The transition from summer to fall here in France is punctuated by harvest festivals: “les vendanges” en français. Last year my hubby and I participated in the large “Fête des Vendanges” at Montmartre in Paris. While interesting and within easy reach of our apartment, the crowds were enormous and we found the food and wine to be expensive and less than stellar. This year, however, we were fortunate to be invited to participate in the vendanges at the Bordeaux vineyard Chateau Tour Bel-Air owned by good friends of the sister of our good friends – hey, connections are important and isn’t it great when they lead to unique opportunities like this! With our favourite daughter in town at the same time as the invitation came through for the vendanges we enthusiastically accepted and boarded the TGV train direct to Bordeaux.
Together with our good friends we rented an AirBnB house in the small town of Vertheuil in the Cissac-Médoc region of Bordeaux for the weekend. Located a mere 5 minute drive from Chateau Tour de Bel Air imagine our surprise when we arrived at the home and discovered that we would be staying in the extremely large and comfortable former town Boulangerie (bakery)! Seriously.
The kitchen came replete with the ancient wood-fired bakery oven as well as a large wood-fired cistern used for heating water. There were five bedrooms, each an ensuite bathroom, and overall room enough for at least 11 people. Once the caretaker of the home assured us that there would not, in fact, be a line-up of locals waiting to buy freshly baked baguettes and pain au chocolat from us in the morning we settled in to enjoy the evening.
Unfortunately it rained much of the night. We woke to find the air heavy with fog, wet streets and a chill in the air. At least it had stopped raining, although there were no promises from the Weather Network that it would stay that way. Ahh…fall in France and les vendanges must go on. Dressed in layers with bags of spare, dry clothes and shoes safely stowed in the trunk of our rental car we headed to the vineyard for the 9am coffee and homemade brioche. Nothing in France begins without a coffee and something delicious to nibble. Our hosts at Chateau Tour Bel-Air, Bruno and Françoise, were warm and welcoming. There were a total of 85 of us present for this, the 10th vendanges of their Chateau. Our day would consist of about 6-7 hours of working in the vineyards, followed by a catered picnic lunch, hopefully outdoors in the main yard if the weather would cooperate. The tasks were explained, tools were distributed and then we were led to the vines by Bruno and his partners.
While daughter and I took buckets and clippers hubby opted to be a “porter” and grabbed one of the large back-pack type bins for collecting the grapes from the “pickers”. Working in pairs facing each other on opposite sides of the row we squatted and clipped our way up and down the designated field. When one field was completed we moved as a group to another one and then still another one. I found it interesting that the quantity and quality of grapes on a vine seemed to vary significantly by plant, by row and by field. It was a real life demonstration of the impact of “terroir” on the production of the vines.
The work wasn’t hard, I mean we were simply clipping bunches of grapes into our buckets and then dumping the full buckets into the backpack bin of one of the porters who would, in turn, empty his backpack into the large bin behind the tractor. It was, however, tiring and I can’t imagine doing it day after day: Row after row….aller, retour, aller, retour (out, back, out, back)…squatting, standing, kneeling, dumping. The porters had a more strenuous job lugging their back-bucket up and down the rows. When filled with grapes each backpack weighed as much as 50-60kg and trying to empty a pack this heavy into a large metal container while standing on a ladder and trying to stay balanced was no easy task!
Fortunately for us the bulk of the harvesting at the vineyard is completed by machine. The physical picking of grapes is more of an annual celebration, “a thank-you” for good customers and friends, than it is a practical or efficient means of gathering the grapes. For those of us outside of the “industry” it is a chance to celebrate the harvest with the vintner and to appreciate the art and the challenge of wine making.
As morning turned to afternoon the sun burned off the last of the fog and the temperature rose enough that I was able to remove two layers of clothing. As our work wrapped up it was extremely satisfying to see the full load of grapes we had harvested being hauled away by the tractor while the group of us wandered slowly behind it.
Back at the farm we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying a fabulous and leisurely meal that had been prepared by a local master chef and his wife. It was, of course, served with a variety of wine from the Chateau. All in all it was a wonderful day and a great opportunity to experience something fundamentally and exquisitely French.
Note: If you’re ever in the Cissac-Médoc area of Bordeaux make sure to look up Chateau Tour Bel Air and stop by for a tasting. Tell them that the Canadians sent you.