Eventually, and inevitably, as always after much convivial chat and singing, folk started to drift away, everyone but me seemingly intending an early departure so not making ‘too much a night of it’ as on the evening of Day 5. And so to bed, my room depleted by one after the lunchtime departure of Jean-Claude2. Jean-Claude1 was already in bed and apparently asleep as I came to bed. I’d already politely & tactfully asked the Noellats if I might stay on in the accommodation for a couple of nights, naturally to feed myself, to prolong my stay on the Cote for a bit of ‘me time’ before sadly needing to head back to the UK. Ready agreement had been forthcoming & I was to be provided with my own key to the garage gates, locked once everyone but myself had departed. I had plans for Day 9 & 10 – activities for those days, including domaine visits and purchasing to come !