In a small barn in the Vouvray appellation of the Loire, one winemaker is reviving a lost art of winemaking...

Each harvest, Peter Hahn of Le Clos de La Meslerie embarks on another herculean effort making all of his wines with a rare hundred-year-old wood basket press. In terms of both production of the wine and emotional pull, the press is the soul of the domaine and has become emblematic of his approach to winemaking - which eschews mechanisation in every way possible.

The press, which is one of only of a few in use today in France, was actually discovered by Peter in a dusty cellar of the domaine after he purchased it in 2002. While working through the remnants of equipment and furniture left by generations of past winemakers, he uncovered the old press and began to contemplate if it could actually be used. It was likely from the 1920’s, was unassembled and was missing some key parts, not to mention an instruction manual. But Peter has a passion for doing things the old way, and loves a good challenge.

He reached out to several nearby winemakers, but was frustrated to be told that the press was a relic of a bygone era and nobody knew how to assemble it. Finally, the father of a friend who had once worked on a similar press volunteered to help. After much trial and error, creativity, and determination they managed to put the press back together. After a few successful tests with sample materials, Peter celebrated by painting the press a cherry red and declared it ready for use.

Exhaustion & Elation

Despite the trials, when the next harvest arrived there was still much anticipation. Clos de la Meslerie is just four hectares and Peter could hardly afford to waste any grapes, plus word of his adventure had spread and a small group of friends and curious winemakers had gathered to watch. Thankfully the first press was a glorious success, as have been hundreds after. Peter feels the slow oxygenation that occurs during the pressing process is part of the signature of his wines, and creates a common thread between all the vintages.

The press holds about ten hectolitres of grapes and requires manually layering heavy wood beams onto a massive wood plate that is slowly lowered onto the grapes for crushing. The whole process is three to four hours of backbreaking work, which Peter thankfully now shares with his wife Juliette and a few loyal assistants. Each harvest requires around 20 presses, so the entire team is utterly exhausted by the end.

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Old is Gold

Despite its age - or more likely because of it - the press is incredibly reliable. Like so many things made in generations past, it was built to last.

After 15 vintages of use at his domaine, there’s only been one problem. Since there are no spare parts available, the machine had to be disassembled and the replacement part had to be handmade, but it was back up and running quickly and ready for another 15 years.

While Peter admits using the press adds a layer of difficulty to the winemaking process, he holds a great deal of affection for it and wouldn’t make wine any other way.

The press in an essential component of his low-tech, regenerative vision and symbolises his desire to make his wine on his terms. Which is lucky for those of us who get to enjoy the very delicious fruits of his labour.

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"The fact that we press the grapes with a manual press is probably taking “natural” to the extreme… For me; there are two reasons for being as “natural” as possible: it is more ecologically friendly, and it is the only way to get a true expression of the terroir. The more interventions there are, the more standardised the wine becomes.”

- Peter Hahn

Images by Audrey Dubessay

Words by Allison Burton-Parker

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