A Great Grape Experience
Not many wine drinkers and probably fewer wine merchants have taken the trouble to discover the toil that goes into making a bottle of wine. For over three thousand years the making and imbibation of wine has been undertaken and enjoyed. Many talk of the climate, the vinification process and the technology involved, but few go to find out what happens in the beginning. It is a constant source of amazement to me that wine making must be one of the most ancient industries in history and although methods have progressed the basic requirements of planting, pruning and picking have changed very little. O.K. we have tractors and trailers, sharper blades and rubber gloves to aid us in our work yet there are certain jobs that can only be done by hand and carried out in the same manner as they would have been thousands of years ago.
Chateau des Tours
September 1998 - “La Vendange”
Having travelled down through France to Beaujolais I was escorted from Macon Ige station to a rather beautiful rustic Chateau nestling in the hillside, surrounded by hectares and hectares of vines resembling a patchwork of green.
“What on earth do your want to do this for?” - I was asked.
“What had I let myself in for?” - I asked myself.
I had been told that I would be well fed (no cooking, no washing up! – a bonus), that I would be expected to drink copious quantities of wine (home from home), and I had been advised to bring my oldest clothes which could be discarded when the job was finished!
I woke in the dark the following morning, dressed, breakfasted and donned a large green “impermeable”. Armed with a black bucket, a pair of secateurs and rubber gloves I followed a group of similarly attired “grape pickers” out into the rain only then did I begin to wonder what I was doing! The atmosphere was, however, reminiscent of the mountains, the fresh air, freedom and a promising day ahead mixed with the feeling of duty and direction overrode.
I saw what needed doing, found a row of grapes and started to snip. “Pas feuilles – no leaves” I was told as I wended my way along my first row of vines. The rain continued and my anxieties grew. My family was cosily ensconced at home in England probably still in their beds drinking tea and eating biscuits and I had chosen to come here and do this.
In Beaujolais so as to conform with the laws of “appellation” it is imperative that the grapes are picked by hand and that excludes the use of modern grape picking machines. There were 2 teams of grape pickers who worked in different parts of the vineyard. Each picking team consisted of 2 tractors and trailers, about 40 pickers, 4 jarlots (hod carriers), a very French gentleman who sorted the grapes in the trailer and “Monsieur” the boss. I knew no one except the 2 girls with whom I was sharing a room and had met the previous night.
The work was to continue until all the grapes had been picked and that could be 12/14 days, the wine making process begun and the harvest had to be gathered in. Even in my student days I had never undertaken such menial work as this, 8 hours a day come rain or shine. I stopped looking too far ahead! – the repetition, the monotony! - I had been promised a cheese and chocolate break at 8.45 am and I looked forward to that!
Cheese, chocolate, meat, “long bread” and hot strong black coffee soon became a ritual to welcome each morning. On the first morning the break was spent sheltering in a barn where I was to meet the only other English speakers on the vineyard, 3 lovely Dutch girls fresh from school – we shared the same jokes but I was definitely old enough to be their mother! Convinced that the day’s work must be curtailed due to the weather conditions we waited patiently to be sent back to the Chateau – this was not to be and as soon as there was a small break in the rain we returned to the vineyard where once again we hid inside our raincoats and with our snippers at the ready we began to refill our buckets.
At last lunchtime arrived, all were hungry, aching, not to mention wet! Forty grape pickers wended their way back towards the Chateau for repas. Communal meals became a highlight in the day. The Refectory was in the central courtyard; it felt warm and inviting and was a pleasure to enter. The English-speaking contingent gathered together for company and found amusement by finding suitable names for the other folk at the tables.
To relieve the monotony of the hours in the fields we decided to arm ourselves with walkmans and our favourite music, yet knowing that there was no way we could get to the shops to replace our batteries the need to conserve them was important. I saved my enjoyment for the beginning of the second or third row of grapes, depending on the company I was working with. Sometimes conversation was enjoyable but in selfish moments I allowed my thoughts and the music to take over. Pickers could be heard across the vineyard as they sang in Karaoke style along with their favourite artists.
