The vendange dispatch
The sky above is azure, but fog lingers low in the Marne Vallée. It is 7am and the workers, some lodging with friends or family, others staying with the vineyard’s manager or owner, have risen early, perhaps woken by the sounds of tractors noisily making their way through the tight streets, disturbing the usual morning tranquillity of the small villages of the Champagne region.
The workers take their breakfast with the same team that they will work closely with for the next week or so. Bleary eyed, with muscles aching from the previous day’s work, they sip black café from dessert bowls and quickly devour bits of baguette smeared with homemade confiture. Then they pull on their boots, grab their secateurs and jump into vans for the short drive to the vineyards.
There, they make their way up row upon row of vines, bending low to cut bunches of purple grapes hanging from the bottom. They straighten up halfway, cutting bunches from the middle of the vines. These are the hardest for one can neither rest crouched down, nor stand up straight. They quickly inspect the picked bunches, looking for unripe grapes and for signs of pourris, the mould that forms on grapes when the fruit grows around a leaf that subsequently rots. All undesirable grapes are scraped off and the good ones are thrown into the panier, the basket that each fruit picker carries. The workers can then stand up straight, while they search for the few bunches at the top of the vine. It is a moment when they can stretch out their cramped back and hamstring muscles, but, alas, it is never long enough. For now they must lift their legs, their boots heavy with an inch of mud caked under the soles, to move another half metre or so up the route, the row. Their work continues until the morning break at 9.30am.
The sun is now out in as much force as it can muster at the end of August in France’s northern climes. A sack of baguettes is opened. Rillettes, camembert, saucisson, jambon, pâté and cornichons are all placed on an upturned empty case. The first bottles of champagne for the day are opened. The team tucks into the food, satiating their thirst with a coupe or two of champagne pour la route – quite literally, in this case. The team eats, joking with each other and discussing, with enthusiasm and passion, the quality of this year’s grapes. The workers’ fingernails are black; hands covered in grape juice and a dusting of dirt.
After the break, they return to the vines. They continue in the same fashion until the break for déjeuner at midday. An aperitif of champagne. Salads and breads to start. A hot dish, perhaps saucisses lentilles or lapin or bœuf bourguignon follows, accompanied by vin rouge. Chèvre, camembert and maroilles make their appearance after the plat principal with wine glasses topped up again. The meal ends with dessert, perhaps mousse chocolat or crème caramel and café.
The workers return to the vineyards, sluggish and sleepy. The next couple of routes are the hardest of the day. Fighting fatigue and weariness, they soldier on, with cuts on their fingers and tears to their cuticles, backs aching and hamstrings tight. Later in the day, they pause for another glass or two of champagne and, perhaps a gâteau. At 6pm, they head back to their lodgings for a hot shower, before sharing another four course meal. After retiring for the evening, they may hear the pressoir working hard through the night to extract the grape juice. But they will be too exhausted to be kept awake by it. In the morning, they will rise again, ready to start another day of picking grapes to satisfy the appetite for champagne all around the world.
For one, this wonderful essay has managed to make me quite hungry!
Thanks Elisabeth. Me, I’ve worked up quite a thirst. Time to hit the champagne again, I think…all in the name of continuing my “research”, of course!
Have you read our Interview with Tilar Mazzeo? It’s a great example of where drinking champagne can lead ;). Judy
I have, indeed, Judy. And I can attest to the inspirational qualities of champagne as well, when it comes to writing. 🙂
Your article makes me crave champagne and think ‘If I were a fruit-picker, I would sure like to do it in the Champagne.’ You showed us how hard they work, and how their legs, backs and hands get battered, but the food and wine sound amazing.
Your pictures are also great.
Yes, Shannon, you should definitely read Tilar Mazzeo’s book ‘The Widow Cliquot’. It’s fascinating and well written.
Thanks Laura. Yes, despite the fatigue, the cuts to the hands, the mud and the rain and then, a day later, the 35 degree heat, the food and drink and amity certainly make this an incredible working experience. I can see why some of the workers have been coming back, each and every year, for almost half a century!