Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Early fall means it's time to harvest wine grapes or as it's called here:"la vendange".
Yes, it involves picking grapes but it is far more than that–a seasonal event of primal importance. After all, wine has been made here since the Greeks first planted vines in the 6th century and then as the Romans spread vineyards throughout France. No wonder it's a fundamental part of the culture. I guess that's why my Dr. shook his head when I answered his, "do you drink?" question with "yes, wine." "Non!" he said insistently, "do you drink?"
Our region, originally called Languedoc-Roussillon, stretches from the French border with Spain to Provence. We're located right in the middle. It's the single largest wine-producing region globally and is responsible for more than a third of France's total wine production. Wohoo!
Here in St. Hippolyte, we are surrounded by fields and valleys of vines, growing a variety of grapes:
Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet, and Cinsault for red wines and Sauvignon, Roussanne and Ugni Blanc for the whites.
It's a delight to watch the vines mature, and the grapes grow and ripen throughout the spring and summer, culminating in the autumn harvest. Throughout the winter, the bare vines carry a beauty of their own, until the cycle starts up again as the weather warms. For everything, there is a season.
Traditionally la vendange happens at the end of September, but in reality, the timing has to do with the weather and the state of the grapes. This year, our local winemaker friend Emilien had to harvest early and quickly, at the end of August, as the coming "episode Cévenol" (pounding rains) would ruin his crops.
But for the past few years, we've been privileged to join Emilien's family and friends to hand-pick Carignan grapes from vines planted decades ago by his grandfather. While most of his fields are harvested by a clever machine designed just for the purpose, Emilien reserves this section to be picked by hand.
To spend the day, under a bright blue sky, cutting juicy bunches of grapes off their vines was a dream come true for us. We started in lovely French fashion by gathering at the family home, drinking coffee, eating croissants, and chatting. Then a leisurely stroll to the vineyards out back, with clippers in hand.
The next several hours were spent cutting bunches of grapes off their vines and tossing them into crates that are later loaded onto a tractor and taken back to the winery. It's incredibly satisfying to duck under the leaves, to find the semi-hidden clusters.
Surprisingly–or not– the largest, densest bunches were most tightly wrapped onto the branch, abiding in and clinging to the vine. Nestled under the shelter of wing-like leaves, they receive the warmth of the sun but not the fiery heat. It's easy to see why Jesus used the vineyard and its fruit as a teaching illustration.
Towards the end of the morning, something hit me in the head as I stood from working on some lower branches. Little bunches of grapes zoomed through the air. Grape fight! We soon had the younger ones among us chasing each other up and down rows, chucking the least usable fruit at each other. So much fun!
Barefoot stomping our harvest in a giant wooden vat–a la "I Love Lucy"–would've capped off our day perfectly. There are now machines that do the job, with handy sieves to trap everything but the juice. But shouldn't hand-picked grapes should be foot-pressed?
Actually, our amazing day did finish perfectly, with an hours-long feast prepared by Emilien's mother and friends. From the aperitif of nibbles and charcuterie, onto Moules à la crème (mussels in cream sauce), followed by roasted sanglier (wild boar, recently "dealt with" by a neighbor as it was tearing up the vines.) They then fired up the outdoor barbecue and threw on some delicious sausages–just in case we didn't care for the sanglier. We finished with an array of French cheeses and desserts. And of course, with plenty of their own wonderful wine, to accompany it all. We were truly honored to be included.
Later in the year, as we were served the reserve wine made from hand-picked grapes at an event at Emilien's Domaine La Grand' Terre winery (www.lagrandterre.fr), we clinked our glasses and smiled. Knowing we'd been part of picking those grapes was an unexpected pleasure and made us feel more deeply connected to our little town and land.
La vie est belle!
(photo by Bryan Gallagher)