Friday, September 01, 2006

Time for the Vendange

Rather like hearing the first cuckoo in Spring, on my morning walk today I spotted the first grape-picking machine of the season. I thought of writing to The Times to let them know, then reconsidered it. They only print letters from retired MPs, colonels and similar military men, anyway, usually signed: Disgusted, Hove.
It signifies that it's time for "le vendange." Strictly speaking, vendange means vintage and the picking of them is to "faire les vendanges."

Most grapes are now harvested by these mechanical marvels, vinous combine harvesters, and for once I’m all in favour of the technology. If there is anyone out there that thinks grape picking is a wonderfully fun thing to do, I would hasten to disabuse them of the idea. It’s a miserable, back breaking chore that is now consigned to only a few smaller vineyards. The images of happy, laughing peasants bouncing up and down in buckets of grapes in their sweaty feet, are a thing of the past. And a jolly good job too, in my opinion.

Of course, some have too small an area planted to warrant the use of mechanical means. Not far from us, a retired vigneron with a small vineyard has hit upon his personal solution to this problem. Through his connections with the owners of local gîtes, leased out to the English for their jolly holidays, he manages to persuade them that it would be a good idea to join in the fun for a day and help him with the vendange. Incredibly, some profess to enjoy the experience! Gaston, for his part, restricts himself to driving the bucketfuls of grapes back to his house, a job that can only be entrusted to an experienced vigneron. It probably goes without saying that Gaston is a virulent Anglophobe and, I suspect, derives much amusement from the business. His workers are refreshed during the day with gobs of his wine, served in plastic cups and, at the end of the day, are offered the privilege of buying some of his last year’s production. I take my beret off to him – some entrepreneur.

The grape picking machines (I have no idea what the technical name is for them) fascinate me. With huge wheels, narrowly spaced to fit between the rows of vines, they cruise up and down, grabbing the bunches of grapes with rotating rubber fingers. Unromantic, perhaps, but for once a sensible application of technology.

They are so expensive that only the larger producers own these machines and the rest are leased out, rather like combines, and so the picking proceeds at a frenetic pace to get it completed in time. And it’s not an easy calendar event to calculate. Much depends on the weather, making scheduling something of a nightmare.

So if any of you are thinking of buying a vineyard, and there are plenty for sale at knockdown prices, I suggest you come and spend a year just to see what incredibly hard work running a vineyard is, 365 days a year. It's worse than running a pub.

As for me, I’m quite content to critique the results of their hard labour – pass me the corkscrew, will you?


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