Wednesday, September 17, 2008

La Vendange – The Grape Harvest

Right now, trillions of grapes are being harvested throughout France to make the famous French wines. The grape harvest is called la vendange.

Today, we got to participate in la vendange!

Reed and Debb’s friends – George and Marika – own a mas in La Pons du Mauchien (The Place of the Bad Dogs). A mas is a farm house on a vineyard. George & Marika’s mas is over 300 years old, and it is breath-taking (see below). George and Marika live in San Diego most of the year, but they arrive here in July for the annual wine bottling, and they stay through early October, when the harvest is fermented and ready for the next step in the wine making process.

Le Pons du Mauchien is about 15 minutes from Bouzigues. The name has a great historical legend: Apparently, the ruler of this area was so cruel that he abused his peasants and even his dogs! After years of abuse, the dogs decided to defend themselves. They ate the ruler!

There are three small vineyards at the mas where they grow Grenache and Syrah grapes. They also have a small olive tree orchard from which they make olive oil.

Today, we helped harvest grapes from 4 rows of grape vines. Four rows may not sound like many, but it took over an hour with 11 people! The four of us were there, along with Reed, George, Marika, Jack, Sue Thompson (here visiting from England), and Gert & Karen (Marika’s brother and his wife – both sweet people from Idaho).

Here is the process from our awesome experience:

We all picked grapes. You walk along the row, clipping clumps of grapes and letting them fall into your bucket. Well, I decided that it was far more fun and sensual to catch the grapes in my hand and drop them into the bucket. The clumps of grapes are picture perfect, and the grapes are yummy!

When your bucket is full, you carry it to the front of the vine and dump it into the larger container.

When we picked the vines clean, we hauled the grapes to the mas. There is a special wheelbarrow that lifts the large white container to move it to the mas. There, we sorted the grapes. That means we pulled out any grapes that were mildewed and we pulled out any leaves.

Next, Jack put the grapes through the hopper. The hopper separates the grapes from the stem and leaves. The grapes are collected under the hopper in a large bucket, and the stems are carried by a small conveyer belt into a basket. We used buckets and our hands to scoop the separated grapes out from under the hopper. At this point, the grapes are really juicy but still whole. There are a few pieces of stem, but mostly it is round grapes. It is pretty cool to dip your hands into the grape soup! We carried the buckets full of grape soup into the barn and poured them right into the fermenting vats.

Mike got to stir the grapes, which were already fermenting!

For red wine, the grapes stay in the fermenting vats for 2 weeks. During this time, the color from the grape skins turns the wine red. The bubbles from the fermenting float the skins to the top of the vat. When this stage of the fermenting is over, the skins sink back to the bottom. Then, it’s time to press the wine. We hope to get invited back to help with the pressing.

After the grapes are pressed, the juice is put into large glass bottles to continue the next phase of fermentation.

Here you can see glass bottles full of George’s white wine harvest this year. White wine is different because the grapes are pressed the same day they are harvested. They don’t sit in the large vat for 2 weeks where the red color is imparted from the skins. When you put your ear to the opening, you can hear the pinging of the fermentation bubbles. It’s cool!

When la vendange was over, we celebrated with a feast! I haven’t eaten so much in one sitting in years! Try not to drool too much throughout this description:

The first course was (of course) oysters and the local onion, anchovy, and olive pizza. Okay, so I didn’t eat much during the first course. I admit it.

The next course was Marika’s homemade chicken enchiladas, Spanish rice, pasta salad, and green bean salad. Considering the absolute lack of Mexican food here, the taste of homemade chicken enchiladas was out-of-this-world! I ate one and split a second with Mike. I would have gone back for more, too, if I hadn’t been embarrassed!

The next course was the bread and cheese course. If I haven’t yet mentioned how delicious the cheese is here – it is mouth-watering. Today we had brie, chevre, a mild blue cheese, and a gouda – all with bread fresh from the boulangerie. I discovered that cheese is even more delicious with a little bit of fresh fig! That was another major highlight today: the gi-normous fig tree! The figs from this tree are the best fruit I have ever had in my life. Absolutely delicious! We got to bring some home.

Dessert was brownies (a chez Billat) and homemade lemon curd/meringue/cheesecake pie. I cannot describe this pie with words other than to say – it was so delicious that I ate 2 pieces. That was about 4 hours ago, and I’m still full.

It was the kind of meal I will remember forever: delicious food, amazing setting, wonderful people . . . it was absolutely idyllic.

After the feast, the kids swam in the pool while the adults visited some more. We also got a tour of the mas.

We arrived at the mas around 10:30, and we left a bit before 4:00. All in all – one of our best days in France so far! This is exactly the type of experience I was hoping for in France. It was amazing – something you can only do here – something straight out of a movie. We are truly fortunate to have been so warmly included in la vendange. We hope to be here in July when George and Marika return for the bottling!

Love to all!

1 comment:

Melissa said...

oooooooooh, that sounds like the perfect perfect French experience. Thank you for writing it all so thoroughly - I'm sure it took you a while, but it was soooooo wonderful for all of us, stateside, to gobble up (did you get the recipe for that lemon dessert???!).