Ensuring quality from grape to glass at the producer and bottlers of The Society’s White Burgundy and Beaujolais-Villages.
Since taking on the newly created position of Quality Control Buying Manager earlier in the year, I knew that one of the most critical aspects of the role would be visiting our key suppliers to carry out technical audits of their wineries. This aspect of the work we do to ensure the quality of our wines is not widely known but it is essential in ensuring the highest standards are adhered to across the whole supply chain. We thought that you might like to know a bit more about what this work encompasses – you never know, you might even find it interesting!
The technical bit
For those wines that The Wine Society sells under our own Society’s and Exhibition labels, it is important that we have a complete knowledge of the production methods used. Happily, due to the long relationships that our buyers have with many of our producers, we can be confident of the integrity and quality of the wines, but legally we must be able to demonstrate due diligence by performing more rigorous checks. Where we are buying from smaller or less-established producers, we can also work with them to help them develop their processes to the required level.
The audit process covers checks of both the physical facilities and also the paperwork that necessarily accompanies wine production in the 21st century. Traceability is a key concern and winemakers should be able to establish exactly where the wine, the bottle and the cork all came from, as well as exactly what, if anything was added to the juice – and when.
Start of the traceability test – a reference bottle of The Society’s White Burgundy.
Traceability – a good place to start
After an early coffee with our technical consultant Jenny and leaving Tim to his pre-blending croissant and espresso, we headed down the road to the impressive facilities of Les Vins Georges Duboeuf where Les Vins Aujoux bottle their wines.
Our first task on arrival was to pick a bottle of a Society wine from the Aujoux cellar of reference samples. The lot code of this bottle would be our test of the traceability procedures – important in case of product recall.
As a member of the winery technical team set off to gather their paperwork relating to this wine, I emailed the lot number to my colleagues in the buying department in Stevenage so that they could test our systems at the same time. Rather smugly, I was able to report after an hour that I had received an email in response confirming that we had identified exactly which members had received this particular batch and could contact them all if necessary.
Touring the facilities
Whilst the paperwork was assembled, we began a tour of the facilities. The main focus of a technical tour is the bottling line as it is here that many of the problems can occur. Glass is obviously a breakable, and therefore dangerous material, and procedures must be in place for dealing with any problems. Wine and empty wine bottles are also attractive to an array of bugs and insects, none of which are desirable in a filled bottle. The closure itself, be it cork style or screwcap must also be applied carefully to ensure that the wine reaches you, the members, in the best possible condition.
Following the process along one of the three high speed lines used for Society bottlings which can bottle between 8,000 and 10,000 bottles per hour, we checked the area where bottles are delivered, unwrapped and added to the start of the bottling line. Wrapped in plastic at the supplier, they are only unwrapped just before use, the label detailing the reference number cut off and kept and any pallets containing broken bottles returned to the supplier.
Once on the bottling line conveyor belt and inside the positive pressure enclosure designed to ensure dust and flies are kept out, each bottle is inverted and cleaned with a jet of filtered and UV-treated water designed to dislodge anything that may have fallen in. This is a key stage of the process from an audit perspective and we spent some time ensuring each jet on the multi-headed machine was working correctly and that the water pressure was sufficient to remove any possible foreign body.
It’s fair to say there’s a fair amount of staring at bottling lines in this auditing business!
Checks and more checks
From here the bottles move swiftly to the filling head where the correct volume of wine is quickly put in bottle before being taken directly to the section of machine that applies the closure. On the day of our visit, the machine was applying screwcaps but the machines can be converted for cork or similar technical closure by the swapping over of the unit. The machine applying the screwcap thread to the previously smooth metal capsules was quite mesmeric. Tolerances are tight, however, and the torque required to open the screwcaps should be regularly checked by the operators, therefore we needed to check that the checks had been performed.
Checking the bottling line records next to a screwcap torque meter.
Here’s a snazzy machine applying screwcaps!
For some reason, Comic Sans appears to be the font of technical documentation in French wine production…
Following a second line, the bottles snaking around the bottling hall – and on occasion passing overhead – the wines are labelled, a lot number applied and packed in to boxes.
There’s no end of whizzy machinery at the bottlers of our Society’s White Burgundy and Beaujolais-Villages. Be mesmerized by boxes of wine on a spiral conveyor belt!
Onto the labs and white coats
From the bottling halls, we moved to the well-equipped laboratory where wines are analysed pre and post bottling to ensure that they are stable and that wines are well within any legal limits, such as those for sulphur. A report of the key analytical findings is a requirement for exported wines and we ensure that we receive a copy to compare with the random testing that we undertake on wines in our warehouses.
A probe for testing dissolved oxygen levels in a sealed bottle of wine.
Follow the paper trail
Whilst we had been walking the site, the paperwork for our traceability test had been assembled. This meant that we could check the analysis of the wine and then follow it back through the bottling process and to the component parts of the blend that had been assembled via the various tanks and filtration treatments that had been undertaken. The origins of everything are checked, down to the lot code of any sulphur added and the composition of the cleaning chemicals used throughout the winery.
Auditing the paperwork is as key as analysing the wine itself.
A successful day all round
Whilst auditors feel obliged to make at least some suggestions for improvement, standards at Duboeuf were good and we left quite happy. Fortunately, Tim had had a similarly successful day blending the new wines so the debrief over a beer in the hotel bar was a positive one.