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John Humphries' memories of a 'vendage' in Burgundy

Published:  19 March, 2013

Here John Humphries gives his personal account of what it's like to get your hands dirty and take part in the Vendage...

Here John Humphries gives his personal account of what it's like to get your hands dirty and take part in the Vendage - wine harvest - in Burgundy with his memories of the 2008 vintage.

My seventh vendange and my second in Burgundy, so I know what I am in for and how much I will suffer. Yet here I am again, cycling the 6 kms from Beaune to Savigny-Les-beaune in the pre-dawn gloom at 7:30 and it's cold.

I visited a quiet sleepy village on my previous trip in 2002, so it is odd to see it so busy at this hour. Normal tractors, and the ungainly vine-straddling tractors, shinny harvesting machines, 4x4's, Land Rovers, white rental vans and the cars of my fellow vendangers clog the narrow streets. Horns sound, greetings are bellowed over the clamour and chants of encouragement issue from the courtyards.

Everyone is so cheerful; bear in mind this is the first day. The bell on the pastisserie's door chimes almost constantly as the domain's quartmasters gather up armfuls of baguettes for breakfast in the vineyard and lunch at the domaine. While others like me pop in to get some extra calories in the form of a Cussion de Pomme, knowing that its considerable energy value will be all but depleted by noon. I have already eaten a substantial breakfast before setting out.

Vendange, the grape harvest, is once again the only show in town, in this department 21, Cote d'Or and in many other regions of France. This year we are starting late because of a tricky spring, an indifferent summer and a very wet late August and early September. There is rot in the vineyards and due diligence will be needed in the picking of the grapes and in the making of the wines at the domaine. Fortunately, a strong wind from the north known locally as 'La Bise' has been blowing hard and it has been warm and sunny for the last 17 days, giving the vignerons some hope at this, the 11th hour. Today is Saturday  September 2008.

I arrive at the domaine, and there are 20 people gathered in the yard. They stand chatting, smoking and drinking coffee, normal, what is abnormal is that many of them are Japanese. This Domaine Simon Bize, widely acclaimed as the best domaine in the village. Patrick Bize went to Japan on a sales trip a dozen or so years ago and returned with Tisza, his multilingual and elegant wife.

Her connections within the expat Japanese community in France are extensive, thus the oriental workforce and what an intriguing group they turned out to be. For me, this is one of the main attractions of vendange; it's the people one works with rather than the wine that is produced. Vendange is renowned for the starting point for many friendships and romances, as we are daily contact with each other for between one to two weeks there is every opportunity to get to know one's fellow workers pretty well. Then at the end there is the paule, the farewell party, a feast with fine wines, music, dancing and who knows what else, this is France after all.

Standing apart is an elderly Japanese man who is wearing a Hard Rock Café T-shirt from Seoul, he is the ceo of a Dijon based car components factory but because of his day job can only work at the domaine at weekends - this is his eighth vintage. On the Tuesday afternoon we were joined by two other Japanese guys, one is the head chef of one the best Japanese restaurants in Paris. They had travelled on the TVG to Dijon and then took the local train to Beaune, Tisza picked them up from the station and had brought them out to the vineyard, they returned to Paris that same evening. A couple of years ago they stayed for longer and prepared a huge feast for all the lucky workers. I was told that the domain's Savigny-Les Beaune, Premier Cru, Aux Vergelesses Chardonnay made an excellent pairing with the meal. I licked my lips.

Nowadays vendange is not the preserve of locals, or for droves of seasonal migrant workers from the Iberian peninsular. Many local people join in of course; some of them have worked vendange at the domaine for many years. But now, they all have other careers, one is the owner of a specialised video and music systems shop in Dijon, another is a taxi driver, others take their leave from office or factory to work in the vineyard. One charming young man, Pierre, is a self-employed carpenter who occasionally works in cellar helping to keep the barrels in good order, he lives in Savigny with his girlfriend and they both enjoy the chance to work together for a change. Housewives from the village also welcome the opportunity to supplement their income.

