Harvesting Grapes in Provence
When I booked a gîte for our week in Provence, I really had no idea what I’d done.
I knew I wanted to spend a week in Provence. I knew I wanted to stay in a gîte. And I knew that a gîte is a self-catering holiday home in rural France — that much I had learned on a previous visit to the south of France.
Beyond that (and a budget), I set no parameters in my search for accommodation. The place I ended up booking for myself and my friends was not our first choice or even our second choice. But when the owners of Domaine du Crestet sent such a friendly reply with so much detailed information to my inquiry about availability, we were sold.
Domaine du Crestet is a wine estate that dates back to the mid-1800s. Several stone-walled buildings have been converted into guest apartments and a home for the owners. The apartment we rented for the week was in a building that used to be a barn filled with silk worms.
What I didn’t know about the gîte I had booked was that it is a working vineyard, known as a domaine. And, because it was a working vineyard, we had the additional bonus of a crash course in wine production as part of our stay.
Our education began the moment we arrived as a wine reception was underway for all of the guests. (Accommodation at this particular gîte was booked Saturday to Saturday, so all of the guests for the week arrived on the same day.)
It continued mid-week when we enjoyed for a small fee a wine-tasting evening put on by Paul, our host. He knowledgeably led us through nine different wines and sent each of us home with the remains of a bottle (or two) at the end of the evening. A few days later, with only one or two wrong turns, my friends and I were able to locate one of the châteaux on Paul’s list so we could purchase for ourselves several bottles of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine he had introduced us to.
But it was our final day at the gîte when the real learning took place. Paul offered us a deal: if we were willing to spend the day picking grapes for him and his neighbour, we would be treated to a picnic lunch as well as dinner at the neighbour’s home. It took my friends and me only a few minutes to decide. Although field work wasn’t exactly on our holiday agenda, we knew this was too interesting an opportunity to turn down.
We were ready for work at 8:00 a.m. sharp. The vineyard was right beside the domaine, so we only had to walk out the door. Joining the three of us Canadians on that beautifully cool morning was a German couple, also guests at the gîte, whom we had met at the wine-tasting evening. Jean-Louis, the neighbour, soon showed up with his tractor and cart.
Jean-Louis spoke no English, so Paul translated for him. We were shown how to hold the bunch of grapes in one hand and the cutters with the other. No holding the stem ― that’s the way you end up cutting yourself. I paid careful attention. The cutters were terribly sharp and I began having flashbacks to my summers working at a tree and plant nursery that involved many long days of pruning pine trees.
Only grapes that looked good enough to eat went into the plastic containers; the dried or rotten ones were to be left on the ground. Once a container was full, we were to empty it into the cart.
Truth be told, picking grapes isn’t nearly as tough as pruning pine trees. Or picking strawberries or planting leeks ― all of which I’ve done for days on end. It would have been easier on me had I been a tad shorter (less crouching), and it also helps to have big hands in which to hold the grape bunches.
We hadn’t been picking long when Jean-Louis stopped us. He wanted to show us how he tested the sugar level of the grapes. First he crushed a few grapes, then he poured the juice into a gizmo that Google tells me was a refractometer. We took turns looking through the eye piece to see the sugar level for ourselves. The sugar level is an indicator of what the alcohol content will be of the wine produced from those grapes.
During another break, Paul had us walk over to the next vineyard where other neighbours were picking table grapes. These grapes were much sweeter than wine grapes, and instead of dumping the grapes into a cart, they were carefully placed onto cardboard flats. One of the pickers was Jean-Louis’ mother-in-law and we learned that she was going to be cooking dinner for us that evening. She kept handing us grapes to eat until we couldn’t eat anymore.
By the time we finished at Domaine du Crestet, the sun was high above us. We changed into shorts and put on sun hats. Our picnic lunch had been brought over by Jean-Louis in his cart, which was now half filled with grapes. We put the coolers and baskets in our cars, gave Jean-Louis a head start with his tractor and cart, and then drove over to his vineyard, about 10 minutes away by car.
We parked our cars near an olive grove, put the coolers and baskets in the shade, then began picking grapes in this much older vineyard. But only 20 minutes later, Jean-Louis announced it was lunch time.
