Father-son outings are always special. So I was pleased with the enthusiasm my 12-year-old son displayed when I asked if he’d like to accompany me to pick grapes on the first Saturday in September. He had wanted to accompany me last year when I helped Pierre, a family friend, harvest his grapes in the tiny Faugères appellation just north of Béziers. However, I had left him at home, as I was afraid that he was too young, and that he would get tired or bored after an hour or so of backbreaking work.
He was so disappointed when he wasn’t allowed to join me last year, however, that I decided it was time for him to pass what seems to have been a certain rite of French youth—la vendange. Virtually all of our friends and acquaintances seem to have fond memories of spending several days of their youth (a week or two for the hardiest among them) picking grapes. There was, they reminisced, plenty of wine to drink, hearty meals to replenish their energy and that link with the countryside and sweeter and simpler times that can even bring a tear to the hardest-hearted Parisian when such pastoral Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot scenes are invoked. More likely, these memories are like fine wine or cheese–they get better with time. But I decided that if he was going to wax nostalgic one day he needed to join the thousands of other itinerant day workers who swell French vineyards at this time of year.
We were a small group—just my friend Pierre, his wife Martine and their son and daughter. Add in Pierre’s two sisters–Suzette behind the wheel of the tractor, and Bernadette, who brought visions of cotton fields in pre-Civil War American south to my mind by singing, throughout the day, classic Negro spirituals like “Amazing Grace”–and we were eight in total.
Three days prior, the Commanderie du Faugères, a group of local men and women who periodically get together for dinners and wine-related events to promote the Faugères appellation, had been in attendance for the ban de vendange. Commandeurs, members of the Commanderie, dress in medieval attire, and use historic details, like the horse-drawn carriage that transported them to this particular ban, at their dinners and events. These ban des vendanges are proclamations (ban, in effect, signifies “proclamation”) by the local authorities, setting the official date for the first day of the grape harvest.
This tradition goes back to the Middle Ages. The local seigneur (noble) would give the go ahead for the grape harvest by posting the ban in the center of town. But today there is no law prohibiting a vigneron or vigneronne from picking grapes before the official date. The winemakers are constantly checking the weather and tasting grapes to verify their level of ripeness, the quantity of sugar and whether or not the pips are beginning to turn hard and brown.
The definition of ideal ripeness is, of course, open to discussion. Ripeness is not an absolute, but rather a continuum. The winemaker’s experience, knowledge, insight and capacity to take a risk with the weather lead to picking the grapes at some point on this ripening curve. The character of the wine, whether or not it has the natural acidity to balance the degree of alcohol in the grapes, and whether the flavors are fully defined are all determined by this decision. Get it wrong, and an entire grape growing season will have been wasted.
Although some people may not respect the ban, we were fully in line with the decree. Maybe it was because Pierre’s sister Suzette was a commandeur. More likely, Pierre’s day job kept him from beginning the harvest before this particular Saturday. Today, Suzette had traded her elaborate Commanderie clothes for jeans and an old shirt, as she was the designated tractor driver. Commandeurs, obviously, don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Or maybe there is some sort of feudal class system still in place, as, come to think of it, she was up there on the tractor, and we were down here picking grapes.
These happened to be Syrah grapes, and the grape vines were pruned in what the French call the gobelet method. No wire or support is used, and the yearly pruning leaves a short, central trunk with a number of branches that grow upwards in a “goblet” shape. The key term here is “short,” as the grapes on the bushy vines were at a back-aching 60 to 100cm from the ground (around 24 to 40 inches in height). The grape harvesting technique is not difficult. We were each given a pair of garden shears and a plastic bucket. When the bucket was full, the grapes were placed in the trailer that was being hauled by the tractor. The grapes were then taken to the local cooperative where, after a carbonic maceration, they will be made into an AOC Faugères red wine.
Lessons learned at this 2009 grape harvest:
• No matter how many times you listen to the song “Amazing Grace,” it still sounds inspirational.
• Always remove the grape from the bunch before placing it in your mouth. One of the members of our harvest group ignored that rule and almost swallowed the small, gray spider that was hiding in the grape bunch.
• Make sure that you don’t mistake your pinkie for a grape stem. For the second year running, I inexplicably did just that, and the smallest finger on my left hand now has a unique fingerprint pattern: a swirl with a deep slash down the middle.
• No matter how much your back aches the next day, it’s still a great experience to be out in a French vineyard in September, the sun streaming down, dogs off in the distance baying as they chase a wild boar or hare, the feeling of camaraderie of a group working together, and the satisfaction of seeing your son working like a man while smiling from ear-to-ear.