Not many Irish guys can say they have worked on a Burgundy wine harvest! I was fortunate enough to work with Maison Louis Latour in the Côte-d’Or picking, lifting, sorting, processing and most intriguingly learning about their grapes 12 days in October 2013.
The work on the vineyards was, to put it simply; tough, but extremely enjoyable and quite diverse. For those of you interested, I’ve rounded up daily activity with some pictures below. A couple more pictures can be viewed on my Instagram. It’ll take a couple of minutes to read so perhaps grab a cup of tea of coffee, or more appropriately a glass of vin and enjoy!
Day one – the arrival 30/09/13
I arrived in from Paris by train and was collected with a few other ‘vendagers’ or harvesters. We were brought domaine house – our home for the next 10 days or so. Just as we had left the train station it started lashing rain – typical! Most of the other people had done the harvest here before but there were one or two new ones like me however everyone was French, which was slightly challenging at times! We were shown to our rooms, which were basic but served their purpose. We gathered in the cosy kitchen and made steak haché and pasta for dinner. We stayed up sampling various types of wine until we decided it was time to rest as little did I know, we were going to have a very tiring few days ahead.
Day two – the first day of the harvest 01/10/13
Breakfast was served at 7am. The day workers started to arrive and we all congregated in the farmyard of the domaine house. As there were around 100 vendagers, there was a roll call to ensure everyone was present. Once that was done we all hopped into various camions, which brought us to our first vineyard.
Although no explanation was given as to how to cut the grapes, it wasn’t too difficult to get a hold of. The point was to cut all from the bottom trying not to miss anything and not touching the unripe grapes at the top of the vine and gather them in your bucket. Our tools were gloves, a secateurs and a bucket. I thankfully heard some English speakers and kept with them at a pace slightly slower that the rest of the coupers (cutters)!
As the morning progressed and the tea break came, we were quite steady at cutting though nowhere near the speed of the rest of the coupers. We were reminded politely a number of times to speed up.
Time for lunch at 1pm. Everyone was bussed back to the domaine for food which was served promptly; quiche; chicken with green bean sprouts; cheese and donuts with of course red wine and coffee. Bread was never a scarcity. Not much time after we had finished we were all rushed back to our camions for more picking, which happened, closer to our base than the first vine. The spirit was a bit higher than the morning time, which was good.
From 2-6:30pm we had a great session with thousands of grapes cut. I was extremely thankful to make use of my shower once the crowds had left, which was followed by a dinner of soup; bacon omlette with salad; cheese and a nice little cornetto. Some nicer wines were presented for the evening.
Shortly after dinner I gracefully fell asleep, with my legs and back in complete and utter pain, but feeling very relieved the first day had come to an end. From not knowing what to expect whatsoever so literally being thrown in the deep end, it was successful day.
Day three – the vines get bigger and bigger 02/10/13
Breakfast served at 7am again – not many people show for it as a lot of them eat in their own hotels / hostels before coming. Everyone called to the farmyard for 7:15am where we were assigned specific teams. I stuck with the English speakers!
9:30am break came where we enjoyed coffee; chocolate and bread with a range of random hams which I kept away from. We did a lot more uphill cutting before being called for lunch at 12:30pm which was tomato and carrot salad followed by lamb with mash potatoe, cheese and a tarte au pomme. This kept us going for the massive vineyards we had to take on after lunch. It was quite a quiet afternoon but LOTS of grapes to be cut which kept me very busy.
I found the time on the vines a great time to focus on posture and core movement / exercise. Each vine only reached my upper chest and the grapes we had to cut were at the bottom so there was a constant requirement to bend and be on your knees. As the afternoon progressed I did find it slightly easier though could not stop thinking about which massage treatment I would get when I get back to London! My legs ached quite heavily but I’m never one to quit, so I pressed on.
