Tales from

the Loir

A Weekly Column

 October 18, 2000 Vendange: Harvesting Grapes by Hand

Vendange is the French word for wine grape harvest. Before the introduction of the harvesting machines in 1983, harvesting was done by hand. Even though it was back breaking work, it was such a popular event in Europe that people would come from all over the world to participate. The only remuneration was wine, dinner and fellowship. But once the harvest was complete, there would be a truly a big party with a last meal and then the harvest ball in the local village. Some vineyards still harvest by hand for reasons of appellation or for reasons of quality but it's different now. The French government requires payment of social security and minimum wages. If the wine grower has to pay for your labor, he is probably going to want you to pick quite a few grapes. This takes some of the fun because it becomes a job and well, work.

Nevertheless, Aprille and I made plans to go to Vouvray to help with la vendange. Our friend Jean Montambaux warned us that it would be a long hard day and the weather in October can be freezing and wet. The commercial vineyards can't afford to stop work because of the weather. In fact, bad weather necessitates that the work go more quickly. If we go, we are committed to a long hard day of work. Jean was so worried about our going that he made arrangements for us to try a vendange at a private family vineyard in Saint Rimay instead. The vineyard is really just a few rows of vines above the infamous tunnel of Saint Rimay where Hitler parked his train in October, 1940, while meeting with Petain in Montoire sur Loir.

We all gather at André's small farm in the center of St. Rimay at 8:30 a.m. to discuss the weather before we start. We are a magnificent seven for la vendange. Actually, we are nine but the magnificent nine doesn't really work. Besides, I don't have to count Orphelie who is only four years old or her grandfather who brought her to observe this sacred ritual.

Aprille asks if she can ride on the trailer behind the tractor. I ride behind with Monsieur Jean who never stops cracking jokes and laughing. I see Aprille bouncing and laughing high atop a dilapidated farm wagon, I get the sense that this is not truly serious. André begins to swerve his tiny car from side to side on the road. Jean follows the same serpentine line as we watch Dirk, André's German Sheppard, shake his head in the wind.

When we reach the vineyard, André hands each of us a bucket and a pair of clippers. All humor ends as I bend over and start cut a bunch of grapes. Back breaking work is really an understatement for this type of labor, but as I warm up the work gets easier. We are picking pineau d'aunis today and we will be making a rosé wine. Some bunches are huge clumps and easy to reach but others are covered by the grape leaves so it takes some searching to get every bunch from each vine. As we fill our buckets, we empty them in the hotte carried by Thierry. A hotte is one of the cool baskets you see on men backs in old engravings of wine harvests. Hottes used to be woven baskets but now they are serviceable easy-to-clean plastic. He hauls our grapes with the hotte to the tractor. We harvest two and one half rows of grapes in about one hour. We are finished with this field so naturally we have to drink a bottle of pineau d'aunis to celebrate the accomplishment. We seven all share the bottle from two glasses that are passed around like peace pipes.

After a brief discussion on the quality of this bottle, we headed to yet another field. Here the picking is more intricate because there are two different types of grapes planted in the same rows. It's difficult to tell one variety from another. Orphelie arrives with her grandfather and wants to fill her little pail. She says over and over "Je fais la Bernache". Everyone smiles at her antics but her father seriously instructs her as to which vines to clip with her little safety scissors. We manage to finish the last row by 11:30 a.m. and celebrate again with another bottle. We load up our juice-stained buckets and clippers and head back to the farm. Getting back to the farm is another event to be celebrated so we all stand around an old wine barrel where André pours a bottle of Vouvray to quench our thirst. Everyone is hungry for lunch but André insists that we try his pousse d'épine before leaving. I think that we are drinking more wine than we will produce with our harvest but that does not seem to be important.

After lunch we come back to watch the pressing. Its a little surprising how simple it is to make white wine . The commercial vineyards probably do it differently, but these small farmers still do things the traditional way and have for hundreds of years. We just deposit the grapes in the pressoir and squeeze the juice. It comes out a light pink color because of the red pineau d'aunis varietal that we harvested. It is the same procedure for making white wine. The liquid flows directly from the vat to large wooden barrels in the basement below by a long plastic tube. The juice becomes bernache in about six days. Bernache is the sweet, fizzy vin nouveau that lasts only about a week to ten days. It is nothing like the beaujolais nouveau we drink in the states. It is more like fizzy grape juice but is has a alcoholic kick. Its easy to see why Orphie thinks Bernache is the reason for picking grapes. Its a perfect drink on a blustery autumn day to have by a fire while roasting chestnuts. A week or two later the fizzy character is gone and it begins to turn into real wine. The fermentation process continues for about six weeks but the wine is not ready for bottling until April or May. During this six month period of maturation in the barrels, the wine must be transferred between barrels periodically in order to remove the dregs that have settled to the bottom. And that is it. Nothing to do but let nature take its course. It is really a very simple process and maybe that's part of the magic.



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