Vendange

I have a house in southern Burgundy, in wine country that is called by the appellation d’origine controlé (AOC) Macon Pierreclos. Therefore, I have many vignerons (winemakers) as neighbors, but the closest in distance (about 500m) and friendship is the Jambon family (Domaine Marc Jambon et Fils). The Jambones have a small operation. It is now run by the son (fils in french) Pierre-Antoine and his business partner Michel after Marc retired. Pierre-Antoine is the 8th generation to be making wine in Pierreclos.

This year I had the opportunity to participate in the vendange. Vendange is the French word for the grape harvest that will be used to make wine. The day began with a walk down the hill past the cows to meet the group at 7:45. The first order of business was to sign a contract. The wine industry is heavily regulated in France. I had no expectation of being paid, but it is known that gendarmes will check workers in the field for their contracts so Michel insisted. Our group of 12 consisted of Pierre-Antoine, various friends and the dog called Helium. That is to say, the vendange is the serious business that is the livelihood of Pierre-Antoine and Michel; but also a community gathering full of a light-hearted esprit de corps. After coffee we drove to a small parcel on the other side of the valley to harvest chardonnay grapes. Each row has two people (one on each side) cutting the bunches of grapes and collecting them in buckets. Another person, the porter, carries a very large bucket on his/her back (like a backpack) that collects the grapes from the cutters to transport them to a wagon pulled by the tractor for transport back to the winery. Thus, we did 5 rows at a time with two porters. The little clippers are very sharp. I sliced my fingers twice, drawing a lot of blood, because I did not have good technique. The light green-yellow grapes blend with the leaves and the bunches do not hang as you might imagine. The growth of the bunch can be in any direction. The bunches can also coalesce among themselves and around the support wires. The good technique first strips away the leaves to have a good view of the bunches and obviously keeps fingers away from the cutting. We finished the first parcel just after noon (including a break for pastries). The group lunch (beef bourguignon of course) was good and convivial. The afternoon session was down in the valley not far from the medieval castle, theChâteau de Pierreclos. The dark burgundy red pinot noir grapes were much easier to see and my improved technique kept my fingers out of harm’s way. We finished this parcel about 4:00 in the afternoon, returning to the winery to follow the process of pressing the grapes. By this time my back was extremely stiff and I was exhausted. Thankfully, one of our group drove me back up the hill to my home. A cold beer, a shower, and I was in bed by 7:00. The next day we were again down in the valley but picking white chardonnay. I was being very careful, but my partner nicked me pretty good. My back was sore and I was very tired walking back up the hill to the winery and lunch. There was some more to be done in the afternoon, but given the choice I went back home (wisely I drove this day) to a long nap.

The weekend vendange is designed for guest workers who have regular jobs. But Pierre-Antoine and Michel work on the vendange full time (occasionally with the machine) over about a two-week period depending on the weather. That is to say, wine making on this family scale is very demanding physically and mentally. To be a wine maker requires knowledge of specialized agriculture, biochemistry,and  process engineering; but also finance, marketing, and regulatory processes. There is a very good school for teaching wine making close by (there were a couple of student interns working with us) but I think Pierre-Antoine carries the generations of knowledge of his family making wine on this property. It takes a tremendous amount of work and capital investment with great risks from weather, competition and a fickle market.

I found this video of an American participating in the vendange around the Chateau de Pierreclos. He did a nice job filming the day. But he seemed to be having a tourist experience. Other differences were in the time of year (the end of summer compared to the beginning of fall in my case) and the number of people involved, his group included many more than 12 people. For comparison to the family style vendange in Burgundy. A more stark comparison, here is a video of an industrial scale vendange with machines in Australia.

Why is participating in the vendange important to me? In The Blood of the Colony (about wine production in Algeria) author Owen White explains, “To no form of cultivation did the French word “culture” better apply than to the grapevine: more than just a crop, it felt like a way of being.”   I want to be a part of this “way of being.”  I love the look of the rows of vines. I love the sense of place that the castle gives to the valley. I love the traditions, working similar to generations of people in the vendange at Pierreclos. I am even happy with the fatigue and soreness that focused my mind on the real things of the hills, soil, and grape vines of Pierreclos (literally dreaming of grapes and sliced fingers) and not the crazy world of the pass sanitaire. Participating in the vendange has brought me closer to my neighbors and the community in the valley. Of course I love to drink this wine too, especially the chardonnay aged in oak barrels and the pinot noir. It is perhaps the best quality-price wine I have ever purchased. I take pride in it, brag about it, and give it often as a gift.

I am already looking forward to the vendange next year and enjoy the photos that follow.

The Macon wine region in south Burgundy.

The start of the day, curious cows.

The parcel we worked the first morning. The building in the far background is the Château de Pierreclos.

The afternoon parcel of red pinot noir. Note the big plastic pail carried by the porter who transports the grapes back to the trailer.

On our way to the parcel the second morning. The Château de Pierreclos is directly in view.

A picture of the treasure. Note that it is about one foot off the ground. I took a picture of these bunches because they are easy to see. That is not usually the case.

These Star Wars looking tractors that are used extensively in the modern vineyard. If the ground is flat and not muddy, they can even be used to harvest.

Oak barrels that give a lovely smooth texture to the wine.

Expensive equipment used in the wine making process. To the left is the hydraulic press.

My contract, including the blood stains that prove I was really working.

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