After spending 4 wonderful weeks in France, with over 3 weeks spent in the stunningly beautiful Burgundy region, I finally returned home to reality last week (and to a closet full of clothes that are now too tight). The purpose of my trip was not just to taste and enjoy the incredible wine and food native to Burgundy – which I did in great quantities (hence the clothes that are now too tight) – I was also there to sacrifice my back, neck, shoulders, and fingers in order to experience the vendange (grape harvest) first-hand. Well, I survived, with body and liver mostly in tact.
At the beginning of the summer, when we were planning our trip, it was thought that the harvest would be one of the earliest ever. At one point we even thought we would be picking grapes as early as August 25th! However, the weather changed in July, becoming a touch cooler and wetter, slowing down the ripening process a bit. As it turned out, the harvest was still about 3 weeks early in some areas, with the harvest in Beaune and to the south starting on August 29th.
I worked for Domaine de Villaines Viserny, located north-west of Dijon. The Domaine has 12.8 ha of planted with Auxerrois, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir, and its wines have been labelled as Vin de Pays des Coteaux de l’Auxois since 1996. They have chosen to train the vines on the Lyre system The Lyre training system is said to reduce the risk of freezing and maximize the grapes’ exposure to the sun, and it is very rare to see this type of trellis in Burgundy. We were quite happy when we found out we would be picking grapes on this type of trellis as the grapes are a bit higher off the ground than with the more traditional guyot system used in most of Burgundy, saving us from having to bend down too low to cut the bunches from the vines. Due to our more northern location, we started picking on September 5, about a week after vineyards in the south.
“Team Canada”, as we liked to call ourselves, consisted of myself, Lesley (also a certified Sommelier), Alex (an LCBO employee), Andrea, and Jen. We were the only foreign pickers in the group and I got the sense that the locals didn’t think we would last. They were pleasant to us, but not overly warm. It could also have been the language barrier. I think they gained more respect for us as we dutifully showed up for work, and tried our best every day, even though we may have been tired and suffering. By the end of our time there, they were very warm and friendly with us.
On our first day, we picked the Chardonnay that would be used for the sparkling wine. We started work at 8 am and picked until about 10 am or so. Then it was time for a ‘coffee break’. There was coffee, hot chocolate, juice, and snacks available….and wine. Yes, wine. At 10 am. Twenty to thirty minutes later, we would make our way back up the hill (the vineyard was located on quite a steep slope) to pick grapes for another couple of hours. At lunch break, there was always an aperitif before the sandwiches were served – one day Pastis, another day Ratafia – and of course, there was wine. Afternoon break consisted of more wine…and cold beer. I have to say, the beer really hit the spot after having spent the day in the hot sun.
We were full of energy on that first day, but by the end of it we were wondering if we would indeed make it through the next 2 weeks of picking. I think we went to bed at 9:30 that night. The next day we picked Auxerrois, a much more difficult grape to pick as the vines were quite vigorous, and we had to fight our way through walls of foliage just to get to the grapes. 9 pm was our bedtime that night. The third day it rained. As I stood there in the vineyard on that rainy Wednesday morning, my neck and shoulders aching, my hands cold and wet, I was ready to throw in the towel. How was I going to make it through another 10 days of this? When we were called down the slope for lunch, I thought I understood one of the bosses say that we were done for the day (my French is not very good). My spirits lifted and I looked up at him and said, “à demain?”
“Lundi,” he said.
“Lundi? Vraiment?” I asked.
A wave of relief washed over ‘Team Canada’. We had 4 days off! We practically danced back to the car. We spent the next 4 days travelling around Burgundy and even made a day trip up to Champagne.
When we returned to work on Monday we knew we only had a week left. We were tired and sore, but we made it. I think our bodies even got used to it a bit. I have wonderful memories of the 2011 vendange in Burgundy, but would I do it again? I think once is enough.