The grape harvest
In France, ‘Les Vendanges’ is the annual grape harvest, a centuries-old tradition deeply rooted in the country’s rich viticultural heritage. It is a significant event that takes place between August and October every year, as staff, seasonal workers and volunteers from all over the world come together to pick the grapes that have been nurtured with great care and attention over the preceding months.
When are the grapes harvested
Although Les Vendanges is a term used for the grape harvest across France, the timing as to when each winery harvests their grapes is the result of lots of consideration and discussion among the vineyard managers, the winemakers, and perhaps external consultant enologists (wine experts) too.
A vineyard is made up of different parcels of land, some on top of plateau, some on slopes facing in different directions, closer to the river or further inland, giving rise to microclimates. The different terroir (soil composition) suits different grape varieties, which mature and ripen at different speeds. The weather conditions and weather forecast are also factors.
All of this means that it’s not as simple as planning to harvest their crop starting on date X. Grapes will be frequently inspected and tasted. Some estates use drones with cameras and other sensors to fly over their vineyards, so they can cover the vast areas more easily, to inspect different rows of vines for grape ripeness. Instead of choosing a date to harvest the vineyard as a whole, or even different parcels of land, decisions to pick grapes may be made on a row-by-row basis, such is the desire to achieve the optimum level of ripeness, to provide the grapes to create the best wine.
Who harvests the grapes
The vineyards come alive with activity as skilled workers, known as vendangeurs, carefully hand-pick the ripe grapes from the vines. Of course, grapes were historically picked by hand, but technological developments made it possible to harvest them mechanically, and many estates took advantage of modern technology. But more and more wineries are reverting to hand-picking grapes, especially the top-end producers. Because the meticulous process of grape-picking requires expertise and a keen eye for selecting the best-quality grapes, as only the very finest fruit will be used by the prestigious producers for their premium wines.
The vendangeurs work in teams, and while it’s very hard work, there’s usually a great sense of camaraderie, which is why so many volunteers enjoy participating in Les Vendanges and experiencing this unique aspect of French wine culture.
What happens next
After the grapes are picked and carefully transported to the winemaking facilities, they undergo more sorting, sometimes using advanced optical sorters, and then again by eye and hand. Winemaking is a fascinating mix of traditions that have been practiced for centuries, alongside the very latest technological developments. It’s an industry that never stands still, which is always constantly striving to improve.
The grapes are then crushed in a process known as maceration, followed by fermentation and aging. Each stage is carefully considered and carried out, to produce the wines that France is famous for, and Bordeaux in particular.
In addition to being an essential part of the winemaking process, Les Vendanges is now a tourist attraction in its own right. It’s a great time to visit the chateaux and vineyards, it’s exciting to be there amid all the hustle and bustle, almost like being a part of the action, while seeing this important part of the winemaking process close-up. Plus there are events and festivities associated with Les Vendanges, such as Bordeaux Fête ses Vendanges and also the Ban des Vendanges and “Jurade” (Harvest Proclamation) of Saint-Emilion, on the third Sunday in September.
If you’d like to experience this unique opportunity to learn about French winemaking traditions, taste fresh grapes, and indulge in the vibrant spirit of the vineyards, Bordeaux With Elodie can arrange private tours to suit your interests.