Sunday, October 02, 2005

Visiting Champagne No. 4: The Vendange (Eventually!)

Well, you were probably wondering when it was we actually picked some grapes! After lunch we headed out to the fields with the rest of the vendangeurs and got ourselves a bucket and some shears. Looking at the people who were going to do the picking with us, all local people from the Reims area, we suddenly realised we weren't at all prepared for working on a hillside picking grapes. Our clothing was not weatherproof and our footwear was not at all robust.

Our friend ER also offered us some rubber gloves to protect our hands from the sugary juice of the grapes. Here's my wife putting hers on. She looks like she's enjoying herself doesn't she? Now, bend over Sir...

So, we eventually got down to the business of picking grapes. 2005 has apparently been a very good year for grapes and may make a very good vintage. The bunches of grapes are extremely heavy and have a high sugar content. There are strict quotas on how many tonnes of grapes can be picked by any particular grower in order to prevent overproduction. As a consequence a lot of these grapes will go to waste, only the best bunches being used. The picture below shows my daughter checking her bunch of Meunier grapes to see if there are any green ones that are not ready for pressing. We saw a couple of bunches that had a bit of the botrytis mould on them, but there does not seem to be much of it this year.

I already mentioned in a previous blog something about the different types of grapes used to make champagne. There are three different types: Meunier, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The photo below is of some fat bunches of Chardonnay and Meunier grapes that we picked. The Chardonnay and the Meunier are quite sweet. The pinot noir has a slightly more bitter-sweet flavour. Although black grapes are used to make champagne, only the juice goes into the fermenting vats, and the juice is pale yellow coloured, not red. Our friend demonstrated this to us by squeezing a bunch of black grapes in his gloved fist.

The colour in red wine comes from the skin of the grapes. A red liqueur must also be produced to give the rosé champagne its colour. I guess this is produced with the skins of the grapes as well. Champagne is a more complicated wine to produce than standard, non-sparkling wine, but I'll go into that later.

The grape picking is hard work. A couple of the pickers are full time labourers on the vignoble, working for M. Mobillion. They help to direct the other pickers and keep them hard at it. At one point, our friend came back to us with a grin. He said there were some people who had been slacking, so he had directed them to work on a particular row which he knew was very long because of the shape of the field. This way they won't be standing around waiting for instructions while the others are still finishing, he said. Some of the vendangeurs who are involved with carting away the crates wear back supports. Our friend told us that they like to keep the work going all through the weekends. If they stop at the weekends, nobody comes back on a Monday morning because they're seized up with aches and pains...

When the crates are full, the funny little caterpillar vehicles which carry them are driven back to the tractor. This is just one of a number of specialised pieces of agricultural equipment which are used. Another is a little tractor that staddles a row of vines and goes along trimming them so that they are neat and the pickers can get in to to cut the bunches of grapes.

Then a couple of strong youths load the crates up onto the back of the tractor. The crates are heavy, about 50 or 60 kilos if I remember rightly. One of these lads is only fourteen. He wants to find a job on a vignoble when he leaves school and has meanwhile obtained permission to work in a kind of apprenticeship role during some of the time when he would normally be at school.

We stayed about an hour picking grapes. It was actually the activity which our little girls enjoyed the most about the weekend. But there was still a lot of other things to see and do. So we headed off again down the road into the village to visit the co-operative where the manufacture of champagne takes place.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

Only an hour! - well you at least left before it got to be hard work and no longer fun. Looks like quite the experience though.