P1080694Today may be Sept. 1, but Monday is la rentrée–the great return to school, to work, to routine. For winemakers around this part of the south of France, the end of summer comes with le vendange, or grape harvest, and they are hard at it.P1080487At night, a welcome cool breeze slips through the open windows, along with the low growl of harvesting machines already toiling as early as three a.m. Wayward grapes stain the sidewalks and streets of the village. P1080474Within the time we’ve lived here, the harvest has gone from being all-hands-on-deck to being something that happens in our peripheral vision. The fête du village is always Aug. 15, a last fling before grindingly long days of harvesting. The village gym class didn’t start until after the vendange, because nobody had time for exercise when the vineyards were in full swing. Eventually, only two gym-goers were working with wine.

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This photo and the one just above were taken a while ago; these are all dark purple now.

French wine is celebrated for its quality, and rightly so. Sure, you can find some bad stuff, but that’s the exception, not the rule. The AOCs–appellation d’origine côntrolée, a kind of certificate of quality linked to geographic location–are a very safe bet. Each AOC has strict rules about what winemakers can and can’t do with their wines, including which cépages, or varietals, they can include.

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Can you spot the lonely vigneron tending the wires? Obviously from earlier this year.

Lots of people overlook the AOCs because they require some memory work. AOCs generally are blends of varietals, and the wines that are trendy tend to be monocépage, or single varietal, like Chardonnay or Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir. One AOC that’s monocépage is Burgundy, with Pinot noir for red and Chardonnay for white. As far as marketing, it’s easier to sell a Cab or a Syrah/Shiraz than a Minervois that’s predominantly one or the other, with some other varietals mixed in. That mix is the special cocktail, the individualism. When I was in the U.S., most wine stores offered only a few, well-known French options, and the shopkeepers would explain that AOCs were just too complicated for customers.

P1080704Let me tell you, nothing is easier.

Look at the bottle. If it has high shoulders, it’s in the style of Bordeaux, which are mostly Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon for reds. These are fuller, bolder wines. A local favorite for this style in Minervois is Domaine la Tour Boisée (which also produces wines, like 1905, in the Burgundy style).

P1080705If the bottle has sloping shoulders, it’s in the style of Burgundy, even if it doesn’t contain pinot noir. That means soft, complex wines. One of our favorite wineries is Château St. Jacques d’Albas, which uses a lot of Syrah in its red Minervois wines.

Around Carcassonne, one finds several AOCs: Minervois, Cabardès, Malpère, with Corbière and Limoux a bit farther. Minervois, Cabardès and Malpère are some of the smallest AOCs in France, made up mostly of very small, family wineries.

And so when things go badly, we see the long faces.

P1080485
Hit by frost.

Our winters are mild, and temperatures only occasionally drop below freezing at night. But this spring, frost struck low-lying areas a few times as late as April, devastating the vines just as the fruit was budding out.

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Big gaps.

A large field where some optimistic winegrower had planted new vines early in the spring turned into rows of shriveled dreams. Some plots that belonged to the ancient vigneron, who died about a year ago, were hit and tumbled into abandon. I suppose his son, no spring chicken himself, gave up on them.P1080476

P1070944
Lost cause.

Another plot nearby was completely dead and eventually torn up and plowed over. I met a worker pulling out the stakes that had held the wires for training the vines, and he said they would plant again later. Maybe.P1070939The piles of souches, or stumps,  look like heaps of bones, a cemetery of hope.P1080473The harvest this year is two weeks early because of the hot summer, but the output is expected to be 30% to 40% lower than last year. The wine is expected to be of excellent quality, however. So keep an eye out for Minervois 2017 (though in the meantime you would do well with 2016 and 2015 and 2014….)P1070946

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40 thoughts on “Wine Harvest

      1. *VERY* interesting. I lived in a different part of the Languedoc than the vigneron featured in the story. The SuperU in Beziers sells many wines made locally, a very ethical thing to do. I always buy local wine, if possible from the producer. I used to buy in bulk from a family wine business in the center of Roquebrun, you take your own container and they fill it up from a tank! It was very decent wine, priced at €1.60 per liter, you must immediately decant it into smaller airtight bottles or it “goes off”. They also made very good AOC wine, third or fourth generation, still using the old equipment, which is amazing.
        bonnie

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      2. There you go. I went to a wine tasting in a state I will not name in the U.S., where the local vintage was undrinkable. One winemaker boasted about keeping his wine “on oak” for six months or something. I was intrigued and asked him where he sourced his barrels. He sneered at me and said that he didn’t use barrels; he just added oak flavoring. His wines cost about $25 a bottle. You could get a really good French wine for the same price. His wines were complete ripoffs. In France, if you use “oak flavoring” instead of aging in oak barrels, you are put out of business by the authorities. People, especially in the U.S., are getting ripped off by buying local.

