From Flower to olive: the rebirth of a sacred fruit
Spring always shows up earlier in Provence than in other parts of France. As soon as March is around the corner, we are busy on the ground tending the olive trees as they start growing again. The timetable of agricultural work follows closely the beautiful spring bloom that comes with the awakening of the olive plantation. It’s farm labor time! – Our staff weeds out between the olive rows in order not to allow undesirable grass to compete the olive trees.
The timetable of agricultural work follows closely the beautiful spring bloom that comes with the awakening of the olive plantation. It’s farm labor time! – Our staff weeds out between the olive rows in order not to allow undesirable grass to compete the olive trees.
The caress of our Mistral wind then does a lot of good to the plantation, taking care of the pollination process that helps turn the flowers into olives. Thousands of fruits, barely bigger than the size of a pinhead, begin to form.
With the end of the spring season comes the need to trim the offshoots. They spring from the roots and from inside the main the olive trees but they are also direct competitors that jeopardize their proper development. They are strong and defiant branches which uselessly divert the energy of the main plant: such is detrimental to the olive fruits. That is why our workers actually go inside each tree, as birds, and give them respite from those unwanted shoots one by one.
The oft-repeated art of tasting
A wind of rebirth blows over Chateau Virant. If with spring comes the magic rebirth of nature, the fragrances around the oil mill of Chateau Virant guarantee nonetheless continuity between past and present.
And monthly monitoring of our oil vats allows us to develop each oil to its full potential before bottling them.
The bottling process feels pretty much like turning in a homework. It is the final stop of a whole year of labor, of a harvest season and a very special manufacturing process. Everything must be beyond reproach, from the oil to the bottling process because it is the heart and soul of Chateau Virant that we poor into bottles.
Besides, the spring season is also the most intense period in terms of marketing. Like flowers, the markets open competition is fierce. But we have been able to make a difference for some 15 years now thanks to our track record and the quality of our oil. Chateau Virant olive oil is distributed throughout France and in 18 other countries; it is appreciated both by Scandinavians and by Asians. Americans and Canadians are however among the biggest lovers of our precious product. From a human perspective, this period also corresponds to enriching and beautiful encounters, to adventures, exchanges and sharing times… which will linger till the next harvest and coming years.
The Grand Olive Parade of Château Virant
During the warmest days of the summer, the olive trees get thirsty, like human beings. We provide the little water they need thanks to a very precise drop-by-drop system in order to ensure the future harvest they bear.
We scarcely water in July because it is the period when the kernels develop. Too much water would lead to big and heavy kernels. On the other hand, in August, when the pulp of the fruit is developing, the tree gladly welcomes caring raindrops on its foliage… but they are then rather scarce in Provence. Hence, as a complement to the drop by drop watering, we spray our trees once or twice a month to gladden them.
The summer does not only attract tourists in Provence. It also brings with it a world of little insects which endanger the harvest of the olives and the quality of the expected oil. The most common, the number one enemy of the sector is the olive fly. It is very active from July to early October. It aims is to insure its reproduction by laying its eggs in the olives. The eggs become worms which dig galleries in the fruits with risks for the maturity of the fruit and the quality of the oil (because of oxidation). At Château Virant, we carefully track the progression of the olive flies thanks to pheromone traps positioned strategically on the olive plantation. The traps are very precise in indicating the presence of the flies in our trees. This is called “reasoned fight.” Its interest lies in preemptive, timely intervention at a small scale but in a very efficient manner. It is a necessary step to insure the quality of the oil. The traps are verified several times during the summer in order to protect the trees.
The end of summer corresponds to the end long time of expectation. It is the beginning of another great adventure: the harvest of table olives. For an entire year, we have cherished and protected our trees so that they can yield fleshy and delicate fruits. Now, the olives are ready to hand their first verdicts. Salonenque and Aglandau for broken olives, and Picholine for crispy olives are some of the varieties we busy ourselves with as early as September. A team of women and men with baskets tied to their heaps pick by hand the best fruits, one by one and according to size and color so that they can to meet the expectations of Château Virant.
The calm before the harvest
Hot hours and long summer days are in full swing. We are peacefully waiting for the wonderful times of the next harvest. This calm around the mill of Chateau Virant announces the bustling days ahead. It is indeed a true “invitation to a journey” as Charles Baudelaire understands the phrase: “… All here is nothing but order and beauty, calm, richness and pleasure”. Because of that, our guests have the luxury and do enjoy strolling between our vats and around the various machines at rest. It is a unique learning process that awaits them thanks to the signs which explain the features and use of each machine.
The calm that surrounds the mill is conducive to repose but it does not mean that the mill is asleep. Our bottling machine continues to operate as needed while the vats keep a watchful eye, preserve and nurture the olive oil.
And as the ritual goes, every month, we extract a small sample of oil from our vats to taste and analyze with the purpose of monitoring the quality and tracking the evolution of our precious liquid.
The summer will end quietly, giving the mill the luxury of enjoying its last moments of respite before the great days of olive crushing come wheeling around.
The beautiful « olivades » or olive days
Great romanticists generally agree on finding in the fall season certain feelings of nostalgia, of melancholy. It is all certainly very poetic but this perception is nonetheless superfluous at Château Virant. It is effervescence and excitement that characterize the season at the estate, leaving resolutely aside all forms of poetry.
The first days of October are upon us: one last shredding between the olive trees allows us to clean the area and facilitates the installation of the harvesting nets. In the farmhouse, the trailers are attached to the tractors, the nets and combs have been readied. Everything at Château Virant is set for the great olive harvest.
