End of Veraison at O'Vineyards

In September 2011, we did a special harvest and micro vinification with part of the Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah. Two of the WWOOFers (volunteers learning about farming) staying at O’Vineyards spent a couple days hand-harvesting grapes for a small project of mine.

Harvesting O’Blivion

We brought the harvest in and did a natural, whole-cluster extended carbonic maceration in a small stainless steel tank I have. No sulfites added. No yeast added. No air. No nothing. We just put a bunch of grapes in an airtight container and sealed the lid for six weeks. And the results are impressive!

The codename for the cuve has been O’Blivion because the WWOOFers were Cronenberg fans and we watched Videodrome a couple nights before starting this project. (There’s a character in Videodrome named Brian O’Blivion.)

It was a late harvest and it had its complications. At that point, we were already seeing a lot of shriveling and a bit of rot too so we had to be pretty selective in the hand harvest. Only picking the best grape bunches that seemed least affected by the adverse conditions of late harvesting, we managed to get about 5 hectoliters (500 liters) of grapes.

Photos of harvest

Help and credit

We should give a shout out to Matt and Erica, the WWOOFers who contributed so much to this little tank of wine. And Laurent and Alexandra from Tonton Marcel also helped out on the day they were at O’Vineyards.  A lot of the photos above were taken by them.

Normally, this is the time of year when the whole vineyard goes dormant.  The leaves change color and fall off as the green vines turn into wood.  But this year we’re seeing a lot of unusual behavior in the Syrah vines where many plants are actually growing new leaves!

How vines usually behave

This is a picture of a row of Merlot vines just a few hundred yards away from the Syrah.  You can see that these vines are already dormant.  They have lost almost all their leaves and have hardened to wood.  Although there are a couple traces of green on one of the plants in the far left of the photo, most of the vines are ready to be pruned.

merlot is pretty dormant

In the detail below, you really see that the vines have hardened to wood and that there is no new growth.

close up dormant vine branches

The Syrah’s Unusual Green Growth

Compare that detail of the Merlot to this close up from the Syrah:

new buds on dormant syrah

Lots of green growth! New buds!  And it’s not  just that the wood hardens progressively and hasn’t reached the ends of the branches yet.  Normally, those are newly grown leaves.  In the photo below, you see the clear juxtaposition of a new green bud on a hardened wooden branch.  Highly unusual stuff!

new growth on dormant vines

And these young buds aren’t isolated to a plant here and there.  The whole parcel is showing new leaves as displayed in the photo below.

bigger picture to show overall growth

More photos of the vines in november

Why a November spring?

You’re probably wondering why this is happening.  I know I was.

The Chamber of Agriculture supplied a simple answer a couple weeks ago: it doesn’t feel like winter yet!   The temperatures have been so mild.  Yesterday was balmy 18 degrees outside.  We opened all the doors and windows.  As a result of the temperature, sunshine and so on, the vines think they have enough energy to start growing new leaves again.   I’ve heard that grapevines in Florida give two crops a year for this very reason.  There is no winter season there!

In nature, this would benefit them because they could continue to grow through an indian summer.  However we need them to take a break and build up their reserves for next spring!

What will we do?

Just wait.  In all likelihood the winter temperatures will set in and the vines will take the hint and fall asleep.  It’s just an interesting phenomenon and we’ll only know how it affects next year’s crop a year from now.  :)

2011 has been a very strang vintage and the viticultural anomalies are continuing even after harvest.  This is normally the most predictable time of year.  Once you harvest the grapes, the leaves all turn fall colors and they fall off.  The stems all harden into sturdy wood.  And then you prune back before the next spring.  But this year, some of the syrah vines got confused and started growing new green growth in October/November!

