While we’re surrounded by caramel apples and all-things-pumpkin in New England, across the pond in France, les vendanges are coming to a close. The word vendange and the English word vintage share the same Latin origins (vindemia). However, vendange has a much broader meaning. It is the ritual of working on the land, with the soil and the climate to bear fruit. The climax of a year of hard-work and careful nurturing of the vine and its fruit: the grape harvest.

The season opens when the winemaker (le vigneron / la vigneronne) and Mother Nature deem the grapes ripe enough. Before they grab their sécateurs and start picking, the winemaker will keep tasting the grapes to assess the perfect ripeness for their particular varietal. Meanwhile, the local community waits in anticipation for the promise of two to three weeks of intense activity in and around the vineyards. It’s a fun and festive time for the region!

Le ban des vendanges, the official regional proclamation, announces the date of the local grape harvest. It can be quite the tourist attraction, especially in the more famous wine regions. The village of Saint Emilion, in the Bordeaux region, celebrates with a colorful festival in which the Jurade de Saint Emilion (a brotherhood of about 140 members) parades together with the priest through the ancient village. Dressed in their traditional bright crimson robes and caps, it harks back to medieval times when they asserted their authority, regulating the quality of the wines. Le ban is typically 100 days from the blossoming of the vines, but the start of les vendanges will depend on how the vines have been treated by the weather during the growing season.

The hottest, southern regions - Corsica, Provence, Roussillon-Languedoc - are the first out of the blocks. Their vendanges might start by mid August, depending on the heat of the summer. They will be followed closely by la Vallée du Rhône and Beaujolais. Elevation and climate will also play a part, as the rest of the wine regions, including Bordeaux, Cahors, la Vallée de la Loire, la Bourgogne, Champagne and Alsace, continue the march through mid to late September and into October. I have to admit to being a little obsessed recently with Burgundy wines, of all terroirs and varietals, likely since our August wine tasting with Nicole Muscari of Château de Pommard. I think that this must have inspired my musings of life in a French vineyard.

One of my first memories of traveling in France is posing for a photograph with my siblings next to tall sunflowers, standing like sentries around a vineyard. It was a world apart from the far north-east of England for my 7-ish year old self. Those early French summer sojourns consisted of ancient churches (cathedrals worked too) and of dégustations at the cave (winery) closest or en route to the next campsite. These were not fancy ‘’tastings”. We got in line with weather-beaten locals, all of us armed with our cubitainers en plastique. So, just as they might go to the gas station to fill up their iconic “deudeuche’’ (the Citroën 2CV), les locaux were in line for their weekly refill of vin de table.

As the years went by and we continued our summer expeditions in France, I had romantic ideas of ‘’growing up’’ and making the trip on my own to the south of France to pick grapes. Joining the teams of young students and locals, I imagined gleefully stomping, barefoot on huge barrels of grapes at the end of a good day's work - like a scene from “A Good Year”, with Russell Crowe, or “A Walk in the Clouds” with Keanu Reeves and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon! Apparently, the reality is back-breaking work in the hot sun - or if it is still too hot during the day, the picking may take place at night. Still, I am sure that it is a rewarding experience: the collaboration and kinship of les vendangeurs (grape pickers), the frenetic energy of getting the job done while the weather holds and before the grapes are past their prime, the conviviality of a casse-croute (snack break) with co-workers among the vines and of course, sampling the fruits of our labour à la fin du jour.

So, it remains on my bucket list. Today, many wineries and champagne houses offer tourist packages to experience a day in the life of a vendangeur/se. I must say I’m tempted. One day.

Have you taken part in les vendanges? Tell us your story!

Elizabeth Beckett

Education Administrator

Liz grew up in England and spent many summers traveling in France with her family, which sparked a lifelong love of languages and travel. She has a degree in modern languages and international studies for which she also studied in France and Spain. Working in international sports marketing while living in Hong Kong and London meant extensive travel, particularly in Asia. A new chapter began after moving to New York and then settling in the Boston area. Liz enjoys traveling, experiencing different cultures and spending time with friends and family.

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