If you are in the midst of the serious wine growing regions of Bordeaux at the moment you will likely notice that the vineyards are a hive of activity – it’s that time of year when the annual grape harvest is underway. Slightly further up the Atlantic coast in a small hamlet last weekend, an equally momentous grape harvest took place.
We were at the home of our American friend, Jeff, who bought his house back in the spring. He is now very much “at home”, although I might add he is not in total comfort yet as there are still renovations and refurbishment underway. However, that did not deter his inherited grapes from growing happily all summer and we knew a while ago that he was going to be in for a bumper crop. Neighbours started to impart local knowledge and plenty of advice and helping hands were on offer for when things needed to be done! When pineau production started all sorts of people came past to gather under the 100 year-old trellised vine.
Sunday was the chosen day, one villager placed bunting up around Jeff’s house to mark the momentous occasion. It was rumoured that it was more then 10 years since the house’s grapes had been properly harvested.
Picking began early in the morning with the green variety. Everything was to be made into the local much sought after aperitif, Pineau des Charentes, which is a made from grape juice and Eau de Vie. It was decided that there would be no wine this year.
On hand to oversee things was Louis, who that same day was celebrating his 89th birthday.
Louis told us he had seen many vintages from Jeff’s property over the years, and he was keen to make sure that we started with the green grapes as this produces the best Pineau des Charentes. If the harvest went to plan we would then make Rosé, and then deep red Pineau from the darkest grapes.
Although Louis might have been one year shy of his 90th birthday it certainly wasn’t going to stand in the way of him climbing a ladder and picking fruit.
The white grapes were carefully sorted, their stalks removed, a fiddly and time-consuming job for both large and small fingers. Jeff had purchased a small press and by mid morning the first juices began to trickle out.
It looked more like filthy dishwater!
As the hours rolled on this was followed by the red grapes, ending with the deepest darkest coloured fruit. The first taste of each juice was sampled, deliciously different from anything bought in a health shop, although Louis and his compatriots warned us not to imbibe more than a few mouthfuls – too much of this pure unpasteurised, untreated juice and the consequences can be quite disastrous and entail much use of a small room with plumbing. Louis and Didier recounted with much glee the stories from their childhoods when they learnt the truth about grape juice – and tricks they had played over the years on unsuspecting newcomers! We felt honoured (and rather relieved) that they warned us!
By the afternoon the press had been well and truly christened and no longer looked quite so new. Fingers were stained a deep purple as barrow after barrow was picked and put into the press. This was messy work not for the faint hearted. All day long we gleaned snippets of local knowledge from the villagers. This mosaic-tiled table had been made by Louis himself more then 40 years ago for the then owners of Jeff’s property.
At around 4pm, the traditional hour for goûter, (a tea time snack mostly associated with children), we all stopped for a well earned break. Hetty had baked a cake for Louis for his birthday, complete with candles, although not 89 of them! An English gesture during a very French day.
Then work resumed once more.
Earlier in the week Roddy had made some planked tops to make simple trestle tables and as the evening started to draw in we moved these out into the garden and started to think about dinner. This was going to be a celebration, shared by everyone who had helped with the harvest. The barbecue was lit, smells of rosemary and roasting lamb and chicken slowly drifted towards those still working with the grapes.
Two large touques were filled with the grape juice to which eau de vie was added at a ratio of two litres of the strong stuff to ten of the juice. Note that at this point I should add that it is practically impossible to buy eau de vie in a shop; this is where it is handy to have made local French friends, perhaps someone who knows somebody who knows someone else who can supply some, bien sûr! The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, it is actually illegal to make eau de vie at home, though a blind eye is turned to the practice when it is clearly intended to be used for pineau, especially when as a gendarme one may actually help harvest. Secondly, it is generally only the older generations that still cultivate grapes for domestic consumption. The young have no time or inclination in this mad busy world to do something that is of yesteryear, especially when a bottle can be bought at any supermarket for next to nothing.
The touques are then left for a year in a cool dark place before bottling can commence. It is typical practice to celebrate a harvest with a bottle from the last year’s vintage.
When all was said and done, and the clean-up finished, champagne glasses were filled and we all raised a toast to this year’s harvest, aptly named the ‘Louis Vintage’. This time next year we would be able to sample it, but until then we just had to be patient.
Now our thoughts turned to food, as we were all starving. Music filled the air
and dinner was served. We started with half a melon, filled (for the adults) with a plentiful dose of (what else but) Pineau; melon served this way is a local speciality.
This was followed by a barbecued leg of lamb – cooked to utter perfection, I might add, by Jeff. Barbecued chicken, potatoes lyonnaise, fresh salad, and a local dish that seemd to be a variation of ratatouille which included potatoes and a thick cheese topping. There were glasses of full-bodied red wine, giggling children and plenty of hearty conversation, much of it interspersed with local Charentais patois.
As darkness started to fall, we moved onto dessert. It had been a long but very fulfilling day, and another fabulous and very new experience in our French year.