Did I miss the vendange?

Vendange? My definition. A supermarket wine sold in large bottles that I sometimes drank at home, but, snob that I am, wouldn’t take to a dinner party if I wanted to impress. But that was BF–Before France. I don’t mean that France has cured me of wine snobbery; I’m talking words. Vendange –along with transhumance (the seasonal movement of livestock) and vide grenier (attic clearance, think big garage sale)– has been given a place in my French adventure lexicon. At least, I hope to include vendange. The adventure hasn’t quite happened yet.

Montpeyroux, like most of its neighbors in the Herault department of Languedoc-Roussillon, is a wine village. If the vineyards all around don’t tip you off, the wine makers’ advertising, like campaign posters at election time, will. The region has some 740,000 acres of vineyards — about three times the combined area of Bordeaux vineyards.

I’ve been hearing and reading about the vendange–or, more accurately, the anticipated vendange for weeks. Because of a cool spring, harvesting is very late this year. I read that 2013 might turn out to be the latest vendange since the 1930’s.

Eventually the day will come though. The time,so to speak, will be ripe. Seasonal workers will descend on the village where they’ll be trucked out to toil in the vineyards. Crouched low to the ground, they’ll move down the rows of vines, clip off the grape clusters and drop them into buckets. When full, the buckets will be emptied into barrels and taken away for processing. After a day of hard work there will be music and drinking, (non!) community meals and lots of merriment.

It sounds like fun and I don’t want to miss it (the merriment, less so the toiling) but I keep worrying that I will. Actually, I also worried about missing the transhumance which involved several hundred sheep making their way past my front door– with bells around their necks. I tend to worry over things about which I have very little control. Not only did I not miss the transhumance, evidence of it stuck around, literally, for several days.

But while the transhumance and vide grenier were events I could mark on my calendar (although the vide grenier was almost cancelled due to rain) timing of the vendange is a little trickier. Alarms will not sound, church bells won’t toll to send the pickers on their merry ways, a collective cheer won’t ring through the village–although perhaps it might when the work is all over. The thing is, no-one can really be sure of exactly the right moment to begin the harvest. Art versus science, or perhaps art and science. Grapes are tested daily for sugar content, tannins, the ripeness of skins and a host of other subtleties that will make the difference between a good bottle and . . . Vendange? Winemakers hope for a few more sunny days and the weather has been obliging so far, but there are storms forecast for the weekend which no-one is happy about. Rain and hail earlier this year wreaked havoc on Bordeaux area vineyards.

In France, not much happens in the middle of the day. Accordingly, grape picking is done early in the morning, while the weather is still comfortably cool. This led me to worry that the grapes might have been picked while I slept and that I had managed to miss the whole thing. I took a walk out to the vineyards. Although tractors often rumble down my road, there were none in the fields. Actually, there was no-one in the fields except me–it was, after all, 2 p.m. At first glance, I couldn’t see grapes on the vines either. And then I did. Big, purple blue clusters hanging like Xmas ornaments. Mourvédre,Carignan, Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault. I’d like to leave the impression that I recognized them, but I just looked up names of grapes grown in this area. They all looked like purple blue grapes to me. Picturesque though. I tasted a few. Smaller than table grapes, firm and intensely sweet. I would have tasted some white ones too, but I couldn’t find any. Perhaps they’ve been picked, now that I think of it. I did hear that the whites are picked first.

So everyone’s playing the waiting game. I confided my fear of missing the vendange to a friend who is letting workers pitch tents on her property. She laughed and assured me I wouldn’t miss it. It takes a while, a couple of weeks maybe, to harvest all those grapes. I told her I might try my hand at picking some myself. She didn’t exactly laugh at that, but warned that it’s hard on the back. I meant to ask whether grape stomping is one of those things that they only do in movies. If not, it might be something I’d be good at. Or tasting, I’d enjoy that.

Just to be sure I don’t sleep through anything, I’m planning to set my alarm for the rest of the week.

Below: Grapes . . . of some kind.
Pictures from a winemaker’s dinner I attended at Domaine Virgil Joly in nearby San Saturnin. Thanks to Louise Hurren for the invite.

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postscript. After I posted, I saw this on Facebook from a local winegrower.
#Languedoc #harvest report from Saint-Chinian #wine grower Catherine Wallace: “Our appellation is around 10-15 days late (talking about red wines mainly). This in itself brings different problems and challenges for the producer – we need warm sunshine throughout September to help ripen the grapes otherwise we will be producing wines around 12.5% ABV rather than the average 14.5% ABV! Generally, there is a lot of coulure in the Grenache so yields will be down. Syrah is looking good but producers are concerned with verre de la grappe and how this might affect the yields if more preventative / controlled spraying is not undertaken in the vineyard. Cinsault, Carignan and Mourvedre – although important in some blends, does not feature highly in our appellation, so there was little discussion around these grapes. This will be a challenging year and speaking with some of the older generation, they cannot remember such a late harvest and were suggesting that 1930 was like 2013! The next month will be interesting…”

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3 comments on “Did I miss the vendange?

  1. I HOPE the stomping doesn’t happen until after the 11th! Meanwhile, I am getting practice for picking if it is that late…..been picking green beans and tomatoes from my brother’s garden today. Also helped can beans and make and can salsa. Nothing like a vacation in Illinois! Also had a great time at a 2 day pig roast. FUN!!!

  2. The vendage is a wonderful time of year and so very busy. We first met Virgile Joly during the vendage, several years ago. While he showed around his cave/store-front, he asked if we had read about him in Patrick Moon’s book, “Virgile’s Vineyard.” I had! What a treat!! If you have not read it, I do recommend it.

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