The vendange, or grape harvest, is in full swing. Well before dawn, I hear the big harvesters rumble down the road to the vineyards. As I write, the hum of a harvester drifts through my open window.
The hot, dry summer means this year’s harvest is small but good. When rain threatens at vendange time, the winemakers work around the clock to bring in the grapes before the precipitation dilutes their sugar content, or makes the vineyards too muddy to traverse, or, worst of all, brings hail that ruins the crop. This year’s clear blue skies have spared the vines of such problems.
Life around here still revolves around the vendange even though it no longer requires all hands on deck. For example, the village gym classes don’t begin until late September because traditionally too many participants had to work all day in the vineyards, harvesting grapes. These days, much of the harvest is done by giant machines that, when they roll through a little village, seem like contraptions out of horror movies, with their rows of teeth.
Hand harvesting is back-breaking work. The grapes are just at a level where you have to bend over constantly. It was women’s work, while men collected the buckets of grapes and carried them to a wagon. It was a time for the locals without vineyards to earn a little extra money, though often they were paid in wine. I looked at help-wanted ads to see what seasonal workers earn now; it seems to be €9.67 an hour, which is minimum wage. With many easier ways for the French to earn the SMIC, it isn’t surprising that the seasonal workers are mostly from Eastern Europe, Spain or Portugal. The New York Times had an article last week about volunteer tourists helping the harvest.
The Domaine Fontaine Grande on the outskirts of Carcassonne is one that harvests by hand. A dozen workers quickly filled bucket after bucket, their secateurs, or clippers, snipping the generous bunches neatly. As fast as they went (most of my photos were blurs), they barely seemed to make headway in the vast vineyard.
It’s hard to miss the vendange. Traces of grapes on the roads. The heady scent of already-fermenting fruit drifting out from the cuves.
Before the vendange, taking grapes is theft, but after, the left-behind fruit is fair game. (Beware of the vendange tardive, or late harvest–those aren’t for taking either! The grapes are left on the vine until they start to dry out, to make dessert wine. It’s pretty easy to tell when a vineyard has been harvested–no big bunches are left). Though it’s mostly the sangliers, or wild boars, that snarf up the last grapes.
Soon the 2016 millesime will be developing in the giant wine vats, and the leaves on the vines will change to brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow before falling off for winter.