This image of a refectory table set for a final harvest meal was taken by my friend Katerina Kalogeraki at Chateau La Fleur Petrus some years ago. For me it sums up the traditions I was researching, and I chose it for the cover of the current edition of Recipes of the French Wine Harvest. I remember feeling touched by the way the kitchen team raided their gardens, filling jam jars with posies to create a festive feeling for their end of harvest celebration.
The last load of grapes is often marked by decorating tractors with flowers and branches, and during the last weeks of the vendanges village streets are suddenly noisy with tractor horns blaring, announcing the work of picking is over as a team drives in convoy, lights blazing, back their vat-house.
The camaraderie of the previous weeks is about to be broken up. There are usually some scores to settle too, and it is not unknown for someone to end up amongst the grapes.
Many estates are proud that people return year after year, taking their annual holidays to be part of something very different from modern city life. A year may go by before new friends and old see each other, so last night parties can be unrestrained before the team disperses.
There are chateaux or domaines with large numbers of young pickers where they try to make every night a party night. Ch. Haut Sarpe in Saint Emilion is unusual in being able to lodge its pickers in a lovely collection of farm buildings, a sort of harvest village, with kitchen and refectory at its centre, and even its very own disco open after dinner until midnight - maybe the only night club in the world situated in the middle of vineyards! As the music wafts across the courtyard waking ducks on the pond and peacocks in the park of the chateau, the old buildings look even prettier in the moonlight. It is easy to see how relationships start here, and even sometimes end in marriage.
Not far away, the pickers for all the Moueix family properties eat and party together. It is Cherise Moueix, wife of Christian, who is responsible for the programme of entertainment. She relishes the job: “There is something every night – discos, scrabble night, bingo with bottles for prizes, Basque country songs and stories…and every year we have a fancy dress night. I send out a letter to all the pickers in June announcing the theme. We’ve had the Year of the Chinese, Cowboys and Indians, Tropical Islands, Spanish, 1001 Arabian Nights, Fiesta Mexicana. The food, drink and decorations follow the theme. 2005 was the Pirates’ Ball – I laid in a consignment of black eye patches and bandannas, but they are very motivated and came with costumes. There are lots of characters amongst our regulars. Our “muse” is Jean-Marie Guison who comes every year. He recites poetry and the fables of De La Fontaine, and also has a selection of naughty (but not too naughty) jokes. He calls Christian and me “Papa” and “Maman”, and Edouard (Moueix)”Frere”. Every harvest team needs someone like him, l’ame de notre equipe” ( the spirit of our team).
In French regions where the grapes are still hand-picked, wine-makers and their teams of pickers all want to let their hair down after weeks of hard work. In Burgundy the final party is called la paulee, in Champagne le cochelet, in Bordeaux "le gerbebaude" (named for the bouquet of flowers that is traditionally offered by the pickers to the chateau owner), but whatever the name, most owners feel it is time to thank the workers with a rather special meal.