France’s high speed train, the TGV, will one day carry passengers between Toulouse and Narbonne.  The line will also have a Carcassonne stop.  I’m following developments in the planning of this future train line pretty closely.  I’ve uploaded the slideshow presented to the public recently concerning potential installation sites for the new tracks around Carcassonne and the new train station as well.  Download the TGV project slideshow 21 10 2011 complete with confounding maps and bullet points. :D

Changes required by a TGV line

Interestingly, as I’m writing this, TGV trains already pass through Carcassonne quite often.  But since the tracks aren’t set up for Grande Vitesse traffic, the trains have to run at normal speeds until they reach Montpellier.  I don’t know much about the technology here, but I’ll just say it has to do with magnets and move on. :D

Anyway, the engineers have to lay new track suitable to the TGVs and this means they’ll have to run the new track north of Carcassonne or south of Carcassonne (going straight through the city makes no sense).  This is when winemakers start to get worried because there are lots of vines north and south of Carcassonne and we don’t want a bunch of train tracks to replace the vines we love so dearly.

From a business standpoint though, it’s pretty interesting since there are plans to build a new station.  If the TGV connects Carcassonne to the grid, it can bring a lot of tourists and business to the area.  After all the work from Bordeaux to Toulouse is done and this project connects Toulouse to Narbonne, the Carcassonne-Narbonne axis will be much closer to Aquitaine.  And I’ll have to do some math, but I think it might bring us closer to Paris too (the current fastest path to Paris is a slow train from Carcassonne to Montpellier and then TGV up to Paris)

Enough babbling!

There’s a lot of information here as the slideshow also presents all the projects from Toulouse to Narbonne.

Since my vineyard is very close to Carcassonne, slides 16-21 are of most interest to me personally.

The slide that made me panic a little

plan for tgv to run through carcassonne

one of the potential sites is close to O'Vineyards

The first reason to panic is just because it looks like somebody’s planning a war strategy.  Or like a geometry textbook just threw up on a map of Carcassonne.  But we’ll try to make sense of this map.

I’ve added a little o’TGV so you can see where O’Vineyards is located.  As you can see, we’re actually inside one of those circular bubbles meant to represent places where it might make sense to put in the new train station.  And that big golden arrow running straight through us is supposed to represent the possibility of a track running to the north of Carcassonne (but not its actual placement).  The bright red arrows cutting through Villemoustaussou represent tracks that tie the new train station to the small, older train station in the center of Carcassonne (but not their actual placement).

It is important to stress a few things:

  1. this is still hypothetical planning,
  2. many of the arrows are symbolic representations rather than showing physical placement,
  3. those enormous circles are very generously sized.

Let’s break this map down in a less panicked way.  The track has to go either north of Carcassonne or south of it.  The big green bands show the zone that is most suitable for a track.  Rather than look at the large golden arrow representing the northern line, realize that the northern line is actually a very thin track that would go anywhere within that massive green band.

There will also be a new gare.  The big green circles are supposed to represent potential sites where it might make sense to build that gare.  The actual station will be a small dot compared to the circles used to represent their potential placement sites on the map.

Also, knowledge of the terrain where my vineyard is located allows me to say that the tracks could not pass through O’Vineyards.  One one side, we’re too hilly.  On the other side, we’re very close to a village.  If the tracks run north of Carcassonne, it’s much more likely that they’ll pick one of the flatter, lower zones like the one running through Conques sur Orbiel.  With a good set of binoculars, we’d probably be able to glimpse the train behind some hills/trees as it passes in the distance.

I also think they’ll favorize one of the construction sites that is already near rails connecting to the old gare in Carcassonne.  Nobody likes to build in the jurisdiction of Batiments de France and the old gare is right next to the Canal du Midi.  The more they can use existing track, the better.  So those dastardly red arrows seem unlikely.  My money is on one of the oblong ovals that already skirts existing track.

Although, that said, I wouldn’t necessarily mind the station being built in that circle really close to O’Vineyards.  If it’s at the far end of the circle, we could get all the benefit of a nearby train station without any of the noise or visual pollution.   It’s too early in the development of this project to know how harmful/beneficial the placement will be. I’ll just have to watch carefully. In February, they’re supposed to make a decision about whether the line goes north of Carcassonne or south.  And at that time, they’ll provide more details about where exactly the tracks would go.

