Armed with a pencil, Bérénice Chang Ricard carefully notes the weight of each bucket brought by her grape-picking friends: the total weight of the grapes gathered must not pass the critical “60-kilogram” threshold, if she’s to produce a quality wine from her micro-vineyard.
Ten years ago, Bérénice and her husband, Alain – both Bordeaux-based academics – planted 70 vines in the garden of their large house. Their first harvest, in 2005, yielded barely eight kilograms of grapes and was not exactly memorable. That's according to the friends who turn out every year to help with the highly convivial harvesting of the merlot (60 percent) and cabernet (40 percent) grapes.
“It’s very good this year; there’s been a considerable improvement in the wine and in savoir-faire," jokes Jean-Louis Balance, a retired Bordeaux academic who’s come to lend them a hand, as he tastes the 2011 vintage.
“We’re not making a wine for cellaring, but a wine for every day,” says Chang Ricard, a long-serving molecular biologist at the Bordeaux campus of the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA).
The Hawaiian-born researcher, based in Bordeaux for several decades, likes to describe her cuvée as a "vin de cuisine" – a humorous reference to the region's "vins de garage," made famous in the 1990's by American wine critic Robert Parker.
Sitting at a garden table beside her two young grandchildren, who help her sort the grapes “like in the great châteaux,” Chang Ricard explains that very soon after her arrival in Bordeaux she “dreamed” of making her own wine.
Once the grapes are sorted, it’s time for her husband’s favorite step in the process: treading the grapes in large plastic drums while Bérénice samples the juice to calculate the sugar content.
“We should have an alcohol content of 12.8 percent this year,” says the amateur viticulturist, who has earned the admiration of her friends for her winemaking endeavors. One friend, Virginia Coulon, said that over the years Chang Ricard had mastered "all the requirements for making a very good wine”.
As a former local candidate for the green coalition Europe Écologie, Bérénice has moved towards organic production, using only copper and sulfur to combat vine diseases such as powdery mildew.
However, her wine does not carry the "vin biologique" appellation. Rather, it sports a simple "grand vin de graves" label, a play on the name of one of the region’s AOCs. The wine is called Clos Ganda, a reference to the Nigerian actor Oumarou Ganda, much admired by Alain Chang Ricard.
In 2010, Bérénice’s experiences gave rise to a book: "Microvino, faire mon vin dans mon jardin." A how-to guide to small-scale winemaking, it sets out all the steps involved – from planting, to fermentation and bottling – that go into making wine from small volumes of grapes (20–100 kilograms).
Her husband recalls that until then, no such manual had been published in France. A retired academic, he came up with the idea for a book after seeing Jonathan Nossiter’s famous "Mondovino" documentary on the globalization of winemaking.
Chang Ricard has just translated her book into English and is hoping to find a publisher in the United States. She’s also thinking of a Chinese-language version.