One of the great events here in France is the vendange or annual grape harvest. Almost every town hosts some sort of fête to celebrate the event. I’ve always wanted to witness a harvest, especially in Burgundy where some of my favorite wines are born and raised. This year I got my chance.
It was a bittersweet event, I’ll confess, from the outset. My friend Gerard, who makes a wonderful white wine, is leaving the business and selling his vineyards and equipment. After ten years he’s had enough. It reminds one of the old joke; “How do you make a small fortune in making wine?” “First you start with a large fortune…” Wine making is not for the faint-hearted or the budget minded. This harvest is to be Gerard’s last. He isn’t making wine from this 2011 crop either, just collecting and pressing the grapes at his winery and selling the juice. I figured this would be my one opportunity to get an up-close and personal view of a true French vendange.
I rode the train with Gerard late on a Sunday afternoon from Paris, arriving into the small town of Tournus three hours later. Gerard lives in the Macon region of Burgundy, south of the more famous appellations of the Côte-d’Or, such as Meursault, Gevrey-Chambertin, Pommard, Volnay and Nuits-Saint-Georges. It was only a ten-minute ride to his house and winery. The next day, Monday, would be the beginning of the harvest.
Or so we thought.
Gerard’s winery, Domaine de la Main d’Or (the Gold Hand) is a two-man affair, himself and a pleasant young man named Alexandre. It’s basically a large garage filled with tanks, a few barrels, two shovels, a rake, a large broom, a cement floor and the sweet-acid smell of old grapes and new wine. The set up is a Rube Goldberg contraption with borrowed parts and mismatched pieces precariously set up on discarded lumber scraps. But, like the famous cartoonist’s inventions, it all works.
Monday came and went and took Tuesday along with it. Harvest time is tense, anxiety seeps into the atmosphere like the vanilla taste from old French oak into a barrel of Chardonnay. As it turned out, Wednesday was the day when the grapes were finally picked. I drove out to the vineyard with Gerard at 7:00 AM. The vineyards are in the village of Chardonnay, an appropriate place for the birth of a good white wine, I thought. This year the grapes would be picked by machine, or, to be more specific, shaken off the vines by machine. Normally they would be picked by hand, the advantage that no under or over-ripe grapes would be included.
I was left on my own for a few hours in the vineyard. The sky was steel gray, threatening rain, and cool. I sent the time painting a small watercolor sketch of the landscape, sketching the vines and just wandering the rows and rows of grapes (sampling a few as well; I hadn’t had much breakfast). The harvesting machine lumbered up and down between the rows of vines, shaking them and spitting the grape bunches out into a container to be dumped into an even larger bin. After the larger bin is filled with grapes, it will be hauled by tractor to the winery. In the distance I saw other machines performing the same chores in other vineyards. The whole world seemed to be occupied with only picking and hauling grapes.
Returning to the winery about lunchtime I discovered that the first batch of grapes had already been delivered while I wandered through the vines. The juice had been pressed and the marc dumped out onto the cement floor. Marc is the grape skins and refuse left in the press after the juice has been squeezed out. It can be collected and put back into the vineyard as fertilizer or sold to make a strong eau-de-vie.
A wine maker in Oregon once told me that it takes a lot of water to make wine. In every good joke there is a seed of truth. After each pressing, everything needs to be cleaned. The press, grape bins, shovels, rakes and the slick, cement floor of the winery itself are scrubbed, hosed off and rinsed and then washed. Tall rubber boots and old clothes make the costume.
By three o’clock that afternoon, the second delivery arrived. It was like watching a dance. Or perhaps closer to the truth, watching a scene out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis where the workers below the city slave to an internal rhythm of the machines. Everyone had a part in the choreography. The tractor raised the bin of grapes like a miniature dump truck, tilting it so the grapes slid to the very edge. The grapes were raked or pulled into the trough or towards the corkscrew conveyer, traveling up the stainless steel tube and falling into the pressoir where Alexandre, standing inside, dressed in a baggy pair of rubber pants, pushed and raked the grapes evenly inside. The whole operation took fifteen minutes.
The grape bin is hosed off, the conveyor and the trough are washed down and the tractor leaves. All is quiet again.
The weight of the grapes begins the pressing process. The juice runs out of the bottom of the press into a large stainless steel pan that sits on the floor. After a bit, you can hear the juice slow to a trickle. Alexandre then flips a switch rotating the great silver cylinder of the press a quarter turn, shifting the grapes inside and releasing more juice. He leans his head forward a bit, listening to the running liquid. It slows. We’re both quiet. All we hear is a drip, drip, drip of juice. It has almost stopped running. Then Alexandre flips another switch and compressed air pumps into the press. The pressure releases more juice. I smile. I realized you need your ears to make wine as well as sight and touch…and water.
It’s a long day. Alexandre left the winery at 9:00 PM after pumping the juice into a tank, cleaning the press, shoveling the marc into the red bins and hauling said bins to where they would be sold. At 7 the next morning the day would start all over again.
I took a late afternoon train back to Paris on Thursday. There’s still another week of deliveries, pressing and hosing down left for Gerard’s harvest. I don’t think he will miss it much but I will. The harvest is an event that’s occurred for hundreds of years, a reminder of the renewal of nature. I was happy to witness a small part of it this year. When I raise my next glass and look at the color, smell the fruit and taste the sugar and sun I’ll be reminded of my time spent in the vineyard and the green hills beyond.
V is for Vendange, V is for Vines and V is for Vinification of a crisp, white Burgundy wine.
And V is also the Veritable Mess that has to be cleaned up after each pressing.
Doug Cushman is a former Redding artist and author who lives and works in Paris. He was born in Springfield, Ohio, and moved to Connecticut with his family at the age of 15. In high school he created comic books lampooning his teachers, selling them to his classmates for a nickel apiece. Since 1978, he has illustrated and/or written more than 100 books for children and collected a number of honors, including a Reuben Award for Book Illustration from the National Cartoonists Society, New York Times Children’s Books Best Sellers, and the New York Public Library’s Best 100 Books of 2000. He enjoys hiking, kayaking and cooking (and eating!). Learn more at his website, doug-cushman.com.
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