Randal Caparoso Wine & Food Advisory
from the Melting Pot of the Pacific

Secrets of Harvests Past
© Randy Caparoso & Mary Ann Hardman

The old, worn wooden trug, with its raggedy leather straps, now hangs idly from a rusty, brown nail, retired from the days when it was used to carry the picked grapes during each vendange, or harvest, in the Burgundy region of France. Although the grape pickers in France no longer use the trug - largely replaced, alas, by the ubiquitous plastic tray - this antique still contains the whispering secrets of harvests past.

What are those sounds? They are the sonorous, ringing church bells awakening the manual laborers, or vendangeurs, before dawn; calling them to another grueling 10-hour day in the vineyard, often starting in ear-stinging cold mornings and finishing in dizzyingly hot afternoons. The trugs strapped to their backs would grow heavier as the day wore on, for they needed to bend below the waist in order to pluck the clusters with their secateurs, or hooked tipped knives, and haul them to the carts waiting to be pulled to press.

The vendangeurs would often practice the tradition of tris, passing through the vineyard several times in succession to find the clusters of optimal quality; in Burgundy, either the gold-tinged Chardonnay grapes or the midnight-black Pinot Noir. The pickers looked for these skin colors, which needed to extend all way to the pedicels, or stems, of each berry. The quality of the harvest would also depend upon their picking bunches free of rot or hard, green pea-like berries, and finding those tasting of the ripe, sweetly scented flavors characteristic of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, rather than the bitter pepper-scratch taste of underripe grapes. If the grapes tasted lean, sharp or bitter, so would the resulting wine. In great years the quality of the wine was known from the start, as soon as the grapes were picked.

In the greatest vineyards many of the harvesters would have come to know each vine almost personally; especially if they worked their sections all year round, doing the pruning in the winter, tilling or fertilizing in the spring, and the leaf trimming or cluster thinning in the summer. There would be a spiritual connection as they let the vines set the rhythm and pace of life, rewarding everyone at the end with wine and reason to celebrate.

Of course, it was the vigneron - the vineyard owner or overseer - who needed to keep in step the most, for all knew that Nature helps those who help themselves. The vigneron, his father and his grandfather before him, were all taught that grape tannins, seeds and even stems need to be "ripe" as opposed to green when picked, and they came to understand the exact way in which skins on properly ripened grapes slip away from the pulp. The greatest wines result from greatest attention to such detail, beginning and ending in the vineyard. Nature may have the last word, but just as much was always dependent upon the practices of the vigneron; be they tres ancienne - the tried-and-true - or the instinctive responses to the vagaries of each vintage.

Many of the centuries-old winemaking traditions were hazardous. Before the advent of modern machinery, freshly picked grapes were gently crushed with bare feet, before the grape juice or "must" was poured into the fermentation vats. This would be followed by the pigeage, or "punching down," of the caps of grape solids rising to the top of the fermenters; a process entailing the strength of men, often naked, who would hold themselves tightly to chains fastened to overhead beams. The workers would then repeatedly plunge themselves into the juice, raising and lowering themselves to stir and aerate the mixture to enhance flavor extraction, and thus ultimate quality. But very few harvests went by without someone suffocating, and then drowning, from the effects of the oxygen-eating carbon dioxide produced by fermentation.

In earlier days the work in the chai, or winery, was physical; customarily precluding women in most parts of France, and not just for that reason. A common superstition was that a woman's presence near the fermentation vats might turn the wines "sour." Yet typical harvests of France's past were truly joyous, happy times for entire families and villages. When the last of the grapes were picked, workers would gather flowers to decorate the horse drawn cart used to transport the grapes to the chai, and make a bouquet for the madam of the vineyard. She would hang the bouquet above the entry to the cave or cellar, where it would stay until the next harvest to bring good luck throughout the year. Often workers would scatter grape leaves on the floor of the caves to encourage the "good spirits" to stay.

This way of life may have been guided by myth and legend, but many of these traditions had their origins in the practicality of cultural, and communal, celebration. The nature of wine, like food, is in itself celebratory. The wife of the vigneron was likely to be very much involved in the vendange by heading up the harvest kitchen as well as providing succor to laborers with gashed fingers, heat exhaustion, or maybe hangovers from a previous night's revelry. Helped by the village women who often worked in the vineyard during the other 11 months of the year, the madam was in charge of providing three and sometimes four meals a day to the hungry pickers and cellarers.

A casse-croute or second breakfast was usually eaten among the vines, while dinners consisted of slow-cooked favorites such as coq au vin, pot-au-feu, or boeuf bourguignon. Although now a grand part of the cuisine la francais, these dishes started off as "leftover" meals; made from what was available, to feed as many as possible as economically as possible. For instance, blanquette de veau - a "white" stew of veal, vegetables and cream - originated as such, and was first noted in cookbooks dating back to 1739. Not to be outdone, the Bordelaise - in Bordeaux, the "other" great growing region of France - liked to grill sausages and steaks over blazing bonfires built from the vine shoots. These bonfires were also the backdrops for dancing and singing following a day's final repast. If life was tough, at least it had its eases.

The more enterprising wives of vignerons kept their recipes in dog-eared, worn notebooks, in which details of harvest conditions were often jotted hastily in the margins beside the lists of ingredients. These tattered notebooks were handed down from one generation to the next, and are often the only surviving records of past harvests.

The time-worn culinary notebooks are just further vestiges of simpler but connected times when matters of soil, grape and wine were considered a priori rather than scientific or technical. Not just a matter of comfort, but of knowing and accepting that the way things are is always for good reason.

It may be amazing, but not surprising, to know that in response to the inevitable industrialization of winemaking around the world, many vintners of today cling to elements of the past. Much of modern, small-batch, artisanal winemaking - entailing practices such as closer vine spacing for feet rather than machines, gentle pressing as opposed to "crushing" of grapes, natural or "wild" yeast as opposed to cultured yeast fermentation, eschewing of filters and fining agents, and minimizing of new oak or stainless steel tank aging - is based upon the older premise that man (or woman) should interfere as little as possible with terroir. That is, what Nature has been known to give naturally, without untoward manipulation, through the soil, the vine, and tried-and-true practices in the winery and cellar.

Although the old wooden trug left hanging in the barn still holds its secrets, it is not to be forgotten. Especially if it makes our wines, and fiery taste for life, that much more delicious!

June 2007

To contact Randy Caparoso, write him at randycaparoso@earthlink.net.

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