A very seasonal topic at the moment in the area where I live is the grape harvest, or les vendanges as it’s more sexily called in French. Although I live in one of the oldest wine-growing regions in France, I’m still embarrassingly mystified when it comes to winemaking and knowing about grape varieties and some of the slightly bizarre terminology used – apparently wines can be described as jammy, beefy or flabby! What! So, I’m starting my knowledge-gathering with the basics by finding out more about the very beginning of the wine making process – picking the grapes.

But before immersing ourselves in the vines, I thought I’d introduce you to a few intriguing facts about the Gaillac wine region, which is almost unheard of outside France. Apologies for sounding Wiki-ish but I was surprised myself at the history behind the very many bottles of Gaillac wine I have got through. Starting way way back, it was the Romans who introduced vines to the area over 2,000 years ago – which was a good thousand years before Bordeaux or Burgundy. There’s a site just up the road where amphorae, kind of terracotta containers, from that period were found.  It’s very possible that the first wine label ever was the Vins du Coq brand which was established in 1397 here in little old Gaillac. It even has royal connections as in 1520, King François the First gave 50 barrels of Gaillac wine to Henry the Eighth at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  Who knew? Well actually the Bordeaux winemakers of that period knew. Their envy ultimately led to Bordeaux hugely increasing port taxes placed on Gaillac wines which effectively cut them off from the rest of the world. But production here is on the up again and there are now over 100 independent wine producers in the area.

Some friends of mine, Marine and Eric, are winemakers. Well, actually Marine is a winemaker and Eric basically helps out as and when he’s told to! Marine began producing wine 5 years ago having bought five hectares of vines just up the road on the hillsides of Andillac where her label, La Vignereuse, was born. For those of you who are as unfamiliar with wine terminology as I am, the name ‘vignereuse’ is a play on the word ‘vigneron’ which means winemaker.

Preferring to learn how to do things by actually giving it a go, I asked them if I could come along one day to help with the harvest and see for myself how it all works. So the other day, at 8 in the morning, I headed off to the village of Andillac to meet up with them and the rest of their team of grape pickers.

At this time of the year in the Tarn, the roads are buzzing with activity from the crack of dawn as winemakers get started on harvesting their fruit. Mini-tractors pulling trailers piled high whizz from vineyard to winepress throughout the morning when most of the day’s work actually needs to be done before it becomes too hot. The September sun here in the south-west of France is still pretty strong and in order to maintain the stability of the sugar levels of the fruit, picking needs to be stopped once temperatures get too high, from around midday.

We walked up to the vines we would be working on and each given a bucket and a pair of secateurs and Sébastien then gave me a demonstration on what to do. I asked Marine why she had chosen to handpick the grapes rather than going for the machine-harvesting method. She explained that you have much more control over the quality of the grape when you do it by hand. Of course it takes much longer to harvest, but you can check for proper ripeness and quality of the fruit when it’s done manually – a process which requires skill and a good eye. Natural winemakers like Marine also prefer to operate, as their name would suggest, as naturally as possible, hence no noisy machinery.

Vin de Gaillac

The cutting itself isn’t too complicated, it’s, well…cutting. While the length of stem when you cut the bunch from the vine isn’t of huge concern at this point as a machine which removes the stalks, called the égrappoir, does all that later on, there are various things which are important to look out for.

For example, the colour of the grape is a key thing to check. These particular grapes were of the Duras variety, a grape which is almost uniquely grown around this area of the Tarn département. We had to make sure that the grapes were not “rosé”, which is when they have pinkish and slightly transparent skins, but that they were a deep, dark purple colour. This “rosé” colour means that the grapes aren’t ripe enough yet. The easiest way to see this is by holding the bunch up to the sunlight which is actually not so easy when you are bending down and have a face full of vine leaves! If the grapes are “rosé”, they get left at the base of the vine, or the souche, so that that particular plant can be easily found again later on and checked to see if it has any growth problems. It seemed a shame to leave such beautiful bunches of fruit abandoned on the ground rather than being used to make wine! But if they aren’t ripe enough they will make the wine too acidic, so banished they have to be although I did manage to eat my way through quite a few of them!

Another simple test is just to taste the grapes: ripe or unripe is quickly and easily discernible by how acidic it tastes. Another test is to peel the skin back and wipe the flesh onto your hand – if it leaves a small trace of colour, it is usually ripe. And you can also check the pips – if they are a nice brown colour – that’s a good sign too.