In 2002 I shared digs with a 40 year old nuclear scientist, Jean-Christophe, from the French electric power generation industry, it was his first vendange, how he suffered, yet he vowed to return.

This year I am fortunate to be working with two other wine professionals, Oliver Baret who has his own wine broking business with clients all over the world and Christan Jessen who is a Germen wine expert. He will teach me a great deal about Riesling during the following week. He conducted a tasting one evening after work of six German Rieslings of different quality levels, with one wine from the 1994, which was a great vintage. He also took most of the photographs for this article, thank you Christian, how's your back ?

Two French lads from the Pays de Calais are using vendange as a chance to explore the Côte D'Or, a region they have not visited before, they are camping 20 kms away from Savigny and commute each day.

A young couple from Pilsen in the Czech Republic join us on the third day, having finished the harvest at a small domaine in Puligny-Montrachet. Alena is studying to become a sommelier at the Lycèe-Viticole in Beaune; her father has a wine importing business back in the Republic. We had a conversation about the quality of French beer, it was brief.

For many young French people vendagne is a right of passage, before going to university or college; it marks the boundary between their previous life with their parents and setting out into the world on their own.

In 2008 I was paid 8:71 euros per hour as a Coupeur, a cutter of the grapes, the Porteurs de Hotte, the guys who carry the grapes on their backs to the tractors earn a little more. Most often the domaine or chateau will provide accommodation and then take a charge on one's wages. Breakfast in the vineyard, lunch with wine and a snack in the afternoon are all provided, sometimes dinner will be offered too. I stayed in a B & B hotel in North-West Beaune; they gave me a good deal as I paid in advance. The view from my bedroom window was of the Corton hill, it looms even more potently when the sun's first rays illuminate its steep corduroy ribbed slopes.

We depart for the vineyard at 8am in a convoy of three white vans, two tractors pulling trailers for the grapes and a Land Rover. Our destination is a 'village' Savigny-Lès-Beaune Vineyard, a flat site with a stream, Le Rhoin running through it and with the grand title of Les Planchots de la Champagne. It is on the edge of Beaune, right beside my hotel; I resist the urge to slink-off, back to my comfortable bed.

We gather black plastic buckets, our panniers and orange handled secateurs, which have finely serrated blades as sharp as a razor that are particularly unforgiving on clumsy fingers. Patrick Bize takes charge, directing us to our assigned row. I squat down and start to cut, 'click-clack' the secateurs sever the fruit from the vines and soon the first shout of "pannier" is heard. A word that is to become our battle cry, it can be spoken with many different inflections or intensities, a sharp retort in the morning, a request for urgency or one of tired sighs in the afternoon.

"Pannier" brings the porteurs to our aid, it is also opportunity to stand-up, to ease the back and tights and to stretch as I empty my brimming bucket into the hotte. That morning I filled 46 paniers, at around 7 kilo's each that's over 300 kilo's for the morning session, multiply by 25 pickers and the total exceeds 8000 kilos of Pinot Noir. The crop from this vineyard is affected by Botrytis Cinerea, not noble rot, but Grey rot which can contaminate the wine with an 'off' flavour.

At 10 o'clock it's time for a break; Tisza brings us our petit dejeuner a la vigne. Juice, beer, water or steaming hot coffee to drink with sections of baguette filled either with Camembert or saucisson, followed by nuggets of bitter, dark chocolate. A blue-grey haze of cigarette smoke envelops our breakfast party then drifts away on the breeze. Under a blue sky and a bright sun it is warm enough to remove a layer of clothing.

The first tractor and trailer return to the domaine where the wine-making team will pass the grapes on the table-detri, the sorting table, to elimante any damaged or diseased grapes before they are placed in an open, wooden fermenting cuves, to cold soak for five days at 15o cent, before fermentation is allowed to start.

