Last year I said, ‘never again’. And there is a saying ‘never say never again’. How very true. Fast forward to now and I find myself once again undertaking The Vendange.
The vendange is a French term for the grape harvest here in France. Very specifically, the time in late summer or early autumn when pickers and porters amass to harvest the grapes that get made into wine. (There is a whole other word for ‘harvesting’ when it comes to other agricultural crops.) So having it’s very own terminology gives you a sense of how important it is here.
You could say that everyone in France has done at least one vendange. Or at least 99%, as not every one is capable. Families and friends come together. Sometimes even whole villages in support of their local wineries, otherwise known as Domaines.
But what is The Vendange really?
(Spoiler alert – for those who like to romanticise the concept of wine making, read no further.)
Each Domaine, or winery, has a different take on how they like to manage the vendange. Some are almost militant in their directions, others opt for the more casual route. Last year I had a taste of the first, and this year the second. I will say, I much prefer the second.
The style is often dependent on the size of the winery, or rather the quantity of grapes that need to be brought in. Larger wineries need more people, hence the need to manage it all with a bit more diligence.
The weather plays a big part too. It is the weather from winter onwards that determines how the grapes will fare. Will they be super sweet, or complex? Will there be issues with disease from too much rain? Will there be enough sun, for long enough to truly ripen the grapes. And then, of course, from all this comes the burning question of ‘when to harvest’.
This year due to cooler temperatures overall and lots of regular rain earlier on the year, the harvest is early. Normally in our area the harvest is around mid-September. This does vary region to region. Also grape varieties play a part. White grapes are harvested earlier than red, though it does depend on the variety of grape. Are you starting to get the picture on all the variables?
Because the vendange is earlier, e.g. hotter, there was no plan to join in this year. It’s hard enough in September, which still has some heat, but August?! Ouch. Except, many of the Domaine’s took this into account and offered earlier hours, 6am starts, finishing mid-day or a little later. Tempting.
No matter when, normally the day starts before dawn. Coffee and brioche or other such bready things are provided in the wineries equivalent to a garage, now set up with trestle tables for the pickers. Then with a bit of pink showing on the horizon, it is off to pick those grapes.
Each Domaine handles the day differently. Most provide the above mentioned breakfast. Lunch varies from not provided at all to a full 3 course meal that takes 2 hours (and leaves you very sleepy as you take on the afternoon picking).
Domaine Guillaume Bouthenet’s request for people for the vendange caught my eye because it was 6am – 1:30pm, with a coffee break mid way (very civilised). And only 4 days. Worth giving it a go for that reason alone.
You see, the vendange is back breaking. Or knee bruising. More often both. And then of course there are the cuts from the secateurs. No matter how careful you are cutting the grapes, it always seems to be inevitable that at least one cut (preferably only one) will occur. They really hurt. And goodness do they bleed. All over the grapes.
Grape vines are waist height. So guess where the grapes are. Knee height. You have a choice, kneel down or bend over to look for the stem at the top of the bunch to cut. On average there are about 6 – 10 bunches per vine. Sometimes less, more often more. You are given a bucket and secateurs. Then you are assigned a row. A long row, that is angled up hill. Sometimes steeply.
You tear off leaves or fish your way through them, looking for grape bunches to cut. Once cut, they go in your bucket. You can’t leave any bunches behind, unless they are rotten or not ripe. You keep bending or kneeling, up down, up down, until your bucket is full. Then you hoist your heavy bucket up and into the porters bucket.
A porter is the one who has a large conical shaped bucket on his back, like a huge plastic backpack. He turns his back to you and you lift your bucket and dump in your grapes. As the day wears on, you will be very surprised how heavy that bucket gets, and how much taller the porters have grown.
There is no instruction, generally. Especially in larger Domaines. There is an assumption you know what you are doing. They will come along and check everyone’s work right at the beginning, and let you know if you are not doing something right.
The Domaine we are working at now did do things slightly differently. But then they had advertised that newbies were welcome, of which we had 3 amongst us. We were all given a 2 minute show of what to do, and then we were off and running.
Again, depending on the Domaine, speed may be of the essence. Last year was all about cutting fast and furious. It was very competitive (and not necessarily very nice about it), and thus the speed added to the days exhaustion of up down, up down, up down ad infinitum, and hoist.
This year is definitely less competitive. But, like all Domaine’s, they are paying by the hour (€10 ish), so they prefer you don’t dawdle. We are a smaller group, as it is a smaller Domaine, around 20 all together, including the owners. It is much friendlier and there is more comradery.
End of day two, a day of rain. Lots of rain. A deluge timed perfectly as we had our coffee break. Which is actually a full on lunch, to my mind, of bread, meats, quiche and cheeses. But then this is France, so it is only a coffee break, without coffee. But there is wine.
Luckily, as their vines are out in the old sea bed (something that gives the terroir a definite added something to the wine) the soil is more rocky and less muddy. Last year, on a rainy day, we often wore 4 inch platforms of mud on the bottom of our boots. Back, knees, and ankles those days. The rockiness helps with soil drainage, so no platform boots. Result!
Half way through he vendange now and I have already decided that if they would like me next year, I would do this again. With them. It’s all in the style and need of the Domaine. And never say never again.