La Vendange: The Grape Harvest on a Small Country Estate in France

By Monday, September 24, 2012 Permalink 0
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by Vendange

When we lived in the white wine we had vines. We were outrageously excited about the prospect of making our own wine. Of course, we were sure it would be wonderful. I mean, we had been drinking it for years, we should know how to do it, right?

We bought the books, grilled the neighbors and jumped in with both feet…so to speak.

Our neighbors were old hands at this Bordeaux Mixture stuff. Right next door was the patriarch of our little hamlet. He was 93 and his wife 86. They’d been living on this land, tending the livestock, the crops and the vines their whole lives. Their son had taken over the family farm and his son was being groomed to take the reins in the next few years. Sons and daughters, nieces, nephews and grandchildren were everywhere in the area.

We called him Pépé  — as did everyone else. We thought it was his name (we were new to France, remember). By the time we realized it was the familiar form for “Grandpa” it was too late to change.

One of the things we learned in France — you can’t go home again. Once you become familiar with it, you’re endeared to it, there’s no turning back. When you go from the handshake to the kiss, don’t ever make the mistake of offering a hand again. You’ve sealed your friendship. And do try to remember who you are kissing and who you are shaking hands with…..

Back to the wine…. On the surface, having vines and making wine have a lot of romantic appeal. And it is fun…. Sometimes. La Vendanges and old friends, or grape harvest, always has a bit of a party atmosphere, regardless of the fact that the actual picking is hard work.

We didn’t have a lot of vines, although at times it felt as if we did. We had app. 360 rosé wine vines, 200 red wine vines and 100 Picking Grapes in Burgundy vines. Each year they all had to be trimmed, tied, thinned, trimmed again and again, sprayed, sprayed and sprayed (Wine Making- Burgundy Style! – Meursault, France) and, finally, picked.

The picking part is the one that every one gets enthusiastic about: warm September days in the sun picking luscious, juicy grapes. No one ever waxes poetical about standing in the freezing muck in February, trimming….

So, when it’s time for La Vendange, the local farmers come together for some fun and, just maybe, a wee bit of sampling of last year’s vintage.

As we were new to La Vendange, a neighbor came by to explain how it worked:

There were 5 vineyards in and around our little hamlet that needed to be picked. Pépé decided when to start. His grapes were picked first — because they were ready earliest. The following week the rest of the grapes would be picked. The picking was done on the weekend so all of the families could be there. We were told that we could help everyone else if we wanted to and they would all be happy to help us. Further delicate probing elicited the information that it would be nice if I made the lunch for the second weekend picking. Pépé would provide lunch for his picking (well, Mme. Pépé would) and the other neighbors would make dinner.

And so it began… With so many people picking it didn’t take more than a few hours to pick anyone’s grapes, but it’s still back-breaking, hard work.

I started out with sharp secateurs, cutting off the bunches and dropping them into my basket. I soon switched to the local method: If you snap the bunch just so in the right direction, and tug, you can break it off much quicker than cutting it. Of course this is a bit messier and harder on the hands…  But I wasn’t about to have an 86-year-old woman with a cane out-pick me and ask me how I was doing in that lovely, concerned voice.

I sucked it up and snapped to it! As the grape baskets were filled they were carried back to the crusher.

It was a portable crusher — so to speak. It was moved from vineyard to vineyard in a trailer hauled by a tractor. It was set on plastic food-grade barrels that very closely resembled large garbage cans. Trust me, these were a lot more expensive and sturdy than garbage cans.

The crusher belonged to Pépé. It was built by his grandfather. It was old. Everyone in the neighborhood used it. Without the crusher, one would have to crush the grapes the old-fashioned way: stomping with the feet. This was easier.

After the grapes were crushed they were hauled to the press. Each house had it’s own press and cave.

This was ours:

Yes, it bears a striking resemblance to a big, concrete square flat box. The press is on the floor above the cellar. There’s a hole in one corner of the floor that the juice drains through, into the barrels below.

This is the cave or cellar:

These barrels were for the red and white wine. There were 2 big barrels standing on the other side of the room for the rosé.

On the shelf you can see the gold food-grade plastic bins used for the crusher and for transporting the “berries” as well as the green picking baskets. They all had to be cleaned and sterilized before the picking starts.

In front you can see the small press we used for the white wine. The harvest wasn’t large enough to use the big press.

Both the small press and the large press had to be scrubbed and sterilized, all the pressing boards hosed down, the secateurs located and cleaned…. Then the whole lot was left to dry in the sun.

Back to the grapes….

We let them sit overnight in their skins and pressed them the next morning. First, we shoveled them into the center. Wooden bars are laid across the grapes, then planks balanced on the bars.

Heavy posts are criss-crossed on the planks to reach the press. The press was lowered and the pressing started.

Then the mechanism is turned, using a long pipe, to press the grapes. It was turned, and pressure applied until the boards creaked….

My job, was to keep the juice flowing. The arrow points to the hole in the floor. I had to keep the grape skins out of the hole and the juice flowing freely. It was a very purple job.

After the first pressing we raised the press, removed all the posts and boards, and shoveled all the skins and grapes into the center again.

Then we pressed again. Here is the press.

After the second pressing, we shoveled the skins and other bits into the wheelbarrow and took it to the compost pile, and started scrubbing everything down for storage.

When we first started researching wine-making, we learned that everything should be scrupulously clean and sterilized. That’s what all the books told us to do. But our neighbors were’t quite so fussy.

Think about it….

Think about all the stuff that goes into the crusher, then the press, then the barrels…. sticks, leaves, stems, stinkbugs, spiders, bird do….. Some of the few non-grape things that make up the je ne sais quoi of the vintage. And then there’s the stuff that is on the actual grape.

Even at the absolute top “we pick every individual berry carefully by hand” vineyard, they don’t wash the grapes– that’s where the yeast is.

Our vineyard gave us about 40 litres of white, and 300 litres of rosé. The red was never very prolific, so we just tossed the red wine grapes in the rosé.

None of it was particularly good. All in all, it was a lot of work and a lot of money for mediocre wine.

But it was fun for a few years….

Related articles
  • Vintage 2011 Update from Lionel Gosseaume – Domaine de Pierre
  • Picking Grapes in Burgundy
  • Wine Making- Burgundy Style! – Meursault, France
  • Vintage 2011 Update from Lionel Gosseaume – Domaine de Pierre
  • The European Wine Harvest 2011
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