It’s harvest time, for grapes that is. The grape harvest (vendange) in France can start as early as August and finish as late as the end of October depending on how ripe the grapes are and which region they’re in. During just under three months, a frenzy of activity takes place in the 750,000 hectares of vineyards in France. And before we know it, this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau will be uncorked.
In this post we delve into the history and ceremony of grape harvesting in France. Plus list some of the best wine harvest festivals taking place throughout the wine-growing regions in autumn.
A brief history of wine in France
With almost 3,000 different types of wine grown in vineyards throughout the country, France is one of the leading nations for fine wines, champagnes and liqueurs. And the French have certainly had time to learn a thing or two about wine production since the Romans were the first to grow vines for wine in France, probably as early as the 6th century BC.
After the decline of the Roman empire and the rise of Catholicism, wine in France grew in importance. Medieval religious orders began to hold a strong influence over the production of wine and perfected techniques to create the perfect taste. In the Middle Ages, the region of Bordeaux with its handy seaports became the wine capital of the world and was the purveyor of wines to most of Europe’s monarchs.
Other wine-producing regions then joined Bordeaux in the country’s huge output. Despite a rollercoaster of climatic, economic and natural ups and downs over the years, France remains the global leader of wine exports. Even within the very varied world of wine with huge competition from Spain and Italy as well as from the new world wine producing destinations of Australia, New Zealand and California, France is considered the leader of the pack and a benchmark for the world wine industry.
The wine harvest and grape picking in France
Grape harvest dates
The grape harvest counts as the highlight of the wine producing year. The cutting of the carefully nurtured fruit marks the end to a year of hard work. Actual dates for the harvest, however, depend on the area and the weather conditions during the previous spring and summer.
In the summer, local wine experts carefully examine the grapes 100 days after the vine flowered. Depending on the size and appearance of the grape, they set a date for the harvest. It’s then up to the local council to give authorisation to halt the grape-picking ban that is in place during the rest of the year.
In the hottest parts of France such as Corsica, the Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence, the grape harvest generally starts at the end of August. Beaujolais and the southern Vallée du Rhône quickly follow suit. By the middle of September, the rest of the Vallée du Rhône, Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Loire Valley start their grape harvest. Alsace and Champagne generally join the grape picking at the end of September leaving Charentes, Cognac and Lorraine for the beginning of October.
But in practice, a lot depends on the weather conditions. This year, 2017, vineyards in France basked in a heatwave in the summer. The hot and dry conditions brought the grape harvest forward and Champagne began picking grapes on 25 August with Beaujolais just a few days later.
However, severe frost in April and general lack of rain have reduced the 2017 grape crop. Some experts are predicting the smallest since 1945. But the summer heat helped to keep pests and diseases from the vines, improving grape quality. This points to the possibility of an exceptional year for French wine even if there will be less of it. Let the battle for the best commence!
Pick your own grapes
Nowadays, sophisticated machines do a fair amount of the picking, but the vineyards producing grands crus (the highest quality French wine) still harvest by hand. Cutting the thousands (and thousands) of kilos of grapes from the vines requires lots of extra hands and every year armies of seasonal workers descend on vineyards to take part. You can choose to pick the grapes (coupeur) or carry the baskets (porteur). The 1 to 2-week contracts involve back-breaking work so you need to be reasonably fit.
When to pick wine grapes
There’s an art to deciding when a grapevine is ready to be picked. A few days too early or too late can make a difference to the end result. Unsurprisingly, taste is the best way to measure if a grapevine is ready to be picked. Grapes should be sweet in taste and show no sign of becoming shrivelled, which happens when they begin to overdevelop. Grapes should also look colourful and plump.
Once the decision has been made to pick the grapes, the harvest needs to happen quickly. Grapes keep best in the cool so picking is best done in the very early morning or, if it’s hot during the day, at night. Once off the vine, they should be taken as quickly as possible to the grape presses or kept in a cool place.
Grape picking festivals
France holds a number of festivals to mark the beginning of the wine harvest. Some have been going for decades while others are more recent additions to the French wine calendar. But they all share their appeal to both locals and tourists in droves. Here’s our round-up of the best:
Festivini Festival of Food and Wine in Saumur on the Loire heralds the start of the grape harvest at the beginning of September with 10 days of celebrating the best of the area’s wine and food. Concerts, vineyard tours and river cruises take place daily, although the highlight of the festival is the pairing menu served every evening in participating restaurants.
The Grape Harvest Proclamation in Saint Emilion (Ban des Vendanges de la Jurade de Saint Emilion) takes place in mid-September in one of the most hallowed spots for wine in France. The village of Saint Emilion, in the Bordeaux region, not only produces some of the best French wines but holds the seat of the area’s oldest wine guild, founded in 1199. A solemn parade of local wine producers and the priest make their way through the village to declare the harvest season open.
The Wine Pressing Festival (Fête de la Pressé) takes place during the third weekend of September in the village of Chenôve in the Côte d’Or region of Burgundy. Highlights include watching the traditional grape pressing in the Dukes of Burgundy’s ancestral machines and then trying the bourru juice that flows from the first pressing.
The Montmartre Grape Harvest Festival (Fête Des Vendanges) probably counts as the most famous wine harvest festival. The small hilltop neighbourhood in Paris has been growing vines for centuries and the celebration of the annual grape picking is one of the most popular events in France. Now in its 84th year, the festival takes place in mid-October and honours the wine of the Clos Montmartre vineyard through exhibitions, concerts, parades, and of course, wine tastings.
Banyuls sur Mer Grape Harvest Festival in the very south-west of France in the Languedoc-Roussillon region celebrates its wine harvest in mid-October too. The week-long celebrations include seaside wine tastings and barbecues, and concerts that culminate when the grape harvest is brought into the village by boats.
The Fete du Vin Bourru in Burgundy is also hugely popular and takes place from 21-22 October. This celebration allows visitors to try the newly fermented wine from local vineyards, based in this fiercely passionate wine region. Take a picnic in the vines, enjoy a concert in the winery, or tickle your tastebuds with samples straight from the cellar.
And no list of wine festivals in France would be complete without the Nouveau Beaujolais Festival (Fête du Beaujolais Nouveau), a national event. At midnight on the third Thursday in November, the first bottles of the year’s new wine are uncorked to the cheer of “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” All of France celebrates the uncorking but the heart of festivities happens in the village of Beaujeu itself where wine tastings go hand in hand with vineyard visits, torchlight parades and fireworks.
Your very own French wine festival
You don’t have to wait till the autumn to celebrate French wines. All our hotel barge cruises offer the very best of French wines on board. And many give you the chance to visit wine cellars and vineyards – some not open to the general public – in the main wine producing regions during your cruise. All you have to do is pick your date!
PS: Please be aware that September and October are not the best months to choose for wine tours and tastings – they are actually too busy getting the harvest in to entertain visitors.
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