The results of the tests of maturity performed on the fruits which give the go-ahead for the harvest. As early as the end of September and over a period of 3 to 4 weeks, the olives of the estate become laboratory olives. They will be manipulated and analyzed in order to determine the quality of their oil and their most prominent aromas. These analyses with special emphasis on the evolution of the colors and textures of the olives, our experience and know-how help us determine exactly when to begin harvesting.
For a month and half, 40 more people will join the staff of Château Virant. There is no time to waste! Nets are laid under the foliage of the trees; easels inherited from our grandparents are positioned to reach the highest branches… Men and women outfitted with manual or vibrating combs busy themselves picking the fruits from the trees. In no time, the olives are loaded in boxes and taken to the oil mill. The leaves are removed upon arrival and they are transferred to the mill in the succeeding 12-hour period. Quality does not wait! Nor does excellence!
The wonder of the new oil
Fall has finally come! Our staff members busy themselves with the machines: they clean, put them down and reassemble them… Nothing is left to chance. Each part, each bolt will undergo systematic check. Soon those “nice big toys” – as Christine Cheylan calls them – will soon be purring again!
The olives begin to ripe as early as mid-October. It’s wonderful to see an oil mill in operation! For a visitor, it is surely astonishing! Passing the threshold of the mill of Château Virant is as though he had stepped into a world of wonder because of the steadiness of the engines, the staff at work, the incredible excitement that seizes the place. To the sound of machines is added a humid atmosphere tinged with steam released by the crushed olives, unique and unforgettable smells… it is a hive, an anthill at work, a real show!
The olives are rid of their leaves; they are washed, crushed and mixed in order to insure the quality of the oil extracted. There are many parameters to control, among which that of the temperature: it must always be lower than 27°C to guarantee the first cold extraction.
Aside from the 200 tons of olives from the trees of our estate, the fruits of some 3000 local growers are brought to the mill, making a total of more than a thousand tons of olives transformed. For two and a half months during the season, the mill will be working at its full, often 24/7. The different growers leave with the oil extracted from their olives and, thanks to our know-how, their oil will taste “of the oil as they like it”. We have so many anecdotes on that subject! This type of supportive farming enables independent and small scale growers of the Bouches du Rhône region to maintain the handful olive trees they have in their fields. Some of those trees have been around for decades… This helps safeguard and promote the local heritage. And that story will be passed on to future generations.
At the end of the season, the staff is exhausted, worn out but satisfied with the work completed and the quality of the oil extracted. The mill closes around Christmas time until the next harvest. But the work goes on…
The days of silence
When days get shorter, when the cold hours of winter settle, the olive trees of Château Virant yield their last olives. The time for their rest has come.
Mankind, olive trees, fauna and flora acknowledge the preeminence of the winter. The effervescence of the previous months bows out. From now on, it is the reign of silence and serenity. Only the freezing Mistral is heard blowing through the branches.
The olive plantation of Château Virant is plunged into an invigorating sleep.
For a good preparation of the next harvest, we carry out a field work called scribbling. It consists in burying the residue of the olives which we have spread in the fields during the milling period. They are sub-products of the olives comprising the skins, the kernels…, that it, what remains after the oil extraction. At Château Virant, we chose to take them back to the soil to naturally fertilize it. That’s why the scribbling process is necessary! Once the scribbling is done, we thoroughly fertilize in order to complete nutritional input. However, only the analysis of our soils will give the best reading of our lands and it will indicate exactly the dietary supplements that have to be brought.
Then, with the last month of the winter comes the time to prune the olive trees. It takes time to take cover our 30 hectares. Pruning is a thoughtful step. Our staff will busy themselves trimming the off-shoots that have already yielded fruits and which consequently will not yield anymore; they remove the branches which could hinder the work during the next harvest; they choose the main branch which will protect the bark from summer sunburn in July… while maintaining the well-being of the foliage. Pruning is not something you do once and for all. And even if everyone knows what should be done, the main concern is that of respect for our trees.
Resting in vats and blending
Every winter, our mill provides the new olive oil with a comfortable hearth. It’s the perfect setting for the oil to enjoy peaceful days after the intense activities of the previous weeks. The oils are preserved in stainless steel vats under inert gas pressure. It is the only efficient technique to push back against light and oxygen and to ensure its perfect preservation.
Filtration is the other vital point in preservation. It has to be done in a meticulous manner in order to safeguard the aromas of the oil. As the oil passes through cellulose plates, micro-particles of water or of solid substances are removed; then it is transferred to another vat. Once again, every oil in each vat will be tasted, analyzed and rated.
Then, We do the blendings, like oenologists, in order to shape the tastes of the oil of the new year.
The blending of our olive oil Château Virant Aix-en-Provence Appellation… It’s such an art!
Round Aglandau oil with Salonenque oil, add a bit of Grossane or Picholine for aromatic complexity, play with quantities, the varieties… It is precise and fascinating work but the result is always impeccable.
From then on, the olive oils of the year are deemed ready. They will proudly testify to the know-how of Château Vitant.
Every winter ends with the traditional contest, the Concours Général Agricole held in Paris in February. Know-how and commitment for our product are certainly the main ingredients of our ongoing success. Since 1996, the year the oil mill of Château Virant opened, gold awards, awards of excellence, first prizes have unmistakably rewarded the success of our olive oils. False modesty aside, so far, our oils have the most impressive track record of the sector in France.