As the buckets were filled the ”Jarlots” would come down the rows, they carried their large hods on their back into which the pickers would tip their full buckets, “En vide - any to empty” they would call. If the going was slow they would put down their hods to help a poor tired picker with her chore by working alongside until she had caught up with those faster more experienced members of the group further along the row.
The pecking order of the pickers soon reared its ugly head as two of us were roughly pushed aside one afternoon by an older group of workers – the issue was obviously important! Having been thus treated our new French acquaintances gathered round us in support and we enjoyed half explained stories and much revelry as we communicated in each other’s languages. The ice had been broken, new friendships were emerging along with some very interesting characters.
The mass of unfamiliar faces was beginning to fall into groups. There were the itinerant workers, who when unemployed roamed the countryside taking on casual agricultural jobs. One new friend had been grape picking locally for eight years, his plan was to move on to apple picking, cherry picking then olive picking presumably moving south towards Spain as the autumn progressed. In November his idea was to come to England and become a barman in London.
There were many students studying different subjects in various French cities. Gwynille and her two brothers had been at the Chateau the previous year with a large group of friends from their hometown and had returned – this had obviously been an enjoyable experience. They partied in the evenings and I was invited to join them on the occasion of Stefan’s birthday. Stefan turned into a star, he had been the first French student to come and talk with me and on the final afternoon of work he appeared in the fields dressed in a borrowed T-shirt with suitable stuffing and a lace skirt, hilarity took over as he posed for a photo call and proceeded to pick dressed in his newly acquired attire
Three Dutch Friends
There was a “lost soul” who twitched nervously at the dining table and chain smoked, he made his departure one afternoon by striding purposefully away from the Chateau in his black leather jacket with his ruck sack on his back. He looked cheery and expectant and waved at his friends who responded with approval. He appeared elated with his newfound freedom, yet knowing that the village lay 4 kilometres ahead I wondered how long his high spirits would last.
The groups were slowly diminishing yet the hard core of pickers worked on. The weather had not been conducive to outdoor work and the cold and wet of the first few days had indeed discouraged some from continuing. Only a hot shower at the end of the day could revive spirits and this was only possible if one was first back to the Chateau. Once the daily ration of hot water was exhausted one had to tolerate a cold shower after which one day I climbed into my only set of clean clothes and clambered into bed for warmth. However, when the sun shone, which it did after the first week, and bunches of grapes began to feel warm in out hands the beauty of the surrounding area and romantic nature of the work held me spellbound.
View of the Chateau from the vineyard
At the end of the day a highlight was to clamber onto the trailer and hitch a lift back home. Towed by the vineyard tractor with its long “legs” which allowed it to straddle the vines as it ploughed down the rows, we would bump along the tracks laughing and joking as we bounced over the ruts and wended our way up through the walnut avenue towards the Chateau as the shadows lengthened. We then washed our sticky grape stained buckets out in a large container of welcoming warm water – this became an enjoyable chore and there was usually some poor fool who got wet or even thrown into the tub. Friendships formed and developed and as the work drew to a close all began to discuss their future plans. Some would move on elsewhere to another harvest, others would return to their families, there were those who planned holidays and students who would be returning to their studies. Everyone had a different experience to look forward to.
The final picking took place in a special private garden that nestled around the Chateau. The “Close” was always picked last and was followed by the choosing of the “Queen of the Harvest” who took her flowers into the cuvage, where the wine was made, and placed them on the final vat to have been filled with grapes.
The Cuvage – Where the wine is made
Spirits were high as “grape picking clothes” were discarded and clean happy faces waited to receive their remuneration. Harvest supper awaited and all joined in the revelry. I asked my French friend why everyone was standing on their seats singing in loud interaction across the Refectory. He had no idea although he was part of the chanting party. Soon everyone was joining in and the celebration continued well into the night.
An old grape press in the Yard
My sabbatical over I reflected on my experiences with nostalgia. The initial outrage at the sheer repetitiveness of the work had been overridden by the sheer delight of the atmosphere. The solidarity of supportive team spirit and the romantic aura of communal chateau life had proven completely addictive.
Could it be that this industry will remain unaltered for yet another thousand years for future generations to discover? I hope so!
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