Dinner was served at 7:30pm to just a few of us as the others had not yet arrived – much to the cooks disappointment. We enjoyed a delicious soup followed by steak haché with cauliflower gratin which went down a treat. Dessert was a very tasty hazelnut praslin chocolate slice. No coffee was served and less fine wine than the night before. I was in bed for 9:30pm and stretched my leg muscles as they were still in severe pain!
Day four – the final cut 03/10/13
Slept like a complete log – conked at 10pm and rose at ease at 6:30am. Once breakfast finished it was back to the farmyard where everyone congregated when they got off their buses from their respective places of lodgment (I was definitely one of the 10 lucky ones to be staying in the domaine).
We were in the same groups as the day three. We could walk to the vineyard, which was the same one we started on day three’s evening, and didn’t get to finish. We finished that one (grape was Corton of some shape of form) and moved on to a lower part of the valley where we had a morning break at 9:30am followed by two and half steady hours of more picking and cutting.
Lunch was the guts of an hour and was some form of cous cous; duck with beans; cheese and a nice chocolate donut with café.. We then walked back towards the vineyards at Maison Louis Latour (the main house) which were massive. We started at 1:30pm and finished five hours later. The lines seemed never-ending but again a great challenge to focus on posture. Around 6pm we were thankfully called to the cuverie (or winehouse) to experience what the sorting, pressing and homogenising was all about.
Dinner was enjoyed intimately until the remainder of the guys from the cuverie came back with plenty of wine. Dinner was a lovely soup; steak with sautéed green beans with mushrooms and a pear tart. Cheese and café were also served of course – the cheese I didn’t touch!
Day five – more manual movements 04/10/13
Even though I didn’t need to wake until 9:30am I was awoken most hours from 6am as it was just in the system. I didn’t want to be late on my first day in the cuverie.
I made my way to the cuverie for a lot of manual labour which involved just lifting cases of grapes from the vineyards from the palette on to a sorting machine. The cases would come in regularly from all the vineyards. It is essentially the second round of the wine making stage. I must have dropped 5/600 boxes on to the machine. It was extremely repetitive work but good for the triceps! There were also hundreds of insects’ especially big creepy crawly type things, which were all over the crates and would literally appear all over my body, which was quite disgusting. We broke for lunch quite late, at 1:30pm and again could walk back to the domaine as it’s all within the same village. We enjoyed a scrumptious salad of vegetables; fish with rice; cheese and toffee tart as well as some biscuits which came as a nice surprise.
Upon returning to the ‘factory floor’ (which happened to be outside) at 2:30pm we had plenty more crates to sort which we got through by 4pm when we had to stop as it was raining heavily and the cutters had been sent home, meaning there was no work left for us! We proceeded to clean down the machines which took around 30 minutes.
Got back to the accommodation nice and early about 5pm. I had a shower and read my book, fell asleep and then rose for dinner at 7pm which was soup; lasagna with salad; cheese (I tried Delice de Pommard which was sort of like horseradish in a way and lovely) followed by a chocolate mousse.
Day six – a half-day 05/10/13
It had rained heavily overnight and continued to do so in the morning. We made our way to the cuverie where we proceeded to test and homogenise the wine. I started by taking a test of each of the 13 grapes harvested so far (which were in large oak barrels (0r cuves) on the first floor of the maison). These were then analysed by the analogist. This was pretty much the third stage of the harvest, after being sorted downstairs, the grapes are poured into these large oak barrels (red only).
After taking samples of each variety I proceeded to make a mix of water (37C), sugar and yeast to be added to some grape varieties. I then did some melanging or mixing of the barrels (in French they say remontage) – by using a pipe to extract the juices from the bottom of the barrel and spreading the juice on the top of the barrels. This is to ensure the best juices of all of the grapes is being extracted.
We broke for a five minute coffee break at 10am then did our second last job of the day which was to place water pipes in some of the barrels to ensure we maintain a good temperature when required. This is done by placing very large and heavy stainless steel railing type object into the barrels. After this, we had to cut out covers for the barrels using a large piece of very heavy duty plastic. We just cut out enough for each barrel and placed it underneath rather than placing it on just yet.