And what a lunch! We carried the coolers and baskets to the olive grove and sat down in a circle. Jean-Louis opened up the baskets and began passing out the food: two enormous quiches, baguettes, cheese, sausage, wine, water, more cheese, more wine, more quiche … I’m not exaggerating when I say it was the best picnic I’ve ever had. (And! We were picnicking in an olive grove!!)
While we ate, we talked about grapes and making wine, with Paul doing all the translating from French into English and back into French.
And this is what I learned.
Most grapes in France are picked nowadays by machine. But young vineyards, like Domaine du Crestet’s, have to be picked by hand because the vines are so small. And the rows of vines in old vineyards, like Jean-Louis’, were planted too close together to allow the machines to pass through.
A vineyard can only call itself a château if it actually has a château on the property. Otherwise, it’s a domaine.
Paul and Jean-Louis are part of the same cave coopérative (cooperative cellar), which is why they were harvesting the grapes together and why it didn’t matter that grapes from two different vineyards were all mixed up in one cart. The type of grapes we were picking were called Grenache.
Jean-Louis was on the board of the coopérative, which is highly regulated. Members are told when they can start harvesting and when the harvest has to be finished by. The coopérative also regulates when the farmers can and should replant. The older the grapes, the better the wine but the lower the output, so at some point, farmers have to work out which is more cost-effective ― making more expensive wine, but less of it, or making less expensive wine, but more of it. Jean-Louis kept testing the sugar level of the grapes all day long and the sugar level of the grapes from his 60-year-old vines was nearly twice that of the grapes from the three-year-old vines at Domaine du Crestet.
Only once we’d eaten and drunk our fill, and had run out of questions, did we pack up the remains of the lunch and head back to the vines. This was the difficult bit ― who wants to do field work after a lunch like that? ― but we kept at it. I knew from my summers of working at the nursery and on an organic vegetable farm that farmers can be particular in how you work in their fields and Jean-Louis was no different. Paul muttered to me that he wondered if we would be able to finish that afternoon. It seemed like the rows went on forever. But then, all of a sudden, Jean-Louis announced we were on the last row. It wasn’t the end of the field, but it was the end of his vines. No fence, no marker, no nothing. I guess he just knew or had counted off the rows while we worked.
We had a drink or three of water from the bottles that were sitting by the dregs of our picnic lunch and then washed our hands, taking turns pouring water over each other’s hands. Jean-Louis drove off with the harvest and the rest of us admired the view for a while. It was a beautiful piece of land with a marvellous view of Mont Ventoux.
When Paul figured we’d given Jean-Louis enough of a head start, we drove to the cave where the coopérative makes its wine. We passed Jean-Louis along the way, and after we parked our cars, Paul took us around to the back where all the grapes were brought.
So much activity! The place was abuzz with farmers and tractors and carts identical to Jean-Louis’. When Jean-Louis eventually showed up, he backed his cart into the correct spot (there was a board directing the farmers as each type of grape has to go in a particular place), then the cart was lifted up by a hydraulic control on the tractor and the grapes slid into a bin. A giant screw pushed the grapes towards a small opening at the opposite end of the bin. It took about 10 or 15 minutes for the bin to empty.
We found out we had picked 2000 pounds. Jean-Louis joked that “real” pickers would have been able to pick 4000 or 5000 pounds, but Paul told us later that Jean-Louis was actually rather pleased with our work, given that we were novice pickers. He was also pleased that the alcohol content of our grapes was 14.1%, which apparently is pretty good.
After the grapes we picked were on their way, we were given a tour of the cave. Paul started, but then another guy took over, whom we later learned was the director of the coopérative. Compared to other caves I’ve toured in France, this one was much more modern with concrete and gleaming metal everywhere, and not a single oak barrel in sight. At one point, I was instructed to take a whiff of the fermenting wine. At first I smelled nothing, so I was told to sniff harder. And then … wow! The carbon dioxide emitted by the fermentation process goes straight to your brain. Powerful stuff, and lethal, of course, if you were to fall into the vat.
When the tour was over, we went around to the front of the cave where the wine store was located to taste some wine and so Jean-Louis could choose one for our dinner. He bought six bottles and then whispered something to Paul, who later told us Jean-Louis had asked him if he thought six bottles would be enough for the evening.
Uh … yes. It most certainly would be, as I was about to find out.
But the story of how that wine tasted — and dinner with Jean-Louis and his family — will have to wait until my next post.