So this time of year it’s time for the wine growers of the northern hemisphere to poke their heads out of the houses every five minutes and make the most important decision of the year. When is the perfect time to harvest their grapes?
Grapes are a funny thing to harvest. You want to leave them on the vine for as long as possible to give them the chance to be big, fat, juicy, and full of flavour, but leave them too long and they fall off a cliff and become saggy and bitter and are much more prone to rotting on the vine. Think of it like when you’re making toast. It’s picking that split second between when it’s still just bread and when it’s so burnt its mother wouldn’t recognise it.
This is the decision that can make or break a year. Once made though, you’ve got to go full beans at it. You start picking and you don’t stop til the grapes are picked, processed, and into the fermentation tanks. Sleep is for wimps!
Obviously with huge amounts of grapes to pick, land to cover, and processing to be done, it can be a very labour intensive time. Lots of machinery has been developed so that the processes of picking, transporting, and sorting the grapes can be done by a few people and a lot of machines. But in some places either the land itself (if it’s very sloped or uneven) or local wine laws mean that you can’t use machines. It’s time to rent in your workforce for a few days.
It’s a big cost to the winegrower and obviously adds to the overall cost of production and hence the price of the end wine. So when I said I’d love to come out and get stuck in myself (for free of course), I wasn’t exactly short on offers. It just so happened though that a good friend of mine hooked me up with a slot helping out at Chateau Guadet, a Grand Cru Classé estate (don’t worry about what that means if you don’t know) in St Emilion in Bordeaux, in France.
Vincent, the owner and head of operations there is a close mate of JB, of 20h33 fame. I sent all my passport details and insurance docs to Vincent the night before (in keeping with the winemaking laws). I kipped over at chez JB, and we trundled off to the vineyard early enough to wake the cockerels up. Or so I thought. Harvest was already in full swing. JB got sent down to the chateau to man the sorting table (to stare at grapes all day and pick out the undesirables). I got told to stand on the back of the tractor, loading the full crates of grapes onto the back of the truck, and giving the pickers some new ones. Sounds pretty easy right?
It must have been about 250 boxes, each with about 20kgs of grapes in it. So quick sum in my head….er….what’s that? 5000kg of grapes? Jesun my back was in bits! We kind of wimped out and left by 3.30 to go pick up JB’s kids. We got an email from Vincent thanking us after he’d finished sorting the last box, at 11pm! He started again at 7 the next morning. Day 6 of about a 2 to 3 week period. I’ve been told next year I’m over there for longer or else!
There were some great upsides to being there. First and foremost, getting to man the tractor with Vincent. What a legend! After finishing his wine studies at university, he spent a few years globetrotting, working in Australia (where he picked up a dodgy accent and even dodgier hat!), Chile, and the US picking up all kinds of tips from winemakers across the world. Now he’s back putting new life into his incredible winery in Bordeaux. I once said that no question is a stupid question. I think I may have put that to the test with Vincent on that tractor. Bless him!
Secondly was lunch, made by the expert hands of Vincent’s mum. She was the coolest person in the place that day, and made sure all her boys and girls were well fed and watered. We also had the luck of chowing down in the chateau itself, the last wine making chateau still in the village of St Emilion itself, and sporting an incredible wine cellar complete with graffiti on the walls put there by the hiding aristocracy in the French Revolution. Unreal place. Absolute treat.
And last but definitely not least, I will definitely be getting hold of a bottle or two of the 2013 vintage. I mean, I’ve got to right? I mean, I near as damn it made it myself! Or at least that’s what I’ll be telling everyone. Unfortunately it’s not going to be available for release until 2016. Hopefully my back will have recovered by then!
I’d love to take this opportunity to thank Vincent for his kindness and patience with a frustratingly talkative novice; to Vincent’s mum and dad for allowing me anywhere near their house covered in mud and squashed grapes; and to JB for the place to stay, the laughs, and the lessons on how to drive on small country roads in France!
Anyone who starts getting into wine in their lives, I’d definitely recommend a day or two helping out with harvest. I’m trying to avoid sounding like a knob when I say this, but even just one made me feel really into the process.
Or maybe that’s just cos my vertebrae still require traction therapy.
To any winemaker out there, all the best with the rest of your harvest, we’ll be here waiting for what you produce!