The Grape Harvests

Full of grapes, the trailer leaves for the farm. In the fields around Lancié in the Beaujolais Village region it is time for a break for refreshment for the twenty odd harvesters who have worked all the morning in the strong September sun.

Who is thirsty?

The grape harvest is here. Years ago, the grape harvests provided work for hundreds of thousands of people coming from all over Europe to participate in collecting the grapes. But the era of mechanisation has arrived and today there remain only two regions in France where the harvest is strictly by hand. Beaujolais and Champagne.

Beaujolais welcomes forty thousand harvesters this year and in the fields they are happy that here at least tradition is preserved. One woman returns here every year for the last 30 years…

…because we have great bosses. We work for nothing. We do it even without pay. It’s voluntary.

That is not exactly true, the salary is 250FF a day, that isn’t much, but neither is it nothing. They are housed and fed and for the enthusiasts it is the work that counts:

What there is above all, there is good wine. In the evening we are happy, right! It’s then, that’s the best time I might say of the grape harvest, it’s the evening, it’s not the morning. So that’s it, there is a good atmosphere. It’s for that that we come. We find again friends from the year before or from three or four years before, that’s it, you see? For the rest of the year I am retired.

It goes well. There is a great atmosphere at the moment.

Well, let’s say I already did the harvests when I was very small and I liked them very much and so as I am a student and I return to university in the middle of the month of September, I said to myself you might as well do something.

It’s the atmosphere, yes, which is good you see, above all. The work, well, in itself, it is quite difficult but the atmosphere compensates. We have lodgings. There are three dormitories of which there are boys and girls, we are fed and we eat well. Me, I’m a student, I am studying biochemistry.

The wine grower, Gérard Gélin, watches the grape-pickers and helps the new arrivals to learn their work. The work isn’t easy, he knows that.

So there are the cutters who are the most numerous and then the carriers who carry the baskets and who transport the grapes to the trailer. So, there we have one carrier to nine cutters this morning, a rate of work which is normal. Carrying, is very difficult in so much as you must be sturdy, not afraid of hurting your shoulders, then you can carry thirty to forty kilograms of grapes. Cutter, oh well, you mustn’t have a bad back either. You must be clever with your fingers. There is a little bit of everything, right!

For the harvest this year he is confident:

That looks like being a good year. We have lacked the sun for the last three, four days, but even so we had the month of August which was remarkably good. The grapes have a very good taste which is a sign of quality from the start.

A good year, already we have a healthy state of the vines, of vines not too laden with the harvest, with good ripeness, no disease, no decay, which is very important.

This warm atmosphere should produce about 1,350,000 hectolitres of Beaujolais in this year 2001, being 180 million bottles, all being distributed under the name of Beaujolais, Beaujolais Village and Cru du Beaujolais.

Like all the others harvesting in the region of Beaujolais, Gérard Gélin has for his part an important product to sell:

In bottles, we achieve 100,000 bottles at the moment with the label Beaujolais Village, and a little bit of Morgon. There is 45% exported, principally to the countries of USA, Japan, Holland, Belgium, Germany and a little also to Switzerland. Of the volume produced about 25-30% is sold as Beaujolais Nouveau, the remaining wine is sold as Beaujolais Village de Garde, so the better structured wines with a longer life are more important.

Can this industry continue with the methods of another age? Or is mechanisation going to arrive to replace the harvesters? In fact it is the authorities who control the name of Beaujolais who force these methods of industrialisation, in part to preserve the equilibrium between the producers.

It is especially a hillside vineyard which cannot be mechanised and there, there is a disparity of cost of production between the different brands or different regions of production within the designated area for growing the wine of the brand.

But if the green light is given M Gélin will not hesitate.

…You cannot be against…

…and even if that must come progressively, because of the old vines which cannot be operated by machine, progress is going to come…

… the vineyard is not ready, to the level of our Beaujolais Village because we have a limitation as we have a specification where the average age of the vine is equally important, so even if there is the desire to use machines, really we know we are not ready, with the present state of our vines.

If it is permitted, we are going to do it gently as we have very few parcels which can be done for the moment. On the other hand, in the Beaujolais south where the vines are grafted onto ‘Guyot’ it is true that it can be mechanised tomorrow.

And if one feels sad at losing the idealism of another era, M Gélin assures us that it will not harm the quality of the final product.

I think that, in the end, there isn’t going to be a great difference, at least on all the tastings and tryings, the differences are not significant, it is above all a question of mastering the wine production, of mastering the transportation of the grape which make the difference, so at the level of the wine making we need a technology more important than manual harvesting; that, that is well known, that.

This doesn’t please the harvesters.

It will be a shame to lose all that, right!

$Id: 2001_09_soc.htm 35 2021-02-12 12:17:35Z alistair $

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