This past week in our area was the grape harvest. Early morning traffic was all about tractors and full cars heading out to vineyards. The rain was coming and those sun filled grapes needed picking before it arrived.
In the past Pumpjack, as the wine maker, has always been involved in the ‘vendange’ (‘vintage’ or grape harvest time). He had done his fair share of picking but mostly worked in the wineries. Then we had our own vineyard to work with and I had the chance to help out. But our restoration vineyard was only 1.5 hectares (about 3.5 acres), and of that our Chardonnay was hardly worth harvesting.
This year, in our new home amongst the Couchois region of wine, I had the chance to experience the ‘tucking in’ for Domaine Gaudet in June. It seemed only fitting I should try my hand at the grape harvest as well, and at the different, yet still nearby, Domaine Demontmerot. It would be a chance to see how those around us in the wine world lived and worked during vendange. Also a chance to meet local people. And a chance to improve my French.
Along with two other ladies from our village, we duly arrived at 7am for the sign-in and a little breakfast; baguette, cheese, sausage and of course coffee. About 40 of us then were loaded into the back of a cattle trailer (yes, we had to make the obligatory ‘moo’ sounds when getting on and off). We did not have far to go as the vines were all near to the village, with some even overlooking our own villages rooftops.
Given each a bucket and grape secateurs (not quite the same shape as normal secateurs, narrower and with a pointed end for getting in to tight spaces) we were assigned rows. Then it was a question of a lot of kneeling, bending, kneeling, bending, bending, bending as we cut large and small bunches of grapes at the stem. By lunch time we truly wondered what we had gotten ourselves in to.
A filling lunch of three courses was provided and it was an easy camaraderie as we sat at trestle tables. As the harvesting days past and more people swelled our numbers over the weekend and then dwindled again following, the camaraderie certainly increased amongst those of us in it for the full grape harvest haul.
It would be remiss not to say… I have honestly never done anything this hard before. The physical demands on such a repetitive basis of bending and getting up, as well as lifting a full bucket of grapes into the porters carrying container pulled and strained every muscle I seemed to have.
Thank goodness for the porters. This was something new to me. Made up mostly of our local rugby team it seemed, these large lads carried V shaped big containers on shoulder straps. The call of ‘on vide!’ (time to empty) would go out when someone’s bucket would reach overflowing and we would form a human chain of 2 to 3 people either side of the porter to pass along our laden buckets, which were duly dumped into his large container. He then walked down (or up) to the tractor and its grape container to then climb a ladder and tip the sticky contents into it.
There were lots of grapes so a bucket was normally filled after about 3 or 4 vines, getting heavier as you moved along your row. By the afternoon, many of us resorted to sitting on our backsides and shuffling backwards as we snipped. There was in fact advantage to this in that it was easier to see the top of the bunches, so less chance of cutting your fingers with your secateurs. But it was also slower, or maybe that was just because we were very tired.
There is a very real pride in knowing the grapes we picked are going to make a wine that will be sold in shops. I will definitely have to buy a few 2019 vintage to try (and lay down) this next year, knowing my blood, sweat and aches were a part of it. And as for next year’s grape harvest? Honestly? Please, no, never again.