We are now in the middle of the grape picking season in France. The grapes are ripe and this year wine could well be one to remember. The grape picking is eagerly awaited by the vineyard owners and takes place from September to October – not only in the large vineyards but also in little villages. The harvest is a key moment in the life of a wine chateau or grape growing community.
There are two ways to harvest the grapes – by machine and by hand
Machines are now very advanced and can even serve a variety of vineyard tasks such as pruning and spraying. They are also expensive. Often smaller vineyards lease them much in the same way that small farmers lease combine-harvesters. The machine straddles the row of vines shakes the grapes off their stems. However, unlike manual picking, the machines are indiscriminate and cannot reject nor discern any poor parts of the grapes as manual picking can.
Such is the case with ‘Noble rot’. Noble rot, or Botrytis cinerea, is a mold that can affect many wine grapes and cause them to shrivel into raisins losing most of their water content and concentrating both the sugar and flavour. Many winemakers are happy if their vines are touched by the mold as it imparts a unique and subtle honey flavour which is ideal for making dessert wines.
The vineyards of Bordeaux are famous for their exploitation of Botrytis cinerea. Their location close to the Atlantic Ocean often leads to alternating humidity and sunshine. This offers good growing conditions for the fungus.
To capitalise on the presence of the mold, the winemakers of the Bordeaux region will hand pick the affected grapes.
However, not all grapes are infected at the same time so the harvest pickers will work through the vineyards several times between October and November to hand-pick the rotted grapes.
Having done the vendange when I was younger, I remember the process. There are two main jobs; picking and carrying. The picking is the less physically demanding of the two, but can be back-breaking work and I also remember the nasty cuts I inflicted upon myself with the secateurs. A common way to stop the bleeding was to put cigarette tobacco on the cut (Gaulois – if I remember correctly). It hurt like hell but it did work. The other job is to walk the rows of pickers, collect all the grapes from their buckets and carry, or stagger with them, in a large bin or hod and deposit them into the trailer waiting at the end of the row. It was hard work and a few weeks of it soon made the puppy fat fall off.
The picture above of Trevor’s neighbours was taken only a few days ago but illustrates the use of an old fashioned method to crush the grapes on site. Normally, the grapes are transported back to the chateau or co-op for processing. Indeed, brimming with grapes and silhouetted against the setting autumn sun, the sight of our trailer leaving of at the end of the day was both welcome and memorable.
If you would like to try your hand at the vendange next year there are grape-picking ‘holidays’ or you could evenbuy a vineyard from us for under 160,000 €. If if that’s a little too much work there are many properties that have just a few vines growing. Have a look at our listings – who knows you might be lucky enough to get a touch of noble rot yourself!