The rosé harvest is finished! ... As we recover from the field and the four (behind which I've been roasting poivrons and sauteing courgettes....), let's take the time to enjoy another's story. Read with me now the account of volunteer harvester, Thomas Mann, a friend and neighbor, who harvested at a nearby vineyard. But first, today's word:
la cueillette (kuh yet)
1. picking, gathering
2. crop, harvest
Also: cueillir (to pick, gather, pluck)
la cueillette des raisins, des champignons, des pommes et des poires....
the gathering of grapes, mushrooms, apples and pears...
la cueillette de la lavande, des fleurs sauvages....
the gathering of lavender, of wildflowers...
la cueillette à la ferme, au verger...
harvesting at the farm, at the orchard...
V e n d a n g e
By Thomas O. Mann
“You want to do what?” was the typical reaction when I said I wanted to pick grapes in the vendange, the annual harvest in Cairanne, my part-time village in France’s southern Côtes du Rhône wine region. I summered there for over a decade, but before retiring, I always missed the vendange because I had to go home to my job in Washington. I wanted to experience the primeval magic of the harvest, the bacchanalian mystique of wine making, an important part of France’s rural patrimony, and a short-term stint of hard physical labor.
Cairanne is perched on the edge of a promontory dividing two rivers, the Aygues and the Ouvèze, in the Rhône Valley, between Orange and Vaison la Romaine, two larger towns that date to Roman times. Mont Ventoux, “the giant of Provence,” and the jagged rocks of the Dentelles de Montmiral rise on the eastern horizon. The mountains of the Ardèche lie to the west. Vineyards dominate the local landscape, and the village is home to 40 wineries.
When September arrives, the grapes hang in ripe bunches, waiting for the right moment. Their readiness is a function of the weather--they need warm sun and just the right amount of rain--and the critical sugar content, tested daily. Meanwhile, tension builds. Clean wagons appear in the winemakers’ yards. People keep a nervous eye on the sky. Too much rain at the wrong time could ruin the vintage by producing grapes that cannot make wine with the proper balance of fruitiness, tannin, acidity, and alcohol that vintners seek. Making wine sounds glamorous, but it depends on farming, always a risky business.
I get the call at night from the winemakers who agreed to let me work as a volunteer vendangeur for a day. They issue me a pair razor-sharp pruning shears, and I report for duty early the next morning. Riding in a rickety van, we follow the tractor into a vineyard where an empty wagon is waiting. Everyone gets a black plastic bucket, and we fan out across the rows. It is hard work and the morning air is cold. I feel the muscles stretching in my lower back as I bend to reach the grapes. When the bucket is full, I carry it over to the wagon and dump in the grapes. When the wagon is full, it is hauled off on a tractor and replaced with an empty one. The sun gets hot by mid-morning, and we break for lunch at noon. My crew is a mixture of different ages, migrants from Spain, people without regular full-time jobs, and retirees. Some are immigrants (or their descendants), from the Maghreb, France’s former North African colonies of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. I try out my rusty 40-year old Peace Corps Arabic. This gets some laughs, but my vocabulary is limited.
We begin the afternoon in another vineyard, whose old vines have few grapes. Then we finish the day on a steep hillside, picking from an organic vineyard with scratchy weeds growing between the plants, where you have to wrestle the grapes off their vines. I am in mid-pick when the clock struck 6:00 p.m. A senior crewmember points to the hour on my watch and tells me to stop working immediately. I forgot for a moment that I was a laborer, in France, where workers’ rights are still taken seriously.
The quality of the grapes harvested each season gives a preview of the vintage. In a year with the right weather conditions, the grapes will look clean and healthy, and few will be sorted out. This year had a relatively wet winter and spring, and the grapes flowered later than they had in recent years. July and August were hot and dry, and the crop was smaller than usual, but the grapes are excellent. Back at the winery the grapes are fed into vats by a crushing machine, and the juices are left to ferment. The type of wine being made, red, white, or rosé, determines when the skins are removed. We picked only Grenache grapes on the day that I worked, since Cairanne winemakers vinify each variety from each parcel separately before they are eventually blended together in the assemblage to make the finished product. The vineyard’s mère de famille gives me a bottle of juice from the grapes we picked. I plan to wash down an aspirin with a glass of the juice before passing out for the night. My back is a little sore, and I have a few nicks on my hand, but it feels good to have experienced the harvest at ground level. By working as a vendangeur, I bridged the gap between being a “summer person” and a local, if only for a day.
There is undeniable excitement in the flurry of activity during the vendange. Crews of pickers are busy in the fields, tractors pulling wagons full of grapes slow traffic on the roads, and they queue up at the wineries to deposit their precious cargoes. Spots on the road become black and sticky with grape juice. Tall mounds of raffle, the residue of the crushed grapes, pile up by the wineries, before it is carted off to an alcohol plant.
The romance I feel from being part of the vendange overlooks the economic realities. The wine industry of today is partly an ancient craft, but also a modern business in a competitive global market. The traditional manual harvesting is mandatory for the vines that produce the best local wines in this region, and migrant workers still come here from Spain and Eastern Europe to work in the vendange. However, harvesting for the mid-grade wine in the Côtes du Rhône region is increasingly done by giant machines with menacing mechanical mandibles that devour whole rows of grapes at a time like giant insects. In many wine-producing areas around the globe, all the grapes are harvested by machine, and I wonder if this will happen here as well.
In addition, the winemakers of Cairanne have applied for status as a grand cru of the Côtes du Rhône, which will recognize the excellence of their wines and could lead to higher prices in the future. However, this also means that the French wine authority will delineate the areas within the Cairanne appellation that will be included in the cru, and those that will be left out. The wine produced from excluded terrain will have to be sold at a lesser price as Côtes du Rhône or Vin de Pays rather than AOC Cairanne. There will be winners and losers from the enhanced status. This is further complicated by the fact that most wineries own many small parcels of land scattered throughout the Cairanne appellation, so the effects of the cru remain uncertain. But the application is made and there is no turning back.
The countryside around Cairanne is perfumed with the intoxicating aroma of fermenting grape juice after the vendange, especially in the cool, foggy mornings of early autumn. As I ride my bike across the countryside, I smell this tantalizing scent each time I pass a winery. The leaves on the vines are beginning to turn red and gold, and soon I will go back to Washington until next spring. I am glad to have felt the magic of the vendange. Bacchus, the wine god of the ancient Greeks who brought the grape to Provence, would be content.
Thomas O. Mann is a retired lawyer who divides his time between Washington, DC and Cairanne, France. His stories about fly fishing have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, and various angling publications. This is his first time writing about the wine industry.
Le Coin Commentaires
I am so grateful to Thomas for allowing me to post his essay. I hope you have enjoyed it and learned from it as much as I have. A question for readers: is this how you pictured the wine harvest? What elements of the harvest would be most/least pleasing to you? Click here to leave a comment.
Selected French Vocabulary
la vendange = the wine harvest
le vendangeur (la vendangeuse) = the grape picker
la mère de famille = mother
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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety