We don't make our vin de paille dessert wines every year. First, the grapes need to be in great shape before they're put on the straw, or they rot rather than drying, making some vintages unsuitable for the technique. Second, Americans don't buy large quantities of sweet wines, so we don't need to make that much. (Perhaps I should more accurately say that while many Americans like their dry wines with some sweetness they don't buy large quantities of truly sweet wines.) And third, given that the setup and winemaking are pretty labor-intensive and that the wines age effortlessly, more wine less-often gives us efficiency.
So, it's exciting that today we're beginning the process of making our first Vin de Paille "Sacrérouge" since 2010. The process is interesting, I think. The grapes (in this case, Mourvedre) are harvested into picking baskets, but not then dumped into half-ton bins for transport, because the weight of the grapes on top is enough to bruise the grapes on the bottom and encourage rot. Instead, the baskets are carried by hand -- or loaded onto the back of a flatbed and driven -- down to our greenhouse:
Then, they're laid out on the straw, as demonstrated by Juan Gomez below:
The grapes will spend two or three weeks on the straw, dehydrating gradually in the greenhouse heat, until they're semi-raisined, at which point we'll pick them back up and transport them to the winery for foot-crushing (they're too dense at this point to run through a de-stemmer or to get a punch-down tool through) and eventual fermentation. If you're wondering why these wines are usually expensive, this makes three times that they have to be handled plus some pretty labor-intensive daily cellar work. But the reward is worth it: a sweet wine that has freshness, isn't overly alcoholic (reds typically in the 13% range, whites in the 9%-10% range), and has concentrated minerality and varietal character, not just sweetness. But that's still several weeks away. For now, we'll be watching the drying grapes as we finish the rest of harvest. One more photo, for those of you interested. One of our greenhouse benches is nearly full, with another to go:
If you're interested in more technical explanation of how the vin de paille process works compared to other common techniques for making sweet wines, or photos of the grapes further along in their drying, check out my blog post from 2010: Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed.