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Three Days Internship as Winemaker in Perpignan, France

Author: Kirsten Bukager
Date of Trip: September 2014

Eric and Lèia own a vineyard, Clot de l’Oum, a half hour drive from Perpignan, 50 km from the Spanish border. Like me, they live in the Netherlands, but in 1995 they bought 20 parcels in the Southern France and started a winery. It was not entirely new ground for them, as Eric is French and grew up in the area. Lèia is Japanese-Brazilian. I am by no means a wine connoisseur, but I find their project interesting. And, since I’ve never seen Perpignan, I decide to accept Lèia’s invitation to come and learn about wine making and explore the region.

Arrival at harvest

I fly with Transavia from Amsterdam to Gerona in Spain (direct flights to Perpignan leave from London and Brussels). From there, I take the high-speed train to Perpignan, where Lèia picks me up at the station. It’s an exciting time of year; the harvest is in full swing. Lèia tells me it has been delayed because of the bad summer in Southern France, causing a sugar content too low to harvest. But, suddenly in early September, the good weather comes and harvest can begin.

When I arrive on September 30, Lèia and Eric has just finished harvesting, and Eric has returned to the Netherlands. During the past weeks, the French-Brazilian couple and 12 casual workers have manually picked grapes and transported them to their winery, where the grapes have been pressed and poured into fermentation tanks.

House with a view

Lèia and Eric’s vineyard lies on the Roussillon plain, just outside the village of Bélesta. Next to the winery, they built a villa in 2013, rustic and spacious with views from the terrace beyond the Pyrenees, vineyards, Perpignan and the Mediterranean. As they only use their house during periods, the couple rent it out to holidaymakers. Last summer, it was a family of eight, who used the house as a base for mountain biking in the area. Less than 100 meters away lies the winery; a hall with barrels, corks, vats, tanks, bottles, hoses, and pumps. On two parcels, Lèia and Eric have a little shed and a terrace, furnished with a fireplace and seating in the shade of ancient olive trees, suitable for a wine tasting or just for a pleasant evening with friends.

Year round tasks at a vineyard

The winery is a big part of Lèia and Eric’ lives, and there is something to do there year round: Tying up and thinning plants in the spring, bottling, cleaning empty casks, following the ripening of grapes over the summer, measuring sugar content, harvesting and pressing grapes in late summer, following the fermentation process, cleaning up the field, mixing and bottling wine from last year, again cleaning empty casks, and finally, winter pruning. On top of it all come marketing and sales, which include travels in Europe and North America. Since Eric works in The Hague, Netherlands, it’s mostly Lèia who takes care of the vineyard and travels to fairs and importers.

The taste of organic grapes

On the first day of my visit, Lèia takes me out to see and taste grapes in the fields. Although the harvest is over, a few bunches are left on the vines. When asked why their parcels are scattered, Lèia explains that it has been a deliberate choice not to buy one large contiguous piece of land, because scattered parcels allow them to grow grapes in different soils – slate, gneiss and granite. It gives the wine different tastes. Lèia and Eric have mostly black grapes; Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, but also a few white; Macabeu and Muscat d’Alexandrie. Their wines are organic, and everything in the fields is organically degradable, including the strings and gizmos used to tie up vines.

I taste grapes, while Lèia watches me intently and asks if I can taste the difference. She teaches me how to use my taste buds, which are clearly untrained compared to hers. I taste and taste, until I feel light-headed. It is embarrassing to admit when I can’t taste the differences, but at the same time it is fascinating to hear Lèia talk, and I am pleased to see her passion.

Keywords: Cleaning

My learning curve is steep during my visit. In the winery, I try not to get in the way and help out as best I can. One thing I learn is that cleaning is a crucial element in the production: The slightest bit of bacteria, for example residues of wine in barrels from previous production, can affect fermentation and thus the taste. The entire winery is flushed and mopped several times a day, and every time a tap is opened or cork pulled of a barrel, it is wiped with a clean cloth.

So, first of all I mop the floor, but I also write labels on laboratory samples, clean hoses and lower burning sulfur pieces into barrels to disinfect. Meanwhile, Lèia bosses around her two assistants. One, David, is a permanent staff and seems to know the processes, while the other guy is a casual worker hired to clean barrels. Lèia and I drive a couple of times to the laboratory in Perpignan to examine the alcohol content and quality of the wine. Luckily with promising results.

Ecology: Modest harvest and concerns

Although Lèia and Eric live their passion and are very fond of Perpignan, they also have concerns: Their wine is organic and high quality, but sales are challenging, especially as their region is less known than Bordeaux or Côtes-du-Rhône. Also, their harvest is small compared to vineyards in the more fertile Bordeaux area, thus making their wine more expensive to produce.

Besides the weather, which can be a tease, the harvest is always threatened by pests, which are of course not fought with chemistry. Another threat is wild boar that is attracted by grapes as well as truffles grown by other farmers in the area. For that reason, Lèia and Eric put electric fence around their fields.

Lèia has worked intensively with the harvest up until to my arrival, and she looks passionate and tired at the same time. Nevertheless, she spoils me with her cooking, which includes local organic sheep cheese, veal, bread, vegetables, and homemade jam made out of figs and quinces from the vineyard.

Catalan culture, history and gourmet

After work in the winery, we have time to stroll around in Perpignan, which is an old Catalan town with narrow medieval-like streets and a relaxed atmosphere. I especially love the shops selling ceramics and canvas fabric in warm colors and many combinations of stripes.

One evening, we dine out. It takes us less than five minutes to drive to the village of Bélesta, where Lèia has booked a table in Riberach, a four-star hotel and restaurant. The place used to be a wine cooperative, and it has been elegantly restored and rebuilt in a combined medieval and modern style. Today, there are rooms in the old wine vats. Outside is a terrace, a garden, and a natural pool, and in the center of the building is a one star Michelin gourmet restaurant. It all steeps in history and good taste. Wines are local, and the menu consists of delicate, creative, and tasty dishes. And, although my connoisseur companion find some of the dishes a bit exaggerated, I would have no objection whatsoever to return for dining and staying a few nights in the hotel.

Three in one: Wine tasting, urban life, and active holidays

Lèia and Eric are, of course, far from the sole wine producers in Perpignan: Other vineyards offer wine tasting and vineyard tours, and they are easy to find through online travel guides. Clot de l’Oum is not in the travel guides, simply because the couple isn’t permanent residents in the area.

Besides wine tasting, the medieval town of Perpignan is pleasant to stroll around and look at shops, restaurants, and historic sites including the Palais des Rois de Majorca (Mallorca Kings’ Palace). There are plenty of biking and walking/running trails in the mountainous hinterland; I do a couple of runs and feel strongly that I am not used to hilly terrain! The area also offers opportunities for mountain climbing, river rafting, and skiing in the winter. For swimming, Canet Beach with fine white sand is 10km from Perpignan. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to go there myself, but Lèia tells me that is where her family often go for a swim in the summer.

Back home – saturated with impressions

My three days in Perpignan flies, and on the plane back from Gerona to Amsterdam, I am filled with flavors and visual impressions of vineyards, medieval architecture, French-Catalan cuisine, and mountain views. I envy Lèia and Eric that they have built their vineyard from the ground, seen it grow and developed a product. At the same time, I realize there are many challenges and hard work. As Lèia says, partly joking, if a rich Chinese showed up offering millions, she would sell on the spot! However, not much can compare with the peace and joy of sitting on a terrace in Perpignan’s mountainous hinterland at dawn or dusk and gaze out over the Catalan vineyards, mountains and coastline: It’s a priceless experience!

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