Saturday, September 23, 2006

from Vacquieres, France: from field to bucket or bin

Saturday Morning

Quickly, before the rain comes. Jean-Benoit has the car waiting. It isn’t exactly dark still, but it feels early.

I have helped myself to a real Languedoc morning coffee – from a large cereal-size bowl, as is the custom, along with a fresh baguette (how could it be otherwise? it is part of the table setting) and I am sitting down to the computer, wondering if I could write about a harvest if I never witness a single grape being picked this entire week-end long.

France Sep 06 041

But the rain stubbornly refuses to fall.

The clouds, they are like cotton balls, wavy, I have never seen them like that, Isabelle remarks as we stare at the rapidly moving formations. I can see why they’re saying that when the rains come down, they’ll drench Languedoc good and solid. The sky looks like at any minute it will swallow you, your village and your entire field of grapes. Waves of clouds, waves of vines.

France Sep 06 176

Jean-Benoit and I drive out into a field, bordered by trees, where he has tentatively set a picking truck to work. Should I continue? – shouts the driver. Can't blame him. I'd be tempted to run for cover if it were me out there, in the field, truck or no truck. Still, the drops are hanging back...

France Sep 06 070

Go on, go on! Jean-Benoit turns to me and says, I got up early this morning, looked outside and noticed it wasn’t raining yet. Maybe we can get something done. But I told most of the team not to come in.

The driver works his way slowly. The grapes fall in, efficiently, until the bin is full.

A machine does the job well, but only if all the grapes are mature and good and the vines aren’t too old.
And I suppose you don’t get neighbors to come in and stomp with feet to get the juice out anymore?

Jean-Benoit smiles, not knowing that indeed, I have been asked if, when in France, I will stomp up a storm, dirty feet and all. Seems like not something that the European Union would possibly tolerate, but still, we in the States expect a certain degree of quaintness from those European types, no?

These days, no feet touch the grapes, but tomorrow the two villages – ours and Corconne are having a race in the fields. It’s called La FoulĂ©e des Vendanges, after the stompers of the past.

We visit a neighbor’s field – he has taken the chance and sent out a handful of pickers. I watch, take photos, answer questions. Though explaining Ocean to pickers whose language is neither English nor French (they are Moroccan) is a challenge.

France Sep 06 126

France Sep 06 109

France Sep 06 146

This particular vineyard is a father and son operation. The son is assisting dad. Soon, the dad will be assisting the son. It’s how it works here, I’m told.

France Sep 06 119

The sky is still holding it in. Jean-Benoit and I drive toward his own fields of aging vines. I have always loved these vieille vignes best. In contrast to the tall vines that climb high and enjoy the air and the sun and the movement of a gentle wind, these older guys are bunched together in communities of clusters, all tightly held against a thick and beautifully twisted trunk.

France Sep 06 199

A vintner knows what to taste for. We’ll be picking these soon.

France Sep 06 188

In another field belonging to the Chateau de Lascaux, the tall Mouverdre grapes are also almost ready.

France Sep 06 342
Jean-Benoit surveys the vines...

Another day and they will be perfect. Their skin holds so much flavor even now!

What a difference a day makes. To a vintner. To me, the taste is fantastic as we speak. I’d have you picking while the going’s good. That’s why I am left to take pictures and not bottle wine. I’d probably bottle it when it is still grape juice.

France Sep 06 325
...he samples, eyes each bunch critically, nods his head.

France Sep 06 341
fall colors are showing up around the edges

My taste buds are about to undergo some training. That’s forthcoming. Come back in a few hours. I need to pause for a dejeuner en famille. Garlic roasted meat with crusty potatoes, salad, cheese and the very excellent red Chateau de Lascaux, Noble Pierre 2002. Oh, and flan, rhubarb compote and almond cakes for dessert.

France Sep 06 230

from Vacquieres, France: the equinox and the harvest

Friday Evening

The drive to the village of my hosts takes me past vineyards and mixed forests. It’s getting dark, but I can’t tell if it’s the clouds or the time of day.

France Sep 06 003

It’s the same each year. On the days surrounding the equinox, the weather becomes strange. Unusual. Forceful. Jean-Benoit speaks from experience.

It did not strike me to avoid the equinox on my trip here. I aimed for the middle of the harvest. But the weather has taken charge. The gendarme warns the vintners that these are not going to be just rains. These are going to be RAINS.

On this evening of my arrival, I sit at the kitchen table with the proprietors of Chateau de Lascaux -- Jean-Benoit, Isabelle and their three teen daughters, eating the fish tarts, braised celery, salad and cheeses. Stewed peaches, vanilla ice cream and almond cookies finish off the meal.

France Sep 06 032

A Chateau de Lascaux white is uncorked. I hear myself trying to explain what tort law is to the French – a challenge, even without the forty-eight hours of no sleep and travel fatigue.

All this talk of personal injury… I’m resisting the impulse to crawl under the table and check on my own foot. I had dropped a suitcase on it while trying to maneuver it down from the rack on the train. I wonder if the shoe will fit around it the next day. I wonder what Jean-Benoit will think if I traipse through the vineyards barefoot in the rain.

Mostly, I listen and eat and take in the huge Languedoc kitchen with the old fireplace, the copper pots, the wooden table.

France Sep 06 031

France Sep 06 220

Chateau de Lascaux is an old winery. Jean-Benoit’s father was a vintner and so was his grandfather. I ask if the daughters are interested in winemaking. Jean-Benoit shrugs and says “we’ll see.” Daughters can be so unpredictable.

The homestead and the caves are right off the main square of Vacquieres – a village of about 300, just north of Montpellier. The house literally touches the church walls. It is an old place, with winding corridors and large rooms, old stone walls and tiled roofs.

France Sep 06 026

The night is perfectly quiet. Normally, white wine harvest begins at 4 am and ends by midmorning. But that’s over and done with. And the predicted rains are putting the remaining harvest on hold. The equinox rains. How will they effect my week-end here? Check in later, I’ll have an update.