The Vintage Experience

After two months an important part of my trip has concluded. Important not just because I learnt a lot about wine, but also as I needed work to get a working-holiday visa to remain in Europe all year. After 10 months of solid visits to wineries with a few brief intermissions, I was grateful for a break in wine when I travelled through the UK, Ireland, The Netherlands and Northern Germany before returning to wine, this time on the other side of the fence. Another thing I was grateful for was some money and the chance to stay somewhere for free for a few months, thus saving me some money that I didn’t have. It is with all sincerity that I thank first the Hasselbach family from Weingut Gunderloch in the Rheinhessen, and second Annegret Reh-Gartner and her team at Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt in the Mosel, for their generosity in welcoming me and allowing me to gain first-hand insights into German riesling.
Picking grapes in the Rheinhessen

Having worked in the wine industry for eight years on the commercial side of the business I had very little if anything to do with the viticultural or oenological side. I had a pretty cursory knowledge of winemaking before I started my Masters in Wine Business degree with the University of Adelaide, merely enough to provide information to visitors of the winery I was employed by. The Masters course includes pretty extensive coverage of all the facets of wine production, from the soil to the bottle. The purpose of this part of the degree is so that as a winery manager you completely understand all the vicissitudes that incur a cost but also influence the quality, branding and pricing of a product. As such there was very little practical work in this area (partly because I was an external student), and much of this was on sensory evaluation to determine style and quality of finished wine. I had never got my hands dirty apart from a little bit of grape picking and pressing whilst working in the cellar door at Chandon.

Another beautiful morning

The first hurdle I faced was the fact that the vintage was about a month later than I expected, later than normal in fact. This wasn’t too much of a problem as it gave me an extra couple of weeks to visit friends in northern Europe. The first two weeks after I arrived were pretty quiet because the harvest didn’t really start until October, and when it did it was pretty slow. The vineyard work initially was a lot of preparation, namely leaf-thinning to reduce diseases and improve ripening. The work in the cellars early on was in a similar vein, cleaning and checking tanks. Mother Nature was certainly making it hard for me to work and learn, but such is the nature of wine, at the mercy of the elements.

Johannes surveys all he can see

The philosophy at Gunderloch is very hands-on but also non-interventionist both in the vineyards and winery, so it was a good chance to get accustomed to a number of jobs. This included analysing grape samples and fermenting tanks, hand-harvesting and selecting the fruit, and transferring of juices and wines between tanks. With lower yields but healthy good quality grapes there wasn’t a lot to do, so I wasn’t working nearly as much as I hoped, which was both good and bad. It was good because I didn’t have to work 12 hour days six days a week, and also as I was sick and injured during my time there. It was bad because there wasn’t as much to learn, I didn’t feel like I had a true vintage experience, and I wasn’t earning as much as I hoped. Still I was lucky to be earning anything, and I got to see and learn a lot. The Hasselbach family were wonderful hosts; often inviting me to dinner or lunch, helping me with doctors and other arrangements, taking me out once in a while, and I have a lot of hope for Johannes who is taking over the running of the winery with a lot of experience in other regions around the world and an adventurous spirit like his father Fritz.

Channeling Lucille Ball

I had been looking forward to working in the Mosel since March, partly because I loved the rieslings but also to work in some of the steepest vineyards in the world. Considering Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt are one of the largest private owners of vineyards in the region I would get the chance to work in a number of vineyards in all three valleys that now make up the Mosel region. The harvest was about half completed when I joined the team late in October, and there were already a number of tanks fermenting. I got the chance to pick grapes in the Ruwer Valley where the winery is based, but only observed the Romanian pickers in the Saar and Mosel valleys. I did have the chance to do some pruning immediately after the harvest was finished, something unheard of in Australia where the vines aren’t harvest for a few months after vintage. The vineyards are certainly steep and the shoes I bought especially for this kind of work were no match for the slate riddled slopes.

Lovely grapes

Most of my time was spent in the much more modern and functional cellars of Schloss Marienlay, but with such a small and healthy harvest there was very little to do. The vast majority of my time was spent simply measuring the sugar concentration and temperature of all the fermenting tanks, which took me up to four hours once there were about 40 tanks fermenting. The pressing and transferral of juice was all mechanical, and they don’t even use a forklift to tip the grapes into the hopper, merely a small crane. There was a lot of observing of the activities, and quite a lot of tasting of tanks which was great. I did feel like I wasn’t utilised enough, and there were a few too many people in the cellar. Similar to Gunderloch the winery employs slightly cheaper labour, but rather than imported labour from Portugal they employ young (mostly) trainees. There was a totally different feel at Kesselstatt, the youthful team here was much more relaxed than the Portuguese team, but this may have been vintage specific as there wasn’t really any pressure on them.

Measure the oechsle!

All in all I am really grateful for the chance to work vintage anywhere in Europe, and I’m glad to have been somewhere a little bit different. Working predominantly with white wine has a number of benefits, mostly that a lot of the work is done by machines (filtering, pumping, pressing). I don’t think I made the most of the experience, which was partly to do with the weather and partly as I didn’t ask to do more. On a number of occasions I felt very lonely and isolate, particularly in the Mosel, and was sad that I wasn’t invited to do more things. I was reluctant to do a lot of things myself as I didn’t have regular access to a car and also my bank balance didn’t really allow for much. I did go to Oktoberfest and become an Australian backpacker cliché though…

Don’t worry, I shaved not long after this.
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