Domaine Michel Noellat et Fils, Vosne-Romanee – Vendange Day One, Thurs 3rd Sept 2020
Decent sleep in my sole occupier room on basic single bed after the long travelling to get here. I was up and about by 6.30 a.m. not sure what time precisely the ‘action’ would start. On any first day there always seems to be some extra time taken re admin & everyone familiarising themselves with each other, what we’re going to do and how/when.
I was one of the first to gather on the domaine premises forecourt, availing myself of a black coffee from the machine in the large room just left inside the gates (which is the normal dining room without Covid) to go with my brought with me Cadbury’s breakfast bar (other breakfast bars are available !). More folk gradually arrived until the area from domaine building, under the awning covering dining tables, and to the gate was covered by non socially distancing milling folk. I quickly recognised and acknowledged, as they did me, any number of faces from last year – not just the fellow lodgers from the prior evening but family/management, cuverie employees, and locals who would bolster the lodging pickers. I’ll come to mask wearing later in this piece when I cover Covid more generally.
Initially though, what we were all wating for, as happened last year but then in the bottling/storage room to the rear of the garage, was ‘the announcement’. As last year this was largely given by Sophie Noellat but with her brother, winemaker Sebastian, stood alongside in support (see photo) whilst father, Alain, held himself to one side. Being ‘caught out’ last year, then not realising I was allocated to one of several sub teams, I paid somewhat more attention this time (!) albeit a very good deal of what was said passed me by as outside my limited French vocabulary & spoken too quickly ! Sophie is a brilliant person. I can honestly say I don’t believe I’ve ever met someone so constantly cheerful, bubbly, and the rest. ‘Glass half full’ might have been a saying coined for her except her glass seems full all the time ! For me the added bonus is her English is excellent. How she juggles being a mother of two very young boys (oldest just starting primary school), domaine admin with her mother, and winemaking with her brother goodness only knows. Her husband (first name escapes me), another sunny disposition cheery type, is from the Sirugue family (Domaine Robert Sirugue – situate just down the road at the top of the Avenue du Monument). Brother Sebastian is a laid back, quietish, big solid citizen, thoughtful type, except when with his cuverie team when he becomes more ‘one of the lads’. One might be hard pressed to realise he’s the main winemaker – I’ve never seen him in garb other than working trousers and tee shirt.
Main outcome for me from the announcement was to have my name called as a member of sub team Equipe No 1, team leader/porter/mini bus chauffeur Jean-Claude Franchini (‘JCF’), with the rest of the team two ‘mature’ ladies and five other equally mature men. Three of the latter were known to me from last year, if not well, as we were then in different teams. In time though we would prove to be as quick & efficient as any of the three other sub teams, if not the quickest. Big plus that I knew JCF well from rooming together last year. All the 4 teams would have their own rental mini bus, and would dine together with a table plan. We even had allocated seats in the mini buses which we had to ‘stick to’. I could only construe this was for any potential Covid track & trace. In terms of Covid this must have caused the domaine (and others) a great deal of admin angst and cost. I’ve already mentioned lodger room occupancy, eating outside, using our own eco cups, and having a mask allocation. Laminated signs re Covid best practices such as mask wearing, sanitising, hand washing etc are sticky tape attached all over the place i.e to doors, stairwells, walls in front of wash basins, on the windows of the mini buses, on the serving tables at meal times to name the areas I can recall. My room has its own bottle of sanitiser and such are readily available around the domaine premises. Frankly, I cannot see the domaine could do more yet operate half way effectively.
Mask wearing – hum, where to start ! At least we don’t have to wear in the vines whilst picking although one or two individuals seem to have them permanently under their chin !!! Essentially, we are required (must) to wear masks in two scenarios:- 1) when we’re in the mini buses (presumably as we cannot social distance thereto); and 2) at meal times when we approach the servers for our food. The food serving is a change from the norm as historically we’ve had ‘waitress’ service but now we are required to approach serving tables manned by Isabel Noellat and her two helpers whilst wearing our masks & they also wear theirs. It makes sense to also wear masks otherwise when mixing with others e.g the early morning gathering but I wish I could say this was adhered to. It isn’t, but further, there’s a whole range of bizarre mask wearing (or part wearing !!) practices which make little or no sense and make the wearers look ‘daft’. You might note various mask wearing examples from some of my photos 😉. I could name names re inappropriate mask use but had better not as I don’t know who might read this & don’t wish to offend or get into ‘trouble’ !
Ok, enough preamble & Covid – lets get down to action i.e what we’re here for !