Hopefully, this won’t mar the local landscapes or prevent winemakers from doing what we do best. And as a secondary wishful thinking kind of hope, maybe this will increase land value for a few of the locals.  And make it easier for me to get to Paris one day.  ;D

 

Tonton Marcel, a French and German guide to agritourism, dropped by O’Vineyards toward the end of harvest.  They’re on the lookout for the  unpretentious, country relation of Mr. and Mrs. Smith who also runs accommodations on the farm. :D

Photos they took while here

 

Tonton Marcel separates the wheat from the chaff

I think this is a guide that needed to exist.  One of the big problems with agritourism is that you’re never sure if you’re getting a cool, modern farm experience or a cheap little cot in a hayloft with a farmer who seems to dislike visitors.  This second group is often a historical artifact resulting from the way farmers used to make a little spare cash.

There was a time when your horses got tired and you’d ask one of the locals if there were any pensions before the next big town.  A place where you could tie up your horses and shut your eyes until morning.  Those places still exist.  A lot of farms and vineyards run their chambres d’hotes or gites in a similar manner.  You show up, get the key, and then they’ll avoid you at all cost for the rest of your stay.  The room is located on a farm, but otherwise you’re as separated from the farm experience as possible.  These places also tend to be a little run down.  A little rusticity can be charming, but people also expect a certain level of comfort.

Modern agritourism, especially in wine, can result in massive investments like four star hotels with a view on the vines.  Every comfort imaginable.  But then these accommodations can go a bit too far and you forget you’re even staying at a farm.

Tonton Marcel seems to seek out the special sweetspot between authenticity and modernity.  They’re looking for operators like my family.  We actually make wine and we’re winemakers before we’re hoteliers.  But at the same time, we understand that you should show your guests a bit of hospitality and we’re savvy enough to include them in the winemaking process when we can. Guests at O’Vineyards will almost definitely remember the winemakers as they look back fondly on their stay.

So the guide finds farms like mine.  And I think a lot of kids my age are looking for this sort of experience.  I say kids because the average age of our B&B guests so far is about 35.  That’s exceptionally low for a B&B.  It’s eye opening for a lot of operators who think that only older couples are interested in the bed and breakfast concept.

So here’s hoping that Tonton Marcel becomes as much a household name as Mr & Mrs Smith.

A lot of people ask me what wine regions are closest to Toulouse, because they’d like to get out of the city to taste some wine.  I thought I’d write up my wine tasting recommendations in one place.

If you want to spend a day visiting a wine region near Toulouse, I’m naturally going to recommend that you visit me at O’Vineyards or spend the night in our B&B.  I’m a little more than an hour’s drive from Toulouse and after you visit O’Vineyards, you can spend some time at the Cité de Carcassonne.  But this page has information about all the other wine regions you can visit near Toulouse.

Vineyards around Toulouse

photo: DalGobboM

Wine regions close to Toulouse

  • Gaillac (near Albi) – Probably the closest wine area that people talk about frequently.  You can check out Albi’s cathedral or the Toulouse Lautrec museum on the same day as they’re in the same area as Gaillac.
  • Cabardes (near Carcassonne) – The Languedoc-Roussillon appellation that is closest to Toulouse, Cabardes is just a few kilometers away from the Cité de Carcassonne, so that can be an interesting day trip or weekend.
  • Cahors – This is the original home of Malbec, a grape varietal made popularized in Argentina.  Try to find a winery that makes real black wine, so dark you can add water and still not see through it.
  • Madiran – A southwestern appellation that has gained notoriety more recently for it’s highly tannic wines generally dominated by the Tannat grape  variety.
  • Cotes de Millau – I don’t know much about the wines, but it’s made right around where they make Roquefort cheese (and you can often visit those cheese caves).  So if you’re into salty blue cheeses this would be a pretty epic day trip.
  • Armagnac –  Not strictly wine, but worth mentioning, as this spirit is distilled from wine.  Similar to cognac but aged differently.  Check it out if you like spirits.

