One California winery we spoke to exclaimed the idea was “crazy.” The next winery asked “Why would you want to do that?” To be honest, part way through the first day of work, we started to question the economic viability of the wine due to the shear amount of work necessary. But we persevered, and we have one barrel of a truly unique Cabernet Franc to prove it!
So what is the story? How did this come to be? And what in the world is “grain par grain?”
Let’s start with the “grain par grain.” As you most probably know, our family had a sabbatical in southwest France last year. We had the amazing opportunity to taste fantastic Cahors Malbecs all through the Lot region (Malbec’s birthplace). The wines are masculine in style, complex-fruit charactered with structured tannins and bright acidity.
However, we did have the occasion to meet two winemakers who were each making a very soft and supple Malbec with incredible extraction and density. Pascal Verhaeghe of Château du Cédre and Germain Croisille of Château les Croisilles both introduced us to these spectacular wines. Pitch black in color, we tasted one year-old wines from the barrel that had more elegance, richness and fruit intensity than we had ever experienced in wines. And all this from a variety that expresses itself more aggressively from this part of southwest France.
So why aren’t all wines of the world made this way? What’s the catch you might ask? “Grain par Grain.” This is French term for “grain by grain” or “berry by berry” for us in the wine world. These wines are super time-intensive to make, thus making them relatively expensive (the two wineries mentioned above sell the wines for between 50 to 100 Euros per bottle!). “Grain par Grain” literally means to remove each grape berry, one at a time, from the stem by hand. Yes, by hand!
By hand, the workers slowly fill brand new puncheons (500 liter barrels—basically twice the size of normal barrels) that have had the heads (or tops) removed. There are two aspects to the fermentation that seem to be important with this idea. One, the puncheon needs to be brand new, which not only imparts a bit of the oaky sweetness to the wine, but there is some micro-oxygenation through the pores of the wood during the fermentation. Two, the fermentation is most closely akin to a carbonic maceration where initially there is no juice in the puncheon, just whole grapes. So some of the fermentation happens inside the berry and slowly breaks down the skins of the grapes (equating to less tannin extraction).
But most importantly, the “grain par grain” idea of handling each individual berry means that every grape is sorted, pulling out any slightly red fruit, and there are no stems in the mix! (Stems can add a green, veggie character to wine.)
So knowing that our Malbecs express our vineyard’s terroir as softer and rounder, we decided this wouldn’t be the variety with which to experiment. Instead, we needed to use a variety whose expression of our terroir is a heavy backbone of tannin. Cabernet Franc!
Having chosen the variety, now all we needed were the puncheons and the help. I bought two beautiful French oak puncheons from Seguin Moreau (a French cooperage firm), and they we kind enough to remove one head from each.
As for the help, we put out a call for assistance to all our mailing list in hopes of getting some people interested in trying something new. We were intentionally vague in our description of the type of work needed as we didn’t want to scare anyone off. Ironically, we got a slew of interested parties who, timing permitting, would be a part of making the world’s best Caberent Franc.
The day finally came, with a dozen or so (including ourselves) heeding the call for help. I have to say that I originally had a few misconceptions about this project. First of all, I didn’t think it would take very long to fill the puncheons by hand. I wasn’t just wrong about this; I was way wrong about this. The first day, we twelve toilers sat down with picking boxes and buckets and began our work. It took forever to fill my bucket with individually sorted berries, each carefully removed from the stem as to not crush the grape. And even when my bucket was “full” and ready to dump into the puncheon, it would barely make a dent in overall volume. We worked four hours straight and ended up with half of one puncheon filled.
Knowing now that my original goal of two full puncheons was not going to be possible that day, we stopped for a homemade stew dinner with wine (of course) while watching the sunset. That’s the romance.
However, I needed to finish this project because the grapes had already been picked. I called in our incredible picking crew to work on the remaining Cab Franc. Unlike the earlier day’s volunteers (who, thankfully, marveled at the beauty of the vineyards and relished the time working outdoors), our crew kept asking, “And why are we doing this?” It took another 4 hours of work and a dinner of homemade stew, wine and beer to finish just one of the puncheons.
You may ask what did we do with the other puncheon? Knowing again that we couldn’t finish, we destemmed the fruit with our crusher (by machine) directly into a bin. John, my father-in-law, bucketed it out into the second puncheon while picking out any small bits of stems . This will give us the “scientific” comparison of hand versus machine.
My second misconception was that this process was all about the wine. However, the most memorable aspect of the whole project so far is sitting down with friends and talking. The work is all-encompassing, but mundane. You can’t “multi-task” with your phone or computer while working with the grapes, so you talk and tell stories. It was wonderfully fulfilling, meeting new friends, and the by-product then became the wine.
And the “wine” you ask? How did the Cabernet Franc turn out? Expensive, I know that, but it is still slowly fermenting and hasn’t started its malolactic fermentation. But I do know one thing, there aren’t any aggressive tannins to this wine. And that in itself was what we were originally trying to achieve.
Keep watch for updates, and I think we’ll try this project again next year. Any volunteers?