The vendange – the grape harvest – started in earnest around here about a week ago. A lot of it is done by machine now but there’s enough hand picking still done, especially over the other side of the river in the Sauternais, for people to get misty eyed about how old traditions still continue. Tour buses come out from Bordeaux to drive slowly around in the hopes of catching a group of photogenic pickers sufficiently close to the road for them to stop so passengers can have a photo opportunity.
I admit that I get a buzz when I see the first signs of the vendange, the rightness of bringing in the harvest is engrained deep, but my feelings when I see the rows of pickers with their baskets isn’t, ‘Oh how romantic to see the happy vendangers,’ but, ‘You poor sods.’ I’ve been there, done that – and never again.
There’s a saying around that to be a true Bordelais you have to get your hands red – meaning stained with grape juice from the vendange. But I think that what most people mean by ‘doing the vendange’ is a morning or so of light picking, not the real thing which is hard labour. In spades.
Picking grapes for red and dry white wines is murder on the back because the pickers are bent over all the time. It’s a different pain when you’re picking for sweet whites like Sauternes and Loupiac; there the vendangeurs have to squat and snip out only the ripest grapes a pair of scissors. It’s hell on your inner thigh muscles, by lunchtime on the first day nearly everyone is walking like cowboys. Many are also sporting bright blue plasters because it’s extremely easy to take off part of your finger at the same times as the grapes.
The remaining grapes are left to ripen more for a few days, then you come back and take out a few more (and lose a bit more blood). On average each row is gone over three times. Chateau d’Yquem, the undisputed top de la top of Sauternes châteaux, has its pickers go back a minimum of seven times which is one of the many reasons it’s so expensive. But good. Very, very good.
I picked for one of the largest and best Sauternes châteaux, over 90 hectares (about 220 acres) of premier cru grapes and I walked every hectare, again and again for nearly six weeks. The picking team was huge, about 90, which is probably why the management treated us like an unruly rabble and stationed their permanent workers, dressed in green boiler suits, at the end of each row of vines to stand there with their arms folded and glare at us like prison guards. And to dole out blue plasters, before telling to get back into line and pick.
There were periodic attempts on the part of the guards to stop us chatting and concentrate on the job, but they were realistic enough to know that it’s impossible to silence a Frenchman or woman for long, anyway the real experts could simultaneously smoke, talk and pick at speed. There was a clause in our contracts which forbade the use of all illegal substances – some hope. It wasn’t only the students who moved around in a cloud of sweet smelling smoke, so did the mothers of a couple of my daughters’ school friends.
Management forgot to put anything in the contract about no sex on the job. The local doctor’s daughter who no doubt showered regularly but seemed to be imbued with a vague grubbiness that excited the male vendangeurs was rumoured to have nipped two rows down for a quickie with an environmental activist (he was later sacked when he was found peacefully asleep while everyone picked around him).
The less said about the lunches we were given as part of our pay the better. Just put it this way, one of the vendangeurs bought his dog with him, a Labrador, and even that refused to eat the meat we were given on the second day. His owner looked at me and said, ‘I hope you are not judging French cooking by these meals…’ And contrary to popular stories we didn’t get offered wine with every meal either. We didn’t get offered wine at all until the last day when we had an appero to celebrate.
So when all the pickers were asked to come back to a vendangeurs lunch a week later we weren’t expecting much. Instead of the barn we usually ate in we were seated in a proper tent with silver, seven courses and about seven different wines. I can’t list what we ate because I can’t remember – the meal started at midday and we left the table at five. It was really something, even the prison guards got friendly with a bottle or two inside them, and made me look back on vendanging with something akin to affection.
I’m still never doing it again.