It’s been a belle année in France and the annual grape harvests are upon us. Due to the beautiful summer weather and almost ideal conditions throughout the year, the harvest – or vendanges – are taking place much earlier than last year. Sun-soaked southern winegrowing regions, like Beaujolais and Languedoc-Roussillon, began their harvests in mid-August and cooler regions, like the Loire Valley, will start the harvest in these first few weeks of September.
Taking part in the vendanges is almost a rite of passage for French youth. Broke high school and college students often take advantage of this opportunity to make some money before the school year starts, while spending time under the sun and making friends from all around the world. In smaller vineyards, the vendanges feel like a family affair, with communities forming among the harvesters who come back year after year. I kind of think of the vendanges as the French version of summer camp, only instead of making lanyards you’re helping to make wine.
That being said, participating in the grape harvest is not reserved for students or seasonal workers. I had my first vendanges experience last year and was happy to find myself surrounded by a wide variety of professionals from different fields and parts of the world. During the two weeks I spent in the Loire Valley picking grapes, I met musicians, sommeliers, designers, an award-winning salsa dancer and, of course, amazing winemakers.
Despite the romantic picture I draw of this period of time, it is worth noting that picking grapes all day long is back- (and knee-, and feet-, and shoulder-…) breaking work. By the second or third day you don’t know if your body will let you go on, and then on the fourth you miraculously feel better. You become used to the physical work and a lot of new additions to your daily routine, like waking up with the sun and going to sleep shortly after it sets, like not checking your phone or worrying about making plans all the time, like listening to the birds and seeing stars come out at night.
The harvest is truly a magical time, and it’s a way to experience France and French culture in a unique and hands-on way. Anyone interested in planning a vendanges visit to France should begin with seriously considering who they would like to work with. If you don’t have a favorite French winemaker you’re interested in contacting, think of some different regions in the country that you’d like to discover.
Southern vineyards will often provide you with fun in the sun, while cooler Northern regions will offer you all the pleasures of a wine that comes from grapes that had to work a little harder to reach maturity. Small, natural winemakers are the best places to get a more intimate and educational experience; they often take time to discuss with their harvesters the fascinating process of winemaking and impart knowledge on how to talk about wine and develop a more profound taste for it.
Unlike winemakers in the US, French natural winemakers not only make wine, but they spend the majority of their time actually tending to the grapes. They are farmers as well as winemakers, and the harvest is the rewarding result of their labor throughout the year: the pruning season in the dead of winter, biodynamic treatments throughout the year to prevent mold and rot… the daily attention given to their vines is what makes the harvest possible. This dedication to tradition, quality, and craft is inspiring and, for me, exemplifies what I love about France. It’s pretty hard not to appreciate everything the country has to offer, when seen from a vineyard.
- Looking for your own vineyard getaway? Escape to a villa in the heart of the Côtes du Rhône region.
- If you love natural wines, discover our list of the best natural wine bars and shops in Paris.
- Did you know Paris has its own vendages right in Montmartre? Check out the program for this year’s Fête des Vendages de Montmartre and sign up for wine tastings and more on their Facebook page.