Lunch was served shortly after 12:30pm and it was quiet one as there were no coupers around. We had a salmon cake; some form of chicken with fried potatoes; cheese and fruit salad with coffee.
Day seven – a quiet one 06/10/13
With a 10am start I got up shortly after 9am. We walked in a group to the cuverie where we were based for the full day. I started off by pressing the grapes along with the other guys. There was a different vibe again as it was Sunday and clearly ‘family day’ so we had a few different visitors and helpers throughout the day such as the owners children. I then witnessed my first ‘manual’ pressing of the grapes, which involved one of the guys press the grapes with his feet – a truly tradition technique performed only in Burgundy these days. It was a great photo opportunity, as you can see below! One must be extremely careful when doing this however, given the amount of fumes (specifically Co2) coming from the amount of grapes in the barrels.
I then proceeded to do a mix of sorting and carrying red and white grapes. After lunch, which was around 1pm and consisted of some pâté; pasta with beef pieces; cheese and chocolate tart, we went back to the cuverie where we spent the afternoon – until about 7pm emptying the hundreds of grapes that came in from the vineyards.
The white wine processing
Dinner was served at 8pm and consisted of soup; tart eflette; cheese and a lovely passion fruit tart. It was my first time having tart eflette and it was just delicious – I even had two servings. It is quite a heavy dish containing cream and cheese with potatoes and bacon lardons.
Day eight – the day off 07/10/13
I woke around 6:15am even though I was off as I had a lift down to Ladoire – which is the closest ‘village’ to Aloxe Corton. Unfortunate for my lift, I noticed a puncture on his car before we left the domaine around 7am which meant he had to go to Beaune so fortunately I got a lift into there.
It was a nice walk into town where I stayed when I was in Beaune almost two years previously. I made my way around the town just walking. I found myself at home at Bolgart Café just beside Hospice de Beaune, which was nice and central, and for the first time in a week I got myself online – on the receiving end of 300+ emails! After I caught up online and registering for the Paris Marathon in April 2014 (had to be done) I made my way around Beaune again just strolling. I also bought and posted some postcards – very old fashioned.
I decided to have lunch back at the domaine as there was not much else left to see or do in Beaune. So I went to the tourist office to get a map and numbers for taxi, which was quite difficult to pin down! I reached one who took me back to the domaine and stopped at Leclerc (where I ironically became mayor of on FourSquare) so I could buy some snacks and a couple of bottles of wine for dinner service – as most of the others had done on previous nights.
I got back to the domaine around 12:30pm just in time for lunch which was being enjoyed by some of the coupers. It was coleslaw; beef bourguignon; cheese and crème brûlée. I didn’t opt for coffee this time as I was off and felt I didn’t need any extra substances in my body! After lunch I read a bit of the book and dozed off – which was lovely. I got up and went for a long (90 minute) walk around 3:30pm around the mountains and through the forest, which was just magical.
Day nine – 12 hours again 08/09/13
I made my way to the cuverie for 8am. I did much the same as I did on my first day there – taking testers of each barrel followed by mixing the grape juice from the bottom to the top and then cleaning the tools. It was quite a good morning as I got to do a lot more on my own.
Lunch was quiche; lamb stew with pasta; cheese and a yoghurt for dessert. Following on from lunch we made our way back to the cuverie for 2pm to be greeted by a full team of workers which was a nice sight! I went back to crushing (pressing) the grapes.
I didn’t bother changing before dinner, which was soup; some form of pork with little potato cubes; cheese (of which I tried the St. Moret and it wasn’t bad!) and a nice tarte au pomme. I also presented the two bottles of wine I bought yesterday which seemed to go down a treat. The next day was probably going to be a long one and rumoured that the cutting would stop tomorrow afternoon – which would be a good thing!
