Living in the Bordeaux region, as you know - we are surrounded by hundreds of wine chateaux! Each one beautiful in its own right and each one special in history and tradition. Fall in this region is a very important season. It's the time when grapes are harvested, picked, sorted and put into vats and barrels. This time of year is call the "Vendange" in French. It's a word that means harvest and it's so much a part of the culture in the Bordeaux region. The exact time each fall varies slightly depending on the weather and on each grape variety.
The choice of when to start picking is also a bit complicated. Are the grapes sweet enough? Is the skin soft enough? Each variety is slightly different. Then there is the current weather - Is it going to rain? Is it going to be windy? All play a part in La Vendange.
|Some of the volunteers on this Saturday morning|
Each chateau chooses how they are going to pick their grapes - by machine, by hand, hire people, or use volunteers... Often when you know people in the wine industry, you can get asked to participate in La Vendange. That's just what happened to me this Fall. Chateau Fonchereau was looking for some extra hands to pick the Merlot grapes after the machine had gone through earlier that week.
So a friend and I decided to offer some time on a Saturday morning and do several hours of picking. The girls were invited too, but they were spending the weekend with their father. This is often a family affair. Chateau Fonchereau is located just outside of Bordeaux on the way to Libourne.
It was a beautiful but cool morning and the vines sparked in the sun. You can see from the group photo that it was crisp to begin at 9am that morning. We were all given clippers and a basket to get started and we each took a row and just got to work - bending, clipping and placing each bunch in our baskets.
The machine had picked most of the Merlot grapes, but on the lower vines or tangled in grasses, there was plenty more to trim and pick. The baskets filled up quickly. Smaller baskets are used as they are easier to carry when full.
Look at the color of these beautiful grapes or (Les raisins). They were stunning! We also learned that if any of them had white mold on them and smelled like vinegar, then leave those behind. Other than that, it was pretty easy to just clip, snip and place in the basket.
As we filled our baskets, we would then empty them into the trailer where they would eventually be hauled up to the processing equipment to be sorted, crushed and placed in vats to begin the fermenting process.
As the morning went on, it got warmer and sunnier. Note the sweaters and jackets hung at the end of each row. Not only was it a great place to hang them without getting dirty but the jackets also served as a marker as to which row was being picked. Nothing like creating a system as we worked along the vines.
Another method that is used to collect the grapes is to pour the small baskets into a back carrier larger basket. This method is very traditionally used in the Bordeaux vineyards. It's also a job that is typically male, as the back carrier can get very heavy as it gets filled up with the bunches of grapes. Either men and women both clip the grapes but the heavy lifting is definitely reserved for the men.
After numerous trip and rows, the trailer was getting quite full with all the grapes. It's amazing what grapes were still left behind after the machines went through. Apparently, it's up to each chateau as to decide what to do with the grapes that are left over by the machines. Some chateaux just decide it's not worth the money to pay workers to pick the left-overs. Others decide, like this one, to make more passes through the vines by hand.
Our team of pickers covered about 20-30 rows that morning. It was definitely productive but also felt like we only made a small dent into the hand picking portion. It's definitely a lot of work to pick and manage the harvest in a vineyard. It's also always a balancing act for each chateau to hire people to hand pick and/or rely on volunteers who are not always predictable. After about 3 hours of picking, we were given a tour of the cellar and processing area of the Chateaux - the smell of oak always reminds me of wine - especially a delicious Bordeaux. It's also nice to hear about the whole process of wine making. Experiencing it first-hand is very special.
The reward for 3 hours of work in the vineyard? A delicious barbecue back at the chateau or as the French call it - "Une Grillade". This is tradition here in the region when you have volunteers who assist in the Vendange. A meal is served at noontime and this particular meal was delicious!! A little aside, in many of the small villages around Bordeaux where there are many vineyards - the church bells chime to announce lunch and finishing time in the fields. The vines really are a way of life here in this region.Of course we started with wine and appetizers and then moved on to grilled vegetables and meats. Dessert - a delicious apple tarte with ice cream. To sit outside chatting, drinking and taking in the beautiful views of the surrounding area made it a spectacular afternoon.
This whole experience is very traditional in this area. You often hear about people helping out with the Vendange. It's manual labor, yes - but there's a bonding that happens between everyone and a greater appreciation for the work behind that bottle of wine! I would definitely do this again and recommend anyone who has the opportunity to help out at a harvest - do so. You'll be surprised how great it feels!