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      3. Whoa! Oak flavoring. Unbelievable. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a €25 bottle of wine here! The stuff at 10-15 is amazing! I live fairly close to Chateauneuf de Pape, Beaumes de Venise, etc. and I think those are the overpriced wines of the area. Just the name will raise the price. Some of the Beaumes de Venise, from the cooperative, is very good, but of course not cheap. As lame as it may sound, I prefer those dark reds from Saint Chinian and thereabouts. I also know a vigneron from that area who is a very small bio producer, who makes a wonderful rich darkwine, best bio wine I’ve ever had, in fact one of the best wines, bio or non.
        bonnie

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      4. The average price of a bottle of wine in France is €3 something. But a cheap bottle of French wine in the U.S. becomes expensive, thanks to duties. Yet, local wines cost far more, and are, quite frankly, undrinkable. Maybe good for unstopping plugged sinks. Really awful. Like this guy’s wine. And he was so proud of it. No, not proud–he was boasting in the way of a circus tout. All fake. And people who look at some complicated label from France or a simple label from nearby are willing to buy the ridiculously overpriced pee (really toxic waste) from nearby because….it’s local.

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  1. I lived for 6 years in the AOC Saint Chinian area, between Beziers and Narbonne, in a small wine village (Roquebrun), and remember well and fondly (!) the tractors headed out before dawn with their lights on, rumbling down the village roads pulling their vendange trailers. I even helped with a friend’s vendange a couple of times. I’m going to visit there next week, and expect to relive it all. The wine, by the way, is excellent, particularly the blends from the Cave de Roquebrun (no I am not a stockholder!).
    bonnie now in Provence

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      1. It is if you’re doing it for money, I was helping friends for free so was not pushed to hurry. A lot, certainly more than half, of the vines in the area are hand harvested.
        bonnie

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  2. Such a VAST subject. Your pictures tell a vivid story. I recommend two films that you may or may not have seen … the first ‘Premiers Crus’ and the other ‘Ce Qui Nous Lie’ both set in Burgundy and wonderful stories. The first is a couple of years old but the second released this year. I think both are available in English versions for your readers who don’t speak French. I learned from both and so did my husband (who knows far more than I)

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  3. SUCH A HARD LINE OF WORK………SO “IFFY”
    I couldn’t make out the one worker on the vines……….does that mean I need glasses???You are lucky to live in a beautiful spot…….I know what it is like as I too lived outside FLORENCE in the TUSCAN HILLS.A lot quieter than the American suburbs!!!
    XX

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  4. The grapes on our village vines near Bergerac are there but appear to be a lot smaller. They always say that the wine will taste good this year!!

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  5. Being in Kansas—an agricultural state with what I call a bad weather sampler because the weather can change so quickly usually from somewhat bad to very, very bad—I have always had respect for people who take on Mother Nature as a business partner. We must always be grateful for all of the people who are a part of our food chain!

    That American plonk maker who sounds like a direct descendant of George F. Babbit is a basket of despicable AND deplorable. On a fun side, I once had conversation with a woman from Boston. I was ordering from her company and she was bored because a big snow was coming and business was slow. So we chatted about food, of course. Being Italian she said she gardened, canned, made cheese, made her own pasta, and with her good friend, made wine. So, I asked what kind of casks they used—oak or even stainless. She laughed and said, “Trash cans, baby! Don’t worry we used new ones!” Still makes me laugh.

    Of course wine, winemaking and wine shipping have always presented problems. Thomas Jefferson was on the alert with his imports always making sure what he tasted in France was what he received in Virginia. Today one of the biggest news items is this: https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2017/08/fraud-scandal-rocks-frances-leading-bulk-bottler/ Wowzers!

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    1. This has been in the news here in France also. Ummmm, why am I not surprised. See previous post about C de Pape. A lot of wine here (provence and Languedoc) is aged in concrete tanks, sometimes very old ones, and I recently visited a very high end winery which is building new concrete tanks, apparently they are pretty good!
      bonnie

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  6. Your posts are such an enlightment on so many different subjects ! It is a pleasure to read & learn about culture, places, ways of life. Great pictures too. Congrats!

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  7. Very interesting post, I really enjoyed reading this. I live in the Charente now and a lot of the grapes around here were hit by the late frost. We have one single plant in our garden and although it is still alive, not a single grape survived. I cannot drink Bordeaux reds, the tannin is far too strong for me and I feel like I have eaten a wad of blotting paper! Rhone is better but even that (to me) cannot beat the South African reds. Having lived in RSA most of my life my taste seems totally different to most of the people here in France!!! 16 years since I left so you would think my taste would have adapted but it seems not!
    have a good week Diane

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  8. Great info! I had no idea the shape of the bottle meant anything!

    Speaking of wine, I’m so excited for the foire aux vins that’s starting this week. The little things make me so happy! It’s also starting to feel like fall — can’t wait!

    Liked by 1 person

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