It is possible to detect that vendange is under way by the aroma emitted from the cut grape bunches. It is just one of the unique aromas of the harvest, sappy and green, fresh in a way that is similar to newly cut grass. It can be detected up to 500 metres away. It is the aroma of the vine stems.

We return to the long straight rows, by now various introductions have been made as we get to know each other we unite as l'equipe Bise. The laughter increases and although my French is weak I could tell that the chatter had become much bluer. There are also conversations in Japanese, English and German.

'Click-Clack' the bunches fall and the far end of the row draws closer. As the faster pickers finish they turn back to come and help the slower, so each block of 25 rows are completed at the same time before moving on to the next. The first tractor returns and the other departs, the trailers are not full but it is important for quality to get the cut grapes back to the domaine as quickly as possible, to prevent oxidation and to keep them cool. I have harvested Pinot Noir before, in Nuits-Saint-Georges in 2002, yet I am still astonished at how fragile the grapes are. The slightest touch causes the wafer-thin skins to split and drench my fingers with sticky, wet juice. My finger tips are already starting to be stained purple-blue from the pigments in the skins. I study the the colour of the pipis, for thwe most part they have a tan colour indicating the phenolic ripeness of the fruit. Oliver points to some grapes that are tiny, he tells me that they are called millerandé and are prized for the intensity they bring to the cuvée.

At noon we stop work, it is time for lunch. I have been looking forward to this for I have many good memories of vendange lunch times. We return to the domaine happy and hungry and rinse our sugar-caked hands and secateurs. It is time for an aperitif, chilled beer or rosé wine. I walk over to the cuverie drawn by the pungent aromas; Patrick is in a good mood as today is the major event of the year, when he has grapes to work with again on the first day of vendange. The winery team are lined up either side of the sorting table processing the morning's final crop.

It is time to eat, we take our seats at four large tables laden with bread and wine as large bowls of energizing pasta with a creamy cheese sauce are served from the open kitchen. This is followed by fillets of lean pork with lentils and diced root vegetables. Next we choose from a selection of local cheese, Epoisses or L' Abbaye de Citeaux. Finally dessert is served fresh and preserved fruits bound in a set custard. We drink coffee from the same small tumbler we had used to drink our wine, suitably a 'village' Savingy rouge from the 2006 vintage. All our food is eaten from the same plate which is wiped clean between each course with bread.

At 2pm it's time to return to the vineyard. Immediately after lunch our pace is slower, in the heat of the sun and as digestion begins. We fall mute; our thoughts accompanied by birdsong, the click-clack of the secateurs and by more subdued demands for "Pannier" Suddenly there is a startling female cry. One of the college girls has cut herself. Olivier advises her to bathe the wound with grape juice, which is a potent antiseptic and stings like hell. Poor Viviane howls in protest while Olivier stems the flow of blood with a field dressing from is belt pouch.

We take a break for more food and coffee at 4 p.m. I reach for the plastic bottle of wine and slump down in a heap. The pain in my legs from cycling has increased by sqating in the vineyard for six hours and my tights have begun to seize. I had anticipated this and swallow a couple of pain killers. We toil on to five-thirty then return once more to the domaine. I say my "bon-soirs" and wearily peddle back to the hotel, where I take a long, hot shower and have an early night.

On Sunday and Monday we continue with 'village' Pinot Noir from south facing vineyards named Les Borgeots, Aux Grand Liards and Les Pimentiers, here the ochre coloured soil is a mixture of clay and crushed limestone. On Tuesday morning we begin the Chardonnay harvest from a Premirer Cru, Aux Verelesses, this is situated on a steep slope which is densely wooded at its summit. It is considered to be the best climat in the entire Appellation. Guillaume Bott, the white wine maker joins us on the hillside as he is concerned that there is some infection by oidium, which he finds at the top of the slope. Lower down the grapes are in excellent condition, but small, the size of large peas. What they lack in stature they made up for in flavour. Grapey as one would expect and sweet, the sugar binding my fingers together, then wonderfully fresh with a bright, clear acidity. The perfect balance as one would hope to find in the resultant wine. This is difficult terrain to work but the view over the valley with the city of Beaune in the distance is stunning in the hazy autumnal light.

