Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a year-long series on the life of a Vaudois winemaker, or vigneron, in the Lake Geneva region. GL follows Raymond Paccot and Domaine La Colombe in Féchy from the 2006 harvest to the next one in 2007. (click on photos to view larger)
Féchy, Vaud, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) – On a cold windy day in late April, Christophe Bernot bent over and straightened his long back 668 times as he put as many sticks in the soil of 1,000m2 of vineyard near Aubonne, in Vaud.
"You do the vertical row of stakes and then the horizontal one," explained winemaker Raymond Paccot. "Then you remember your Pythagoras formula
for making right angles." You put wire along the rows, then plant in
rows starting from the outside, measuring one metre, mostly by eye, he
explained. Deceptively simple. Bernot, whose manages Paccot’s vines,
paused and said, "No, I didn’t do it like that. I started in the
middle, just to be sure." Paccot’s hearty laugh rolled across the
vineyard. There is mathematical precision behind the process but it’s
the well-trained human eye that applies the rules to the slopes and
bumps and curves of the land.
Wine: it all begins with the plant. For wine producers, spring and
the planting season are the real start to a new wine year. In April and
May of this year, in the hills above Lake Geneva, bare patches suddenly
appeared as growers cleared out the old vines to make way for new ones.
On Paccot’s land, the vines were torn up in October and now, in spring, short, bare stalks wrapped in wax were being planted.
They looked stark, bearing little resemblance to the older plants
around them which were leafing out. The new plants marched up and down
the hillside like the Duke of York’s soldiers in the nursery rhyme.
The growers’ view of the year differs in one key respect from the
consumer’s. For those of us who think of wine as something that comes
to life when you open the bottle, the wine year begins with the
harvest. This is the season, in September and October, when you cannot
avoid grapes if you live in the Lake Geneva region. The smell of the
ripe fruit is everywhere, even before growers begin to press the
grapes. Tractors laden with piles of green and red grapes toddle along
the lake road and by-ways, snarling traffic.
The planting season in April and May, by contrast, is quiet,
especially in hilly areas of Vaud where much of the work is still done
by hand. According to Paccot, 70% of the vines are still planted by
hand. In Geneva, where vines are often more spaced out, tractors are
widely used to put down the new plants. "It’s more precise by hand,"
Paccot says. "But the machines are getting better and small tractors
are used now, so fewer people are doing it by hand."
The high machines that are used in Geneva are too dangerous on the
steep slopes around Féchy, however, he points out. His team tried doing
the work mechanically a few years ago but were not happy with it. Most
growers hire outside help for machine-planting and the machines have to
be reserved in advance – if the weather doesn’t cooperate with the work
schedule, too bad. Hand-planting lets the grower adapt to the
unpredictability of the weather to some extent.
In late April Bernot was planting Riesling near Aubonne. Paccot,
like most Swiss growers, has vineyards in patches scattered around the
area. "Raymond really knows what he’s after," says Bernot, "and we all
discuss what he wants and go over the nursery catalogues together.
"Riesling needs heat and protection from the wind, and this hill is right for that."
Paccot later, back at his cellar, pulls out a detailed document
published for growers by the canton. It shows in extraordinary detail
the history of winds, humidity and other weather factors on every piece
of land, at every metre of altitude. The studies are scientific, with
the wine research station at Changins, near Nyon, the government and
geographers at EPFL in Lausanne all contributing to layerer maps.
Growers use this plus the centuries of experience handed down by
earlier growers to decide what to plant where. Many rely heavily on
what was done in the past. Paccot remains one of the most respected
makers of the Chasselas (Fendant in Valais) wine for which Switzerland
is known. But he is also a leader in creating new blends, according to
Bettane and Desseauve, authors of a 2006 French book, Les Plus Grands Vins du Monde. Little is left to chance at Paccot’s, when it comes to planting vines.
The early warm weather and lack of rain in April meant that the
ground was hard, so growers held off planting as long as possible,
hoping for rain. In June, following the wild storms which are a Lake
Geneva specialty this time of year, it is hard to remember that growers
were worried only a few weeks ago about the dryness and wondering when
rain would arrive.
Bernot cuts off the roots to ready more young plants. He uses a pied de biche,
or deer foot, tool to make planting easier. "It’s faster, but it takes
the plant a little longer to get established." Growers in Switzerland
are focused on keeping down costs wherever they can because the
competition in today’s open market is stiff. Labour is a major expense
so labour-saving devices become important. "We’ll see the leaves in a
week and the wax will fall off within a year," he says, rapidly
Earlier articles in the series:
"Up come the old vines," 18 December 2006
"Raymond Paccot seeks the perfect vineyard," 14 March 2007
"Chez Paccot, pruning for the next great wine," 26 March 2007
Sealed with a kiss: bottling the wine, 20 April 2007
Related blog post: "When grapes get underfoot," 12 October 2006