4 – The winemaking facility

Chai et Caveau de dégustation après travaux
Winemaking facility (chai de vinification) and tasting room, after intensive construction work

Vines restructuring well underway, it was time to start working on the ‘chai’ (Translator’s comment: French word for the actual winemaking facility where the grapes are turned into wine, pronounced a bit like BAY). My project, insane as it was; to produce my first wine in this chai following the very first harvest, looming on the horizon… in September 2007. You have seen, in my first chapter, how the chai looked like as I saw it for the first time; you, certainly, have been impressed – as I was – by its state.

Where was I to start? A tremendous task ahead!!! Maybe not for people used to constructing pyramids on a daily basis, but for me, it was a huge challenge.

Starting construction work on the chai – October 2006

It would have been way easier to just bring the grapes to a local co-operative for 2 or 3 years, while the chai construction works were peacefully conducted. Not on my watch! I HAD to make my wine on Domain grounds from the very first harvest on.

We had to destroy every useless part inside the chai and completely redesign it. It was 40 year old and must have been used to produce more than a thousand hectolitres of wine a year, looking at the size of some of the concrete tanks found there. It certainly wasn’t with the 12 acres of vines we would end up with, once restructuring was done, that we would be able to fill those huge tanks.

360 hectolitres concrete tank, front side and top were cut

We then had to open all of these oversized tanks and create empty spaces to make room for temperature-controlled stainless-steel vats. Something I can tell you for sure, in old times they knew how to make ultra strong concrete. The extremely thick walls of those tanks were completely filled with metallic wires. The quantity and thickness of those wires made it clear that this concrete was designed to last hundreds of years.

We used a whole array of equipment to destroy those obsolete walls; pneumatic drill, disc grinder, diamond chainsaw. Oh yes, very luxurious, but diamond chains were the only ones sturdy enough to cut trough that kind of concrete thickness. Eventually, I just stopped counting how many of those we used. However, this diamond thing was starting to be extremely expensive and alternative solutions needed to be found; we were never in the process of building a high-class jewellery, but a winery. We managed to finish the whole thing with a thermal lance.

We did keep one tank upstairs and transformed it into a tiny office – the red varnish on its ceiling was washed and left as-is.

It was also required to create a real staircase in order to move easily between the two levels. It looked like this place was designed at the time – 100 years ago I reckon – to be a semisubterranean building. Which means the upper level of the chai can be accessed at ground level, the lower level being on the hillside. The lower level was also at ground level but on the other side of the building. This construction technique allowed temperature isolation from the soil and natural temperature control inside the chai, all year long.

Drawing of the chai, upper and lower level entrances

A staircase was paramount, the only way to quickly get from one level to the other was a flimsy wooden ladder. Let me tell you that, after risking my life a few times on insecure steps, I was more than in a hurry to get the stairs completed.

My second son, Marc, opening a stairwell with a pneumatic drill

Many months of construction work were required to make the chai what it is today. I will spare you the long and boring details but know that no amount of unexpected incidents and difficulties were spared, eventful from the word go.

My dog Blue was very busy too during all of this. Well, he actually preferred to oversee all this turmoil, from a distance, ensconced in a backhoe bucket.

Coming up next week, a few words about the anguish we experienced when we realised that the stainless-steel vats we ordered might not actually be the correct size to fit in the chai. À bientôt.

Please leave any comments you may have in the section below.

Adapted from the original French by Yann Sicamois.

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