These are generally ordered by a combination of how interesting I think they are and how far they are from Toulouse.  It’s not an exact science because some wine regions are very large and oddly shaped and so even though most of the region is farther away, some wineries in it may be closer.  To illustrate this point, the map here shows all the southwestern French wine designations, but Cabardes (which is technically Languedoc-Roussillon and not southwestern France) is not shown even though it is much closer than most of southwestern France.  Such is life!

Here is a more complete list of wine areas classified as Southwestern French wines which includes some regions that I don’t know as much about:

  • Côtes du Frontonnais
  • Vins de Lavilledieu
  • Gaillac
  • Cotes de Brulhois
  • Cotes de Buzet
  • Cotes du Marmandais
  • Cahors
  • Cotes de Saint-Mont
  • Tursan
  • Madiran / Pacherenc du Vic Bilh
  • Bergerac
  • Cotes du Duras
  • Montravel
  • Monbazillac
  • Saussignac
  • Pecharmant
  • Rosette
  • Marcillac
  • Vins d’Entraygues et du Fel
  • Vins d’Estaing
  • Cotes de Millau
  • Bearn
  • Jurancon
  • Irouléguy (Basque country)

The grapes are getting ripe enough to start talking about harvest dates.  I’ve been tasting grapes in the Cabernet and Merlot multiple times a day with everybody who comes through on the winery tour.  I go out to the Syrah once every couple of days to taste there too.  And of course, the real expert tastes the grapes every time we let her outside.

dog smelling merlot grapes

Muse sniffs the merlot grapes for ripeness

My dog, Muse.

Nobody believes me until they see it for themselves.  Muse loves to eat the grapes once they’re ripe.  I’ve even sworn to that in a recent harvest update published by the Languedoc Pages.

People say grapes can kill a dog, but my dog eats grapes all the time.  I can’t stop her once they’re ripe.

It would appear they’re not quite ready yet though as she’s just giving them a brief sniff before moving on.  We’ll have to wait a couple more weeks before she starts gobbling up all the profit at O’Vineyards.

Just more proof that harvest won’t be as early as I expected it to be when people asked me in June.

note: This post is written as advice for winemakers offering tours.  If you are looking to participate in a wine tour, you can learn about our winery visits and wine tastings.

By looking at feedback we receive from our clients through social media and review sites like TripAdvisor, we’ve learned a surprising lesson about the top priorities for travelers visiting a winery.  Almost all reviews highlight a casual, relaxed and welcoming atmosphere.

TripAdvisor reviews about hospitality and atmosphere

  • “Joe, Liz and Ryan are excellent hosts, and we all immediately felt relaxed in their company.”
  • “The O’Connell family is warm, friendly, and kind.”
  • “Ryan: some guy JUST LIKE ME, yet with an encyclopediac knowledge and passionate interest in grapes (and all that goes one with them!). There is no pretension or snobbery here – just big smiles and AMAZING wine.”
  • “Ryan, Joe and Liz made us truly welcome”
  • “As well as the gorgeous wine the other outstanding thing at O’Vineyards is the great hospitality and wonderful food.”
  • “Instantly I felt at home.”
  • “Then we relaxed in the cellar”
  • “Not to worry”
  • “The owners Liz and Joe were so friendly and inviting. From the moment we arrived we were greeted with smiles and friendliness.”
  • “C’était une très agréable visite pour nous, surtout parce que nous n’étions pas les seuls à nous amuser–eux aussi!”

These are all excerpts from tripadvisor reviews we’ve received in the past year or so. I think TripAdvisor is more than just a new arm of marketing/PR.  These reviews are really helpful because they give amazing insight into the psychology of our visitors.

A recurring theme that leaps out of our reviews is a focus on feeling relaxed, welcomed, and unpretentious.  Some reviews include detailed accounts of visiting the winery, tasting from barrels, looking at vines, and other more technical aspects of the tour.  But virtually all the reviews talk about atmosphere, hospitality, friendliness, relaxing, and so on.

