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Home | 2016

The grape harvest

Posted by Richard on UTC 2016-10-04 07:56.

Animated by the start of this year's grape harvest in the northern hemisphere we were reminded of an account of grape harvesting in the good old days. Not just any account, but one by Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine, chevalier de Pratz (1790-1869), born 226 years ago this month. From his childhood in Mâcon, Burgundy, he went on to play an important part in the politics of France during the first half of the 19th century. The account retrospectively describes a time about 1800.

For the drunkards among you, Mâcon is principally a producer of white burgundies. You can identify them easily by the slight hint of dead flies and wasps, giving that characteristically and expensive Mâconnais finish. The French call it terroir, but it's really just dead flies and wasps.
[Translation ©FoS]


But when the time of the grape harvest comes round, everything in the farmyard becomes full of work, life and gaiety, transforming the countryside. The peasants bring water in their carts to wash the deep basins of the winepresses which will hold the grapes. The bullock pairs, harnessed together at dawn side-by-side at the drawbar, nod their wise heads under the heavy yoke that joins them and chew on the armfuls of hay which the children give them. The women take us in their arms and lift us up, helping us to scramble up over the rim of the wheel and then tumble into the 'bathtub', a large, oval tub, into which the baskets of grapes filled by the grape pickers will be emptied for transport back to the winepress.

On arrival, the basket carriers lift us out of the tub. Our places will soon be filled by the contents of their baskets. Countless sticky flies and wasps will accompany the bunches of grapes back to the village. They have become tipsy with the grape-juice, which has already begun to ferment, and tumble with the grapes into the tub, although still preserving enough instinct not to sting us. We go with each band of pickers from one site to the next, filling their buckets and baskets. The cleverest girls from the neighbouring mountain villages have formed themselves into bands. They sleep in the barn at Milly, and are hired by the mistresses of the houses in the mornings to work for the day as pickers. They walk behind their guide, singing, their pails on their heads or their baskets on their arms along the narrow paths between the vines. Then placing themselves in twenties or thirties, each one at the foot of a vine stock, they carefully strip the mature grapes, white or blue, squash them between their fingers and throw them into the pails of the boys who will take them to the cart.

The vines sing as their riches are gathered, the fruit of the earth seems to rejoice to be harvested. We follow the carts back on foot, juice dripping down their sides; our smocks are spattered with the blood of grapes. We greet with happy cries the bands of new workers that we meet on the way back. Happiness runs like wine from hill to hill. We help to empty the grapes into the winepress; offer bunches of grass to the tired bullocks, bunches which we have collected for their refreshment and we count the number of bins for our father, from which number he can work out the number of barrels of wine he might expect to produce that will be our income for the whole year. Eight days later another harvest day will come round, and so on until the leaves of all the vines go yellow and wither and have no more fruit to hide. At that point the grape harvest is over, the wine is foaming in the casks, we leave the vine-leaves to the goats and the farmyards go silent once more.

Paul Joseph Noel, The Impassioned Grape Picker, 1817-1819

Paul Joseph Noël (1789-1822), De verliefde wijngaardenier / The Impassioned Grape Picker, 1817-1819. Image: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Possibly the reason why Belgian wine never really took off.

Mais, quand approchait la saison des vendanges, tout prenait dans la cour un aspect de travail, de vie et de gaieté, qui métamorphosait le pays. Les paysans apportaient de l'eau dans leurs chars pour étancher dans les pressoirs les profondes cuves qu'ils devaient bientôt remplir de raisins ; les couples de boeufs, attelés dès l'aurore, élevant et abaissant, sous un joug- commun, leurs têtes intelligentes, ruminaient, à côté du timon, les brassées de foin que les enfants leur donnaient ; les femmes nous prenaient dans leurs mains, et, nous aidant à gravir les jantes des roues, nous précipitaient debout dans la baignoire. La baignoire est la cuve ovale et portative, dans laquelle le vendangeur va à la vigne recueillir les bennes de raisins coupés, pour les ramener au pressoir. Les porteurs de bennes nous prenaient dans leurs bras et nous descendaient des baignoires pour nous remplacer par le contenu de leurs bennes. Des quantités de mouches gluantes et de guêpes qui suivaient de la vigne au village la récolte coupée, et s'enivraient du jus déjà fermentant du raisin, tombaient avec les grappes dans les baignoires, mais conservaient assez d'instinct pour ne pas nous piquer.

Nous allions ainsi de site en site, auprès de chaque bande de coupeurs et de coupeuses, charger la récolte de leurs celliers ou de leurs corbeilles. Les plus alertes fdles des villages voisins des montagnes se formaient en bandes, couchaient dans la grange de Milly et se louaient le matin pour la journée aux maîtresses de la maison. Elles s'acheminaient en chantant, leurs celliers sur la tête, ou leurs corbeilles à la main, derrière leur guide, dans les étroits sentiers des vignes, se plaçaient par trente ou quarante, chacune au pied d'un cep, et, le dépouillant avec soin de sa riche maturité blanche ou bleue, l'écrasaient dans leurs doigts et la jetaient dans les bennes aux garçons qui l'emportaient aux chars.

Toutes les lignes chantaient quand on emportait leur richesse ; la toison de la terre semblait se réjouir d'être recueillie. Nous suivions à pied au retour les chars ruisselant du jus des coteaux; nos tabliers de vendange, tout tachés du sang du raisin, faisaient pousser des cris de joie aux nouvelles bandes que nous rencontrions au retour. La joie ruisselait, comme le vin, de colline en colline. Nous aidions à vider les grappes au pressoir, nous tendions aux boeufs fatigués la poignée d'herbe que nous ramassions pour les rafraîchir ; nous comptions à notre père le nombre des bennes, d'où il conjecturait le nombre des tonneaux de vin qui composaient tout notre revenu pour l'année. Huit jours après, cette même journée recommençait jusqu'à ce que les feuilles de toutes les vignes dénudées fussent jaunies, flétries, n'ayant plus de fruits à couvrir ; jusqu'à ce que la vendange terminée et le vin écumant dans les tonneaux eussent laissé la feuille aux chèvres et les cours muettes comme avant.

Alphonse de Lamartine, Mémoires inédits de Lamartine, 1790-1815, Hachette, Paris, 1852. XVII p. 41f.