First the grape, then the winemaker’s magical touch, then the sound of the cork popping. That was pretty much my whole train of pre-glass wine thought, until recently. But now I’ve taken wine tasting classes, been to a huge wine convention, acquired a modest wine vocabulary, spit out countless mouthfuls in the quest to understand what makes wine good, and even pruned a few vines. What remained missing from my rudimentary education was a good bottling. To remedy that, since it’s bottling season here and now, I begged an invitation from Jean-Marie Popelin at Château Haut-Musiel in the tiny town of Domazan
and we set out on a bright and windy day to see how it’s done at a small winery without its own bottling facilities.
Right off the bat, one illusion was shattered. When I see mis en bouteille à la propriété on a label, I at least know the wine hasn’t been blended into an anonymous amalgam somewhere far from the vineyard of its origin. That had given me a sort of cozy, homey image, perhaps of the winemaker deep in the cave, bottling by hand, or something of the sort. It was fuzzy in my imagination, yet artisanal. But no, not at all.
We arrived to see the mobile bottling plant, contained in a semi trailer, installed in front of the cave. This baby can turn out 3500 bottles an hour.
Everything you need to wash and sterilize the bottles, fill them, add the cork and the capsule, and then label them, is contained inside.
The bottling teams travel from one winery to another all through bottling season and are prepared for everything. They even bring their own generator.
Bottles come in on giant pallets
and are placed by hand on the bottling line. If all goes well, no one will touch the bottles after that until they pop out the other end of the trailer ready to be put in cartons.
The first bottle of each run is filled and sampled, just to be sure.
Once given the go-ahead, the line cranks up. But in this case there were lots of fits and starts, because the bottling we watched was of a vin liquoreux, a sweet wine, and the smaller bottle size wasn’t perfectly matched to the requirements of the bottling line.
There was a lot of fiddling around inside the trailer, and a lot of standing around and waiting outside, but since I didn’t hear any yelling or swearing I imagine that this must happen fairly often.
Once the line is running smoothly, corks by the gazillion are stuffed into the waiting bottles before they’re labeled
and placed in cartons. A carton of six bottles is the norm in France; in fact, I don’t think I’ve even seen a case of a dozen, which is the common thing in the US.
Before the bottles are tucked away in their boxes, every label is checked by hand, then the carton is placed
on a roller belt where it slides down into the anxious hands of the waiting winemaker. These are his babies, these bottles
and they’re handled tenderly right up to the moment they go out into the world.
“Wine is bottled poetry” said Robert Louis Stevenson, undoubtedly talking about wine in the glass. But bottled wine is so much more than that. It’s the journey from grape to glass that makes all the difference, and there’s no end of hard work and expertise needed along the way. The poet’s craft, perhaps delightfully fueled by a glass of wine, seems an easy one by comparison.
So let’s raise a glass to the guys in red jumpsuits driving those big semis all over the back roads of France. If it weren’t for them, a lot of that poetry would be falling on deaf ears.