This was an exceptionally important realization.  We were very focused on providing good information, great wine, good tasting conditions, and so on.  Of course, these things are important, but we now learn that putting your guests at ease is even more crucial. The wine doesn’t have to be at exactly 17 degrees centigrade and served in finest crystal.  But you do have to be smiling, welcoming, and fun to be around.

Quality of food and wine

All that said, it is really important that the wine tastes great.  The quality of the wine is mentioned in virtually every review.  And literally everybody who ate my mom’s cooking at the end of the tour has mentioned how good she is in the kitchen.  So food is exceptionally important.

Don’t be pretentious

The point of this post is to share surprising lessons from TripAdvisor reviews.  We’re not surprised that people want good food and wine.

We were sort of surprised at how much of the reviews are devoted to explaining that we are nice people.  Being friendly and unpretentious is super-important!

Since I know a lot of really friendly people in the wine trade, and because I’m pretty confident about my wine knowledge, I had forgotten how intimidating this world is.  And a lot of our visitors share horror stories about visiting wineries and wine shops where the wine tasted great but the service was awful.  Usually these stories focus around a person who clearly knows a lot about wine and serves delicious wine, but treats the visitors like dirt just because they’re not as knowledagable or rolls their eyes at simple questions.  And even if these stories constitute a minority of wine experiences, they scare people to death!

A quick look at our reviews reveals that people are really worried that the atmosphere won’t be relaxed or welcoming.  And so they are very pleased to discover it is!

So don’t be a jerk!  Smile a lot.  Remember that nobody is born knowing a lot about wine.  And even very well educated people don’t know everything.  And smile again.  Your guests will appreciate it!

More practical advice

Aside from smiling, there are a few things we’ve started doing differently because of this discovery.

  • Communicate on the fact that our wine tour isn’t for snobs.
    • Feature customer testimonial from people who say “this was my first winery tour and…”
    • Feature customer testimonial with words like “welcoming” and “relaxed”
  • When guests arrive, put them at ease
    • Tell them to interrupt you
    • Insist that they can ask questions
    • Look at everybody in the group while you talk, even (especially?) children
  • Don’t get too distracted by technical elements of the tour – if serving the wine at just the right temperature in a specific type of glass is impossible, don’t worry.  Never neglect your guests to attend to some detail they don’t even care about.
  • Small doses of self-effacing humor help, but don’t get too morose
  • If you’re too busy to give a good tour, let your guests know beforehand. Explain what’s going on and ask if they’ll put up with these circumstances.  Offer them a free glass of wine if they’re unhappy.  Small groups are generally willing to wait fifteen minutes if it’s with free wine. :)

We were already doing simple stuff like smiling and being nice.  But taking these extra steps has resulted in even better feedback and even happier visitors.  And I assume this is how we got so well ranked on TripAdvisor!

top rated things to do in the languedoc roussillon on trip advisor 2011

top rated things to do in the languedoc roussillon on trip advisor 2011

TripAdvisor users who look for “Things to Do” in the Languedoc Roussillon region are presented with a top 3 attractions list, and Domaine O’Vineyards is the number 1 attraction on that list!  We also placed #1 on the complete list of 174 things to do in Languedoc Roussillon.

What is TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor is the world’s largest travel review site.  Anybody with the Internet can log in and review attractions, accommodation, restaurants and so on.  A lot of hotels and B&B places study their tripadvisor reviews religiously because your rating on this site can make or break a business.

How did we get listed

A very friendly Irishman took our winery tour in 2010 and he had a really good time.  After the wine tasting, he told us that he would give us a really good TripAdvisor review, and I had no idea what he was talking about.  On June 15, 2010 (just 14 months ago) this friendly Irishman posted a review of O’Vineyards on the site.  We had no engagement with TripAdvisor at all.  No cost.  We just kept operating our tours as we always did and suddenly we got this cool feedback on a review site that, at a glance, seemed like a pretty big deal.