Day ten – the picking ends 09/10/13
There was a great vibe about the place, as everyone knew it was going to be their last time on the vineyards cutting grapes. I got to the cuverie for 8am.
The work started off the same as yesterday which included testing, pressing and mixing the grapes in the barrels. The white grapes were coming in but the red had finished since yesterday so the main cuverie was a bit more quiet than it had been in previous days. We worked until after 12pm when we broke for lunch which was tomato and tuna salad; chicken with peas; cheese; chocolate mousse and a plate of biscuits which was a nice treat!
After lunch we went back to doing much the same work – and basic cleaning. There was much more of a relaxed feel about the place once the final round of white grapes came in around 3pm. Things very quickly started to quiet down and it was just the cleaning of the maison and the few barrels of wine left to press and mix left to do. We finished up around 6pm.
Dinner was served at 8pm to a not so full house. We ate onion soup with croutons and cheese; a mushroom omlette; cheese and a nice tart au citron which went down very well with a nice change with a German Riesling.
Day eleven – no more grapes 10/10/13
Whilst the cutting for Louis Latour had ended, there were still some neighbouring vines that needed to be picked so some of our cutting team had volunteered to help out.
The work was the same as yesterday again most of which I was able to do without asking anyone for help which was quite cool. There were no more grapes to be sorted so everyone was either doing something in the cuverie or cleaning down the equipment. We broke for lunch shortly after 12pm which was ham; fish and cauliflower; cheese and donuts with coffee. We made our way back for 1:30pm for more cleaning and pressing etc. I added my first portion of sugar to some wine.
We ate at 8pm again and it was soup; steak haché with spaghetti; cheese and a fruit salad. There were a couple of nice bottles of wine on the go thanks to the left-overs from an earlier tasting. Noticeably much colder today though, and it rained too.
Day twelve – comes to an end 11/10/13
I was quite happy about the time coming to an end as it had been a very tough week or so however it was also sad at the same time as I was going to say goodbye to the great people I had met. I was also glad to be stopping the habit of four-course lunch and dinners everyday!
I began in the cuverie by emptying the branches and skins from the remains of the white grapes which would then be used as compost for the vineyards. I then did some pressing of the red wines. We all had a break which was a nice glass of Puligny Montrachet 2011. After that we did some more pressing but then the bad news came – we had to clean out a lot of big boxes which had not been done over the week, leaving them in dry muck which proved very difficult to clean even with a power-hose! We started at that then broke for lunch at 12pm. A very wet me enjoyed some tuna salad; pork and pasta; cheese and an almond tart for lunch followed by coffee which was nice.
We made our way back to the cuverie for 1:30pm. The afternoon consisted only of cleaning the remainder of the boxes and me literally scrubbing them after they were power-hosed down.
For dinner we had a delicious creamy cauliflower soup; cordon blue with green beans; cheese and a sugar coated donut. One of the guys had baked two apple tarts served with ice-cream which also went down well. After dinner went to Pernard only to find out when we got there that the place we wanted to go to was closed – on a Friday night! So we went back to the domain and I went to bed after saying my goodbyes and handing out some business cards.
Day thirteen – the early departure 12/10/13
I rose around 7:30am to shower, have a quick breakfast and take some pictures of the most beautiful morning I had witnessed since in Beaune – fog was looming over the valleys and the sun was just rising. I will surely miss the place. I was very kindly dropped to the station came at 8:30am for my onward journey to Paris and then London.
That’s my summary of the wine harvest! It’s definitely something worth doing if you have an interest in winemaking. There’s just so much more to it than what’s written on the label and there’s one thing for sure; I will never ever look at a bottle of Burgundy (especially the 2013 Louis Latour vintage) in the same way I used to!
They put so much passion and energy into every step of the process, making it all the more intriguing. Perhaps the closest similarity to what we do in Ireland would be the bailing of turf on the bog each year – just with the whole aspect of the community and neighbours working together. I also learned that we get so caught up in our everyday lives with online interaction and sometimes forget the important, so simple things, in life!