The vendage, grape harvest, is a huge annual affair down here in the Corbieres. This year the first white grapes were picked in mid August. It continues on and off for 12 weeks. Sunday was our friend Dom’s last day of the vendage. Dom has recently taken over 10 hectares of vines that have been worked using bio-dynamic principals around the Chateau St Auriol, behind Lagrasse. Well they were worked until about 18 months ago, after which they have been left to do their own thing. Which as it turned out seems mainly to be not a lot.
Sunday was his last day of the grape picking, and as Dom is a tad cash poor, a bunch of us volunteered to do it for the cost of lunch.
Well it started it as a typical French affair and continued in the same vein. It was all suppose to start at 8am. Needless to say it didn’t. I had not got back from the Fête Paysanne d’Automne Azillanet until around 9.30 the night before. After the usual post match analysis, and a few glasses of wine I went to bed late, tired, sunburned and a little merry. When the alarm went off at 6.30 on Sunday morning I was not the happiest of bunnies in the world. Nevertheless we dragged our selves out the door and got to St Auriol around 8ish. Apart from Dom and one of his sons, who live at St Auriol so have little excuse to be late, we were naturally the first to arrive. So a couple of cups of much needed coffee later the rest of the team rolled up. A merry little group of local vingerons, a herb growers, not exactly the same herbs as ours let us say, and a lovely couple of trainees who live in a yugurt in the High Corbieres,. Just down the road and over a couple of mountains from us it turned out. It is always nice to discover new neighbours you didn’t know existed.
Eventually we rattled off into the hills above Caunette en Val in the dodgiest collection of vans in Les Corbieres, and that is really saying something. The parcels of vines are of the top of the pass between Caunette en Val and Rieux en Val with views over Mithais lavender fields up to hills above Jean Baptiste’s goat farm and right across to the Corbieres Vert.
The Grenache vines themselves were in a lamentable state, they hadn’t been properly clipped back at the beginning of the season, brambles, wild asparagus and juniper bushes surrounded their feet. The grapes were in small bunches, with one out of four bearing no fruit.
It has been a difficult time this year for the vines. The mild Winter and Spring ensured that the vines were in flower two weeks early, then bam, the 26th, the 28th and the 29th of April saw a destructive combination of gel blanc, and gel noir. Roughly translated as ground frost and black frost. Vines flowers can usually resist a ground frost, but the hard frost that descends from above is devastating. No flowers means no grapes, and not only for the year of the frost, the flower blossom in year two is also much reduced. Areas of the Corbieres suffered a 40% loss. Indeed the hard Spring means that they are predicting the smallest grape harvest since 1945 across France with the Languedoc, France’s largest wine producing area particularly hard hit.
Dom’s vine however suffered more from neglect than any meteorological calamity. Next year will be very different. Dom is absolutely convinced that with the proper care and attention, both to the vines themselves and the soil in which they grow, he can get the vines back in time for the vendage next year. I have no reason to doubt him, he has already rescued on Domaine from a similar state of affairs and there is no reason he cannot turn these ones round as well.
Bio-dynamic agriculture concentrates heavily on soil management, it is a sort of deep organic agriculture managed by a lunar calendar, with, in my old marxist cynicism, a bit of voodoo thrown in. But the results seem to work, as I said I am quite critical of the more esoteric elements of the bio-dynamic approach but the structure of the lunar calendar does impose a disciplined approach to soil and plant management.
Naturally the 3 to 4 hours of vendage previewed turned into 5 1/2 hours of work. Caroline’s bad back really enjoyed it, however she made it through. Despite living down here for nearly 18 years this was her first vendage and only my second. There is a reason we grow organic herbs and not vines. Everything to do with working the vines involves bending over.
The one thing that did go as planned was the lunch. OK it was a few hours later than previewed, but at least our appetites were well honed. There was a moment of absolute panic when a cork screw went missing. The advantage of doing the vendage is that there is no shortage of wine. Dom had brought a range of 9 bottles of his wine, and Martin had brought some of his harvest from last year, but nobody had remembered a cork screw. At last one was located and the appero began. Caroline had a couple of her gluten free pizza’s left over from Saturdays market, they disappeared before the first bottle of Dom’s white wine was drunk. Christophe, who raises organic cattle had passed by Dom’s on his way back from Narbonne organic market and delivered veal and pork chops, which along with grilled aubergines went down well, oh, as did the endless opening of red wine all finished off with Chrisophe’s cheese, eaten in the heart of the now picked vines.
On the way out Caroline had a bit of a rush to the brain, it was either that or the wine which made her volunteer to help with clipping the vines. Do you know when vines are clipped?- in the middle of Winter.