Tag Archives: Wine

Vine Pruning in Extremadura

A chance meeting at a party, and we found ourselves driving to the Extremadura region of Spain to help prune grape vines. Extremadura lies to the centre of the country, butting up against Portugal. It is effectively a desert, with high summer temperatures and frequent droughts. These conditions are excellent for the production of wine, particularly dark reds from tempranillo and garnacha grapes, and our friend John needed a hand pruning his vines ahead of the spring growing season.

The finca in Extremadura

The finca in Extremadura

John has thousands of vines, and a competent person can prune about ten an hour, so there was a lot to do, especially as Bronwyn and I were complete beginners. However, John was a patient tutor and we soon got the hang of it.

There is a lot more to vine pruning than just hacking off the old growth. You have to evaluate the state of the vine, try to figure out what the last pruner was trying to achieve, make your own decision about what you want to achieve in terms of the number of branches and the direction that you’d like them to grow in, and then cut away everything that gets in the way of your chosen result. This includes cutting away useless suckers and last year’s stumps, sawing off failed branches, stacking stones under the trunks so that they don’t sit in ground water, and judiciously knocking off any tiny buds that will ruin the final shape. It’s not physically hard, but mentally more taxing than you would think, and sometimes we found ourselves sitting down next to a plant and talking to it while we tried to figure out the best way of encouraging it to grow a good crop.

Vine-pruner extraordinaire

Vine-pruner extraordinaire

The days quickly formed a pattern which went: Drink wine from the vat and laugh until the small wee hours; sleep til midday; prune vines til dusk; repeat.

John also makes some excellent olive oil, but some of the eating olives had been sitting in brine for too long, so Bronwyn spent a pleasant afternoon rinsing and re-packing them.

We did also find time for some long tramps around the countryside, and for foraging trips to the local markets. On one rainy day when pruning would have been a chore, we climbed up to a Roman dam that had been built at the top of a local creek. Despite the soaking wet foliage, we attempted a cross-country route which took us hiking through ancient olive groves and clambering over fallen rocks, discovering on the way an old embankment which might just have been the Romans’ original construction road. After some laughs and spills, we did finally make it to the dam, which is in remarkable condition considering its age. There is a slot that obviously used to contain a sluice, which has been slightly widened out at the bottom by thousands of years of erosion.

On top of the Roman dam

On top of the Roman dam

A little eroded, but still good solid Roman engineering

A little eroded, but still good solid Roman engineering

Bronwyn rinses olives

Bronwyn rinses olives

Bromptons in Bordeaux

Having recently purchased a pair of Brompton folding bicycles, we thought that we’d take them to Bordeaux, so we fairly randomly booked in to a guesthouse, 123 Chemin du Bord de l’Eau in Macau, just down the road from St Emilion and Margaux. The owners were away when we arrived, although their gardener let us in and made us comfortable, so we set off in the evening to find something to eat. It is the off season, so every business in Macau is closed, apart from the pizza shop.

Stephan the pastry chef had a good laugh when we told him about my wheat allergy, because he only cooks pizza and bread. However, he worked out a neat compromise by baking a pizza with a cream sauce instead of tomato. That way I could pick off the correctly cooked toppings without getting them contaminated with the bread crust. Brilliant! And naturally, we washed it down with a nice bottle of Bordeaux.

Stephan and his solution to gluten-free pizza, after I'd finished eating it.

Stephan and his solution to gluten-free pizza, after I’d finished eating it.

The next morning we cycled out to nearby Margaux in search of an open vineyard.

Out on the open road

Brompton in Margaux

An illuminated cafe ceiling in Margaux

An illuminated cafe ceiling in Margaux

Most vineyards were closed for the off season, but we did come across Chateau Dauzac, where the wonderfully welcoming staff were dumbfounded to see tourists so far out of season, but gave us a great tour and wine tasting.

You'll notice that the vines aren't green, so it's probably winter.

You’ll notice that the vines aren’t green, so it’s probably winter.

On our return, the owner was back, the incomparable Serge: Ex-restaurateur, ex-wine maker, now hotelier, chef and artist. We all got on well and Serge announced that he would cook dinner for us, producing awesome quantities of foie gras both au naturel and lightly fried in duck fat, also figs grilled with goat’s cheese, and endless superb rich dishes washed down with lashings of wine. He even invited us to share a bottle of his very own St Emilion wine, which is no longer in production but quite lovely. We had not initially intended to stay another night, but changed our minds and agreed to return after visiting St Emilion.

The town of St Emilion is beautiful. We did bring our bicycles with us, but after one look at the steep cobbled streets, we decided to explore on foot. Previously a fortified town, St Emilion stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking its vineyards. I would imagine that it is probably crammed with tourists in the summer, but on this January weekend it is empty.

Nobody here but us chickens

Nobody here but us chickens

Closed for business

Closed for business

The fifth century church is a marvel, with its domed ceilings and extensive gothic extensions.

Door to St Emilion's church

Door to St Emilion’s church

The interior of St Emilion church

The domed ceiling of the interior

From a local shop, Bronwyn obtained the key to the clock tower (Closter), to give us unrivalled views of the town.

The clock tower

The clock tower

Bronwyn has the key

Bronwyn has the key

St Emilion from the clock tower

St Emilion from the clock tower

St Emilion through stained glass

St Emilion through stained glass

Before leaving St Emilion, Serge had arranged for us to visit another vineyard, Chateau Figeac, where we and some visiting Italians were given a good-humoured tour by an impressively multilingual guide.

More barrels than you can shake a stick at, at Chateau Figeac

More barrels than you can shake a stick at, at Chateau Figeac

Back at the house, Serge excelled himself, and co-opting Bronwyn as a willing sous-chef, produced a marvellous tuna savichi, followed by langoustines and a stupendous magret du canard. To top it all off, Serge produced his own creation Framboise Tchekhov, a marvellous dish of strawberries in a caramelised sauce.

Go team Serge!

Go team Serge!

Bronwyn tackles magret du canard

Bronwyn tackles magret du canard

Delicious. Just perfect.

Delicious. Just perfect.

On the next morning, resisting the temptation to stay for the rest of the year, we packed up the bikes, and – promising to return – headed for the Pyrenees.