You also have to cast your eye quickly over each bunch to check for any signs of mould or damage which can appear but which can be easily cut out so as not to waste the other healthy grapes in that bunch. I came close a few times to adding bits of my finger to the bucket while doing this!

By this very early stage, I felt I’d already doubled my winemaking knowledge and couldn’t wait to get going. We worked in loose pairs, one either side of each vine to make sure that no bunches, or grappes in French, were missed. The rhythm was steady and un-rushed – with a natural synchronicity between those working opposite each other. When we had filled our buckets we then had to take them to the trailer and empty them out. And it’s very much a team effort: if you see someone else has a full bucket as you walk past, you pick that up too and empty it for them. Once a row has been fully picked, we moved along to the next one.

It was about 10 o’clock when we filled the trailer for the first time, after about two hours cutting. To give you an idea of the quantity, a trailer holds about 8 hectolitres-worth of grapes – a hectolitre being 100 litres. While Marine drove the trailer back to her cave to empty it, we sat on the ground overlooking the gorgeous countryside and had a coffee and a slice of bread and salami. The weather was beautiful, the scenery was beautiful….it was so peaceful and real and earthy.

We got picking again after our break and really noticed that the temperature was rising. By the time we stopped just before midday, it was heading towards thirty degrees. We had picked 6 rows of vines during our morning’s work and my back was definitely noticing it but I’d loved every minute.

Once we’d finished picking, we cleaned and washed the equipment and I had a chance to see the égrappoir in operation – this is the machine which separates the stems from the grapes. The bunches were fed in at one end and then crushed by rotating blades which also strip off the stems. It’s a surprisingly quick procedure. The juice is then pumped straight into the tanks for the fermentation process and this is where the actual winemaking begins.

And something I didn’t know was that all the leftover bits of bunch which are not grape, like the skins and seeds and stems, is called the ‘marc’, otherwise known as pomace. This used to frequently be distilled into a kind of basic brandy often known as an eau-de-vie (a misnomer if you ask me as the ones I’ve tried nearly killed me).  France has tightened its laws hugely on production of alcohol in this way so winemakers now have to pay to have the marc taken away to be converted into fertiliser for agricultural use.

Marine and Eric always provide lunch for their team so we headed back for an apéritif – wine of course! – and a delicious lunch. It’s a lovely moment for everyone to properly chat as a group and share that oh-so-important-French-mealtime together. I happened to make a comment about being surprised that I didn’t have any blisters on my hands after my morning’s work. One of the others laughed – I’d only done half a day! The rest of them would be doing three weeks-worth of picking!

The brand produces around 19,000 bottles every year and Marine took the decision to make “vin nature” – wine which is totally free from chemicals and pesticides. Only organic copper or sulphur is used to protect the vines from mildew and the grapes are vinified without any additives at all. And for the last two years, the wine has even been bottled without the addition of sulphur. La Vignereuse produces various grape varieties including Duras, Loin de l’Oeil, Mauzac, Gamay, Braucol and Syrah. And it’s clearly been very well received: their stock is snapped up by wine lovers across France but also over in the UK and the United States. At a recent tasting, we tried a sparkling red, something I’d never come across before.  It was labelled Gaia Quoi! and was absolutely delicious and dangerously easy to drink. It’s the sort of thing you might have for an apéritif on Christmas Day without feeling too bad that it’s only 10 in the morning. Stocks of this were unsurprisingly bought out in no time.

I had a little moment of reflection while I was sipping my wine during lunch, thinking about the person who might have picked the grapes which had made that particular bottle. Experiencing the process first-hand makes you really think about the different steps and the detail which goes into winemaking. And also how winemakers work so closely with nature to ensure they get the best result. There is something very therapeutic about the whole process – working outdoors, a partnership with and a real understanding of, nature and the elements, and then to have a highly-prized product at the end – which you can drink!

My experience was reward enough already but as I left I was given several bottles from a selection of La Vignereuse wines to take home. A couple of them are made with the Duras grape so as I drink a glass of it, I’ll be really thinking about that particular section of vineyard where I picked. Clearly after my secateur skills, this year’s vintage will be the best ever!

With huge thanks to Marine Leys and Eric Ward.

You can follow Marine on her Facebook page.