Throughout France the last load of grapes of the harvest is celebrated by decorating the tractors with flowers and branches from the vineyards and verges - sometimes gardens are raided to make a good show - and driving in convoy, with horns hooting, lights blazing, back to the vat-house. Then it is time to get ready for a party.
HARVEST RITES IN BORDEAUX
It is autumn and it is misty, easy to miss a turning in this unsigned country, where little roads meander between large vineyards. Leaving behind the suburbs of the market town of Libourne on the banks of the wide Dordogne river, villages are not much more than a cluster of buildings around a crossroads. Sometimes one glimpses a small château behind a stand of trees. The impression is that vines are more important than houses here.
In the vines of La Fleur Gazin, the swallows appear to be dive-bombing the pickers as they swoop low over the vines, eating little insects stirred up as the leaves are parted. When the last grapes of the harvest are loaded, the tractor sets off for the chai (vat-house), decorated with flowers.
There are squeals and shouts as one or two pickers are set upon, dragged to the truck and thrown into the sticky mass - you get the feeling some scores are being settled. A large jar of wine is passed round and the Chef de Culture sets off a rocket to signal the end of the work. It is time for lunch and a hard-earned break before the celebration dinner.
There is a 120-strong team here. The family business Jean-Pierre Moueix, which owns 48.3 ha in Pomerol and 23.5 ha in St. Emilion, including La Fleur-Petrus, Trotanoy, Hosanna, and Belair Monange, makes sure that they are well-fed, in a refectory designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, of Tate Modern fame.
After the last load arrives, the atmosphere is convivial - cars and trucks are moved to make way for a fireworks display, a local band is setting up in the refectory and the cooks’ helpers arrange posies of flowers in jam-jars, jugs, or anything else to hand, to make the tables festive.
Confetti,hats and horns will be distributed to add to the fun. From the gerbe or sheaf of flowers, traditionally offered by the workers to the owners at the end of the harvest, comes the Bordelais name for the celebration, le gerbebaude.
The Moueix family produce a special cuvee of red wine for the harvesters, available at breakfast, lunch and dinner in generous quantities. Many activities are organised for the pickers so there is never a dull night. Spanish night with singers, paella and sangria, an evening of choucroute and draft beer, belote and petanque competitions, loto, and bandas night with a brass and percussion band, all ensure that pickers want to return annually.
Villages sometimes have their very local customs. In Volnay a church service is held before the harvest begins and growers bring some of their grapes to be blessed.
Above the village among pine trees and commanding a splendid view over the hillside of vines, the roofs of the village and across the plain, is a large statue, the Madonna of the vines. Standing here, Chantal Lafarge points out the vineyard where her husband Frédéric, is supervising the picking. After the harvest the Lafarge family will join other growers from the village, and their families, in climbing the steep path to the Madonna, a little pilgrimage after a Thanksgiving Mass in the church.
At the Lafarges’ the tradition is that the last grapes are emptied into the fouloir-égrappoir (the machine that de-stalks and crushes the grapes) by the women pickers.
The end of harvest party is known in Burgundy as la Paulée. The families often invite friends and relations to join them and this copious meal usually includes the best of their repertoire of harvest dishes. The recent film, “Ce qui nous lie” ( English version is titled Back to Burgundy) includes a spectacular Paulee filmed locally.
The village of Meursault has turned the paulee into a rather special communal event. In the 1920s, when Burgundy wines were not selling well, (hard to imagine now) a leading grower, Comte Lafon, suggested that all the growers from the village should get together, with their families and guests, among whom would be potential buyers, for a celebratory lunch. Each family would bring its best bottles to this banquet. So successful has this event become that now buyers and wine connoisseurs from all over the world vie for a ticket. It now forms part of the ‘Trois Glorieuses’ during a week-end in November when the Hospices de Beaune holds the celebrated auction of its wines. The participants in Meursault’s lunch rarely rise from the table, except to go into a cellar to do some tasting, before dusk and sometimes a good deal later. The formula, with all participants bring bottles to share, has now been exported to USA and Australia amongst others.
PARTY IN THE RHONE
At the Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe the Bruniers like to celebrate the end of the harvest with a substantial menu despite still calling it a “gouter” ( tea). This area is famous for its fine lamb. During the day a fire is prepared outside, and two whole milk-fed lambs (agneaux de lait) stuffed with handfuls of thyme which grows wild here, are spit-roasted, and, to give them extra flavour, more herbs are burned on the fire. This must be a mouth-watering sight as the pickers gather for their aperitif.
The first course is usually a selection of salads made from local produce and served in colourful bowls and platters - salade niçoise in which bright red tomatoes contrast with the black, small but strong-tasting olives grown nearby; artichoke hearts in oil, roasted red peppers, salads of the local dried pulses (chickpeas, white haricot beans or dark brown Puy lentils) all eaten outside, near to where they are produced, while the smell of lamb and herbs perfumes the air.
Local cheeses - St Marcellin and the little goat cheeses made here - follow and with them, rather charmingly, ‘we give everyone a taste of the wine made from the first grapes picked during the harvest,’ Mme Brunier told me.
‘It is not possible every year - it depends on the weather, and of course the wine is not ready (it may still have some gaz carbonique, making it a little fizzy) but we think the pickers have a special interest in trying the product of their labours. We pick the Syrah grapes at the beginning of the harvest, so that is what we taste.’
If you have an electric rôtisserie or spit roaster, or a charcoal grill or barbecue and would like to cook a leg of lamb, the essential point is to prepare the lamb by inserting slivers of garlic into the meat and rubbing all over with Provençal herbs and olive oil in advance, so that the flavours may penetrate the meat.
POPPING CORKS IN CHAMPAGNE
For many French people a festive meal must finish with a bottle of sparkling wine. Of course, in the Champagne region, whether it be at an independent grower or a big "House", corks pop at the end of harvest, giving the pickers a chance to enjoy a wine made from the fruit of the vines they have just been working in.The party is known as le cochelet here. As everywhere when the crop is safely in, it feels like the end of term; the hard work is over, time to have fun. Sooner or later someone ends up covered in grapes and juice.