A couple of months later,  I was nearing the end of a tour when somebody mentioned that this was as awesome as promised on TripAdvisor.  Now that was interesting!  So we started asking everybody how they found out about us.  Today, one year later, we see that TripAdvisor is one of our best sources of clients.  They’re ahead of the Office of Tourism and tied with all the local B&Bs, cottage rentals, and hotels that we work with (combined).  That’s an outstanding statistic!

And it’s a self-enforcing feedback loop.  The clients we get from TripAdvisor tend to know exactly what to expect because of the level of detail in the reviews.  That means they are easier to please because they have realistic and informed expectations.  And then they go back and review us on TripAdvisor, further adding to the detail available on the site and increasing our rating.  So in just one year, we’ve become the number one attraction in the entire Languedoc Roussillon!

Additionally, the feedback we receive from the site has not been empty praise.  By listening to people’s reviews, we actually learned what people like most about our tours (and by deduction what parts people didn’t really care about).  We were able to shift our efforts to emphasize the elements that people like most.  I’ll write about this more in the future, but it’s basically the subject of my who visits vineyards post.

What’s next?

I think it’s a travesty that I’m one of the only vineyards listed on TripAdvisor.

One of my guests this year (coincidentally, somebody who found us through TripAdvisor) suggested that I start getting vineyards and domaines onto TA and helping them use the site.  So that’s our next big step.  After harvest, I’m going to see how many Languedoc Roussillon vineyards we can get on the site.  With something like 3000 wineries in the region, I’ve got my work cut out for me!

winery under construction while winemaker cleans after decuvage

I had to reorganize all the photos on our computer systems and I found some real pearls from the first few years at O’Vineyards (some of them are back when it was le Domaine du Thou! and not even called O’Vineyards yet).

Nostalgia time

The first year we were at O’Vineyards, there wasn’t a winery or anything.  And then we had a really hard time obtaining a permit, so we had to install our wine tanks, barrels, cooling system, and everything on a slab outside.  And then the municipal government kindly let us build a winery/hangar around the slab we had already poured.

So the picture at the top of this post is of me cleaning off equipment after decuvage… but the crazy thing is that the winery is being built around me.

6 Years Ago – Back in 2005

The photo data shows it’s from October 19th 2005.  I was only 20!  I look like I’m 14.  Also, this is just a couple months after Hurricane Katrina hit my city and my school.  I had only just discovered YouTube a few months before this photo was taken, and I thought “this is really cool but there aren’t a lot of videos on here”.  .  .  Back then, the US had only been in Afghanistan for 4 years. Back in 2005, I thought selling great wine would be easy. :D  HOW YOUNG WE WERE.

Here are some more photos to take us down memory lane.

 

I managed to take some pictures yesterday.  Lots of photos of the Syrah and Cabernet finishing veraison.  That’s the period when the plant turns the grapes purple.

I also found some baby birds newly hatched in the Syrah!

For more pictures of grapes turning purple, check out this Love That Languedoc post about veraison in the Languedoc-Roussillon.

How to find us

Domaine O’Vineyards is just a few kilometres north of Carcassonne. GPS coordinates: 43.259622, 2.340387

Domaine O’Vineyards
885 Avenue de la Montagne Noire
11620 Villemoustaussou, France
Tel: +33(0) 630 189 910

  1. Follow the signs to Mazamet/ Villemoustaussou until the D118 (the last straight road) and the Dyneff gas station on the roundabout.
  2. Take the exit towards Pennautier. Continue 500m to a small roundabout and go straight over.
  3. Look out for the second road on your right, Avenue des Cévennes which goes up hill (about 1km) to Avenue de la Montagne Noire.
  4. At the last juction, bear left at the road sign “Ave de la Montagne Noire” (confusing as it seems to show a right turn)
  5. After another 500m you will see our red brick color building in the middle of the vines.