Misty mornings, muffled voices, figures looming up suddenly, trucks and vans arriving at the side of small roads through vineyards – this is the scene when the picking starts. 7.30 on an autumn morning can be cool. Later the pickers will be throwing off warm tops, getting down to T-shirts, and in some years in the mid-day sun, bare chests and bikini tops.
You are given your basket, secateurs and allotted a row. By 10.00, the dew has soaked your sleeve as you part the leaves, grape juice has left hands sticky and blisters are beginning. Your back aches (just why do so many regions train vines at this excruciating height?) but you dare not lag behind.
The break for a casse-croute, a second breakfast in the vines, is a lifesaver. A fire is made using a bundle of dry vine-shoots from pruning. A van comes up from the winery, out comes coffee, and a basket of baguettes, salami sausages and cheese to cut with penknives, maybe some marinated herrings – you’d be surprised how good they taste after that early start.
One of my best harvest memories from years ago is standing round a fire on the slopes of Chablis. Jean-Marie Raveneau put a small grill over the embers, showed me how to split a piece of baguette, toast it a little, then make a filling of dark chocolate, sandwich it together and put back over the fire till melted – no pain au chocolat from a patisserie has ever tasted so good. It probably helped that one of the cellar-workers passed round a venerable-looking bottle of ratafia, (wine fortified with marc or brandy).
My very first harvest was a baptism not by fire, but deluge. 1968 was a disaster in Burgundy. The quantity and the quality were so poor that Hospices de Beaune cancelled its annual auction of the new vintage. I joined the team at Chanson in Beaune where they were picking despite the rain which would dilute the crop’s juice. Fertiliser bags (a sign of the times, looking back on it, when growers were freely using the stuff) were handed out to keep the rain off our backs. There was mould, there was rot, and there was mud. Boots became heavy and jeans were stiff by the end of the day. As we picked the Beaune Premiers Crus, earthmovers were thundering behind us, carving out the Autoroute that would link Paris with the south.
Ever since this miserable experience, the harvests I have been involved with have been quite different. Hard work, whether in the vines, the vat-house, or the kitchen, but convivial. It is the meals at long tables in basic refectories that create the communal spirit, a chance to relax, make friends, party in the evenings if energy levels permit. All over France, there are people who take their annual holidays to work in the wine harvest, returning year after year to the same growers for the sake of the friendship and good food. Long may these traditions last!