After lunch we change Appelation by moving to a 'village' vineyard in Aloxe-Corton called Les Suchots to pick Pinot Noir. There was an unusal sight as the vines had lost nearly all their leaves and the grape crop was reduced by half because of a heavy hail storm in the spring.

Before work on Wednesday morning I cycled to the village café, over coffee my attention was drawn to the front page of the local newspaper, Le Bein Puplic, it featured the start, on Monday the 29th of vendange at the Domaine Romanée-Conti. Over sixty people work at picking the grapes and a further dozen work on the table de tri. They began the harvest at the Grand-Cru La Tâche and then moved on to Le Richbourg, with so many workers it must appear to be like a plague of locust descending on the vines.

There was rain over night and it was cool and cloudy on Thursday morning. I picked 40 paniers of 'village' Chardonnay and a little Pinot Beurot, a close relative of Pinot Gris, this adds a little 'spice' to the wine and are delicious to taste straight from the vine. By noon the sun had returned. After lunch I join a small group who are being taken north to the Côte-de Nuits to harvest a small plot that Patrick rents in the Grand Cru, Latricieres-Chambertin. Just 32 ares or about a third of a hectare, this produces enough grapes for about five barrels of wine which will yield 1500 bottles. The Pinot Noir was in excellent condition, the best I picked in 2008 and I look forward to tasting the wine in a few years time.

There was more rain on Thursday night but thankfully it was mild and windy on Friday morning. We started with 'village' Chardonnay, then after the mid-morning break we moved to Les Talmetts, a Premier Cru, Pinot Noir vineyard at the top of the slope. The grapes were healthy with many tiny ones. There was a light shower before lunch then later in the afternoon a heavy downpour brought our labour to a premature halt. We returned to the domaine where a blazing fire of old vine trunks had been lit to warm us and to help dry our clothes.

That was my last day of work at the 2008 vendange as I was surprised when we given the weekend off. On Saturday morning I explored Beaune, in the extensive street market I found local honey and fresh, wet walnuts and I brought new season Crème de Cassis from one of the dozens of wine shops. Of all the wine towns I have visited all around the world during my 30 years career Beaune is the most dedicated, the absolute Centre de Vin. I ate some good meals, Sunday lunch at Les Gourmandin on the Place Carnot with Christian and Sophie Swart, an Australian wine marketer who I had first meet in London in 2001. I had not seen her for several years until we bumped into each other in Beaune's Magnum wine shop. She had studied at the Lycèe-Viticole and was now working as the export manager of one of the major negociants in Beaune.

On Monday morning I cycled to the domaine to collect my wages and to bid farewell and "Bon Vendange" to everybody.

The wines of Savigny-Lès Beaune can be overlooked, even by dedicated Burgundy drinkers, who concentrate on the more famous appellations of the Côte-de Beaune, Volnay or Pommard for the reds and the Montrachet villages for their whites. This is an oversight, as the village can offer a fine style and some of the best value in the entire Côte D'Or. Sometimes the village red wines find their way to Markey labelled as Côte-de Beaune-Villages.

If you would like to take part in the grape harvest you could try contacting the local tourist office in the region of your choice, as they often act as a clearing house for the local growers. Or speak to your wine merchant; they be able to arrange a placement for you with one of their principles. I recommend a Barbour jacket and a tight fitting woollen hat for the cold mornings. For trousers, I suggest the combat style with lots of pockets and the all important articulated knee, not jeans. Wellington boots are not necessary, a flexible work or training shoe is a better choice.

Bon Chance.

* You can contact John at


Lycee-Viticole CFPPA 8 Avenue de Parc, Bp125 21206 Beaune, France.

L'Office de Tourisme de Beaune
6 Boulevard Perpreuil
21203 Beaune, France.

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