The French don’t have a tradition of going away to summer camps in their youth, but the yearly vendanges, or grape harvests, are probably the closest the French get to the sleepaway camp experience. Harvesters made up of students and adults in need of a getaway flock to wine growing regions and spend their end-of-summer days picking grapes and enjoying the outdoors, with newfound friends and a renewed appreciation of the beauty of the French countryside.
The harvest season is a time of both excruciating physical labor and extreme conviviality. Winemakers assemble teams of harvesters that spend their days in the grapevines, going row by row, picking and sorting good grapes from the bad, vigilantly keeping an eye out for rot and mildew that could contaminate the wine. This is a crucial moment in the winemaking process and there is pressure to pick grapes at the right time, to be sure that the bunches that will later be pressed and put in a barrel are of the highest quality. The harvest can be a stressful time for the winemaker, and back-breaking for the harvesters, but that doesn’t stop anyone from enjoying this unique experience in the vines and with each other.
The ambience at each vineyard during the vendanges varies. Small natural winemakers provide the most intimate experience, often inviting interested harvesters to participate not only in the picking of the grapes but in other aspects of the winemaking process as well. Communal lunches, strolls among the grapes, and encounters with new people and local winemakers are often added benefits of taking part in the harvest. The arrival of so many people from around the country, and sometimes the world, who come to work in the vines brings a new energy to the region, creating a festive and familial atmosphere.
In September 2014, I decided to participate in the grape harvest for the first time. Making what was, I would later find out, one of the best decisions of my life, I reached out to natural winemaker Noëlla Morantin and asked if I could join her team of vendangeurs. I met Noëlla a few times at wine tastings and developed a bit of a canine crush on Panache, the official winery dog, at that year’s La Dive Bouteille tasting in Saumur. Other than these brief meetings, Noëlla barely knew me, so I was pleasantly surprised when she agreed to have me join her team for that year’s harvest.
Noëlla and fellow winemaker Laurent Saillard cultivate 12 hectares (30 acres) of grapevines in the Loir-et-Cher region of the Loire Valley. Together they tend to every aspect of the winemaking process, from farming and harvesting to barreling and bottling. They manage every step of the process with attention and respect for the principles of biodynamic and natural winemaking. It is a huge job that they mostly do alone, with the extra helping hands of the harvest season and seasonal employees when needed.
The aches and pains of bending and kneeling to pick grape bunch after grape bunch are the price you pay to be a part of the humbling experience of doing the work that will result in that year’s vintage. The harvest involves picking grapes, of course, but it’s so much more than that. While at Noëlla and Laurent’s vineyard I was able to share in the fascinating and slightly magical process of making natural wine, from hand-picking grapes, removing them from their stems using artisanal methods, to crushing still-warm-from-the-sun Gamay grapes with my bare feet.
During my time in the Loire, I met a group of passionate and extraordinary people. We cooked together, stargazed together, went to bed soaked in moonlight and woke up with the sun together. For visitors unaccustomed to life in the vines, the harvest season is a moment in time dedicated to finding harmony with nature and taking time to slow down and enjoy the beauty of your surroundings.
Exploring the enchanting Loire Valley also brought me to the doorsteps of talented winemakers such as Thierry Puzelat, René and Agnès Mosse, Hervé Villemade, Christophe Foucher, and Christian Venier. Visiting the various vineyards and meeting the people behind my favorite wines reminded me of why I was inspired to move to France in the first place: to immerse myself in a culture that takes pride in the process of making products well and with integrity, and to spend time with people who appreciate the results of these efforts.
I never went to summer camp as a kid. But if I missed out on something by not going to camp, I more than made up for it during the vendanges in the Loire, where I rediscovered a love of nature, learned what goes into the wine that I love, and met people who I will hold dear to my heart forever.
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