What followed for the rest of the day in picking & terroir terms was generally an action replay of 2019 ! From Sophie’s announcement, and gathering in our teams we made through the garage, into the bottling cum store room to the rear, exiting the latter into village vines behind the domaine building which in turn stretch down to the buildings on the RN74 – in our case the rear of the Noellat cuverie. We obtained a pair of the familiar red handled small secateurs (to remain with us throughout the vendange) and bucket from our team leader/porter and, being allocated a row each were ready to start snipping our first grapes. For me an initial rustiness quickly goes and years of ‘practice’ & knowing how bunches attach takes over to ‘get one going’. Steadily picking up the pace I found myself at this early stage stretching out a small gap to the others but paced myself not to get too far ahead as we needed to remain largely aligned with each other across the rows for bucket emptying on ‘pannier’ command from our porteur, or alternatively one of us initiating the bucket emptying process with same call. Grapes looked pretty good from what I’d heard. Usual mix of some vines being more productive than others. Here, none were particularly heavily laden to almost fill a bucket from one vine but I recalled the same from last year i.e the ground, clone(s), vine age. The ground was very, very dry though reflecting the long, hot summer and what little rain had fallen pre vendange had done little to change. We worked steadily downhill, well it’s not really a hill, just a very gentle slope, towards the cuverie rear wall. Our new team pleasingly arrived amongst the first whereupon we ‘downed tools’ for our first casse-croute break – these were to occur every morning around 9.30 a.m. as a rest with food & drink between start & lunch (latter always taken around 12.00).
The Noellat casse-croute break is quite something ! Enormous sandwiches are pre-prepared & wrapped in cling film. These are akin to half a baguette with filling which might be any of jambon, saucisson or pate. A small piece of baguette sits loosely on top which one might choose to fill with one of the various small wrapped processed cheese e.g Babybel which are on offer. Additionally small pieces of chocolate round matters of if one so desires ! The large baguette sandwich provides quite a work out for one’s jaw, teeth & gums ! One row done we shifted positions to start fresh rows going ‘upslope’ back towards the domaine buildings rear. After that I think we might have helped out a lagging team or collectively finished any outstanding rows but such took us to lunch.
Here (lunch) we found Covid had led to each sub team being allocated its own table for the duration with seating plan – laminate on the table to illustrate the same (see photo). We didn’t sit rigorously to the seating plan, for instance I found myself at the head, or base, of the table at the edge of the awning which remained my position for the vendange. Each table would commonly be pre set to include large bottles of Vittel & Badoit water with a bottle of white wine which would be an Aligote or sometimes a 2017 Savigny Village Blanc. I’ve tried to remember to photo each day’s lunch & evening menu laminate but we’d routinely have entrée, mains (fish or meat), cheese, and a dessert (might be an ice cream, yogurt, or cake. Nice piece of salmon today was an excellent start ! The Noellat’s employ their own ex-professional retired chef who I gather has worked c14 vendanges and lives in on the premises. He’s a cheerful guy & does a great job – we’re lucky.
Post lunch our first sortie into our allocated rental mini buses – ours a metallic grey Renault Trafic which looked like it had had a hard life (which would get harder !). As mentioned a seating plan applied and was observed (me on the outside of the first of two rear rows of seats & hence responsible for sliding door opening & closing) as, impressively, was mask wearing. If one forgot one’s mask a ‘subtle’ reminder would emanate from one of the others ! Our first mobile destination was another ‘action replay’ from 2019 i.e. we crossed the village going north, past many well known domaines including DRC, looped around the village cemetery wall and just beyond it disembarked for another section of village cutting. Nothing remarkable here & once done we moved a short distance to a plot fronting the RN74, not quite as far along as the Arlaud plot by the Avenue du Monument I know well. This took us to our day’s finish on a warm, dry, day which marked the vendange.
Back to base I wondered about bucket cleaning. In 2019 teams had been allocated a turn at the end of each day to clean buckets, secateurs and porter back packs. That arrangement seemed to have gone by the wayside for 2020. Instead a voluntary group of the lodgers, to include your’s truly did the business. What was new, and a spiffing idea I’d not come across before but kudos to the originator, was a 700 litre greenish fibreglass rectangular tank which came up to my waist. This was filled with water by hosepipe and as many buckets as possible were put in and left to soak for a short while. Was good how quickly the buckets came clean without much brush action which could be added if required, the pressure of dunking and pulling out seeming enough to remove stickiness and debris. The buckets were then stacked pyramid wise along the wall to dry before the next morning. The porteurs containers Philippe from our team cleaned with the hosepipe whilst we did the buckets. Philippe is an engaging little individual. From Villefranche, Beaujolais he’s one of those with leathery, deeply tanned skin from a working life outdoors, and one of those also with rolled up cigarette almost permanently stuck to his bottom lip. His smoking was readily apparent in the occasional bouts of from deep within coughing. Philippe was one of us particularly ‘challenged’ by mask wearing, not that he didn’t wear his, just it very, very rarely made it upwards beyond his top lip!
Once gear cleaning down to include one’s own gloves, knee pads, footwear etc just enough time for a shower, change then brief period for aperitif socialising (and/or in my case photo downloading, editing, captioning or word typing) before our evening meal. No formal seating plan here as there were only us lodgers, the Noellats and one or two of the cuverie team. We commonly had the same water as lunch, white wine and red – the latter could be any village e.g Fixin, Chambolle or MSD and sometimes a premier cru e.g Savigny Peuillets.
And so to bed ! Day Two to come and our first Grand Cru in two parts – guess ?