Vendange at Castillon-duGard
It was almost the last harvest of grapes for the season before I had a chance to get to a vendange at Castillon-du-Gard. As you may recall, the day I was to head up north, the battery in my car gave out.
During the grape harvest season in France, it is a special treat to be invited to a vendange— a grape harvest. My friend from the States was here, so it was a chance to do something fun and unexpected during her visit. The vineyard was near Uzès.
What to wear?
After being invited to spend the day in a vineyard., “What do you wear to a vendange?” was my first thought. My friend Pat shared the concern.
“Definitely wear a hat,” we decided. Then put on something that “looks cute, of course,” said Pat.
For me, I had a closet full of shirts that would do, but for Pat, she had only brought “precious” outfits that grape stains and mud would ruin.
With less than 24 hours to shop, we ran to Monoprix, an “H&M-type” store in Uzes, and started our search. “Maybe something blue,” said Pat, “so it won’t show grape stains.” A blue denim shirt was there, waiting for her on the rack. “If it gets stained, “she rationalized, “I’ll just say, ‘Oh, that? It’s from picking grapes in France.'”
La Gramière is a winery owned by a young American couple who started the business in 2005. They produce Grenache-based wines made from organically grown, hand-picked grapes. The vineyard is just outside Castillon-du-Gard, a tiny village near Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct.
For directionally challenged Pat and me, the vineyard for “La Gramière” winery would have been impossible to find. Thankfully a friend offered to meet us at the village square in Castillon-du-Gard . The unpaved “backwoods” route proved it was a good thing we didn’t have to find our own way.
Arriving at the spot where we met Amy Matt and the rest of the “pickers.” we discovered the vineyard for La Gramière is made up of several small fields scattered among a very large area of vines. The “vineyard sharing” concept is popular in France.
Other than Amy and Matt, there are no paid employees at the winery. They have discovered that plenty of volunteers are more than happy to help harvest the crop.
The Vendange at Castillon-du-Gard
To harvest grapes, you have to start early in the morning. The temperature should not be too hot. The day Pat and I volunteered, the weather was sunny and cool.
When we reached the vineyard, everyone had on their work gloves. Clippers and buckets were in their hands. Pat and I put on borrowed garden gloves, and we grabbed the rest of the gear.
After brief instructions: “Go two by two and pick one vine at a time,” Pat and I split up. We’d spent enough time together! Besides, there were others there we wanted to get to know. A delightful new friend from Canada and I teamed up. She is an artist and lives in Vers-Pont du Gard. We became instant buddies.
Amy and Matt have made the vendange routine somewhat of a game.
“Who can finish first?” Taking one long row of vines at a time, we worked in three or four pairs interspersed down the row. We’d “jump over” the slower pickers. Then we’d move on to another row. It kept chit-chat with your partner to a minimum since you had the same goal.
When grapes are ready to harvest, they burst with juice. That means you must handle the bunch gently when you cut it off the vine.
A simple garden clipper does the trick.
“Only pick the best grapes,” we were told. Any clusters with rotten grapes or too green or yellow grapes should be discarded. Amy and Matt’s philosophy is “There are plenty of grapes.” They want only the “pick of the crop” for La Gramière wines.
I’m not a wine connoisseur by any means, but I have a new appreciation for “bio” or organic wines.
Most consumer wines today are produced by companies that pick grapes with machines. I’ve seen the big machinery in the fields and observed the vines picked clean.
After filling our buckets, we dumped the grapes into small crates strategically placed among the rows of vines. Matt and helper rode through the vineyard and loaded each crate onto the back of a tractor.
Time for a break!
A couple of hours after bending over the vines and carrying our buckets to the crates for pickup, it was time for a break. The hungry crew quickly devoured the bundt cake that Amy’s mom, Cindy, baked for the occasion.
During this time of year, Amy’s mom and dad come to France from their home in Colorado to help with the harvest. A few years ago they bought a place in Vers-Pont du Gard. village so they could be nearby. Apparently, it didn’t take much persuading to convince them to help with the business, although it’s hard work.
Then it’s back to the vineyard.
Before too long, Cindy shows up with her wagon, and it’s quickly emptied with the next treat of the day.
La vendange lunch
After our chores, those who finished early helped bring folding chairs to the table near the edge of one of the vineyards. All the accouterments for the outdoor feast were there, including a tablecloth, which we weighed down with rocks found alongside the field. A breeze had kicked up a bit and blew slightly over the field, just enough to blow away an untethered cloth. Soon it was time to eat!
A green salad loaded with tomatoes picked from the garden that morning, lasagna Provence-style, apricot crumble, and just enough wine to ensure we could all find our way home safely.
Now I know why Amy and Matt never have to look far to find helpers for their harvest. Mom’s a fabulous “chef,” plus, the company and atmosphere are hard to beat.
After a leisurely lunch, those of us on the work crew packed up and went home. Their long day of sorting grapes by hand was just beginning for Amy and Matt.