Saturday, 26 September 2009


Vendanges - the grape harvest

Always in the plural - les vendanges. This year, we picked on 26th September for our neighbours over the road. The white grapes for pineau were picked on Friday - one year we did this in a thunderstorm, actually surprisingly unpleasant. The day starts with a casse-croute or breakfast of salamis, pâté and cheese, coffee and bread and wine - red, of course. Then at about 8.30 we convene at the vineyard opposite the cemetery and pick grapes for a while, until there is a break for more wine and coffee if you can't drink red wine at 9.30 in the morning. It is last year's wine, thin and acidic. The coffee, in a grudgingly small thermos flask has chicory in it but sugar cubes are provided.
This year there were three hod carriers - it's quite hard work as the hod is made of metal and when it's full of grapes is rather heavy.To get the grapes in the wagon you have to climb a ladder with the hod on your back and then tip it sideways so that the fruit slides out, preferably into the trailer. Both KK and his sister AK have carried the hod with honour.

These photo's are AK's from 2007 when she was guest of honour and as a vendange virgin had her baptism of grapes in the face - KK was left alone - too big and unpredictable. AK got her revenge but later... that's another story. I'll post more photographs from this year later on.

To pick the grapes, we work crouched down in pairs, one either side of a row of vines and then we help one another to catch up, so that the pickers stay in a relatively small area, which makes it easier for the hod carriers. Usually the brother is a carrier but this year he was off doing a basket making course with Maman.

You have to be very careful when picking the grapes not to skewer your partner through the leaves - we use special secateurs which are not only sharp but have very sharp points - this year there was only one casualty and it wasn't fatal. On Saturday, the weather was perfect - slightly chilly in the morning, but clear and sunny. It was a good year for grapes, as we had a lot of sun and dry days during the summer and a few days of rain at the end of August - just enough to swell the grapes appropriately.

The black grapes are beautiful. Some of the full bunches are perfect, with the bloom still dusky on the fruit and they taste musky and sweet. They explode in your mouth, pulpy and slightly slithery, with the merest hint of muscadine. I ate a lot this year. How could it be better? You squat in the sun, your view of others obscured by the vines, pick a perfect bunch of grapes and stick them one by one in your mouth. It's difficult to stop. Eventually, after just over two hours the vineyard is picked clean and we stop for more wine, before taking the wagon full of berries back to the barn to put in the fermenting vat. 
An octogenarian farmer from a neighbouring village brings his special  grape crushing wagon which has an Archimedes screw at the bottom. This screw is powered by the tractor engine and the resulting squishy pulp of grapes is fed in the the fermenting vat, via a tube that looks a lot like dryer hose. This means a lot of manly standing about and scratching heads and looking for primitive tools. The grape pulp is sucked into the huge fermenting vat, leaving a brilliant red liquid behind and the heady smell of rubber boots, diesel fumes and grape juice.

The fruit is left in the vat for a week - people go and look at it every day and the crust that forms on the top is poked down. The smell is amazing. It's a good idea for two people to be there, as one has to climb up to the top of the vat and stir - the second person is there for safety. This is especially important when it comes to emptying the vat - tragic accidents are not uncommon. Noxious fumes congregate at the bottom of the vat and the one baling can be overcome and die very quickly. At this stage the wine is put into barrels and left for a year or so. The wine form round here is rarely more than 10% alcohol - so not very strong. In a couple of weeks (and assuming no one is left at the bottom of the vat), two old plastic water bottles filled with a sinister, dark liquid will appear on the doorstep. This is bourru or new wine-  it tastes pleasant enough and slightly fizzy. Last year at this time, it was cold enough that I had lit the wood stove and we left the bottles of bourru next to the fire - this encouraged fermentation and they erupted making a terrible Bordeaux-coloured mess. It's quite good for adding to the vinegar. Although the wine itself isn't great, it is part of the rhythm of village life. Every farm used to have a small vineyard, in the same way as they had a pig or two and a fowl yard. Now only three vineyards remain in the commune (no pigs and only a few fowl). MD - the previous owner of the brother's house went into a decline when his vines were destroyed. Permission to grub them up had to be obtained from Bergerac - I had no idea that you couldn't just get rid of your own vineyard. It takes work and people to help to keep the vines but it is important. The continuation of the ritual, even though we are far too many picking a ridiculously small quantity of grapes, is important in a rural community where work is no longer done in common, where there is no longer a valid excuse to get together and where the farmers are dissociated from the rest of us by their huge machines. And the most important part of the ritual is the vendange meal...

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