This is an extract from Salt & Old Vines: True Tales of Winemaking in the Roussillon (2014, Unbound) by Richard W H Bray. Here Bray talks about just what’s involved in getting grapes off the vine—it’s not easy. Salt & Old Vines won the Gourmand UK award for Best French Wine Book.
I avoid picking grapes at every opportunity. I’m not good at it and seem incapable of improving. So I try to avoid it. But sometimes I can’t. You do what you’re told at vintage, and sometimes you’re told to pick grapes.
We meet in the morning, in a parking lot above Collioure, on the roundabout by the cemetery. Already, pastel pinks and blues spread amongst the twilight grey sky. An older Audi pulls up and from it a tall, white-haired man with wire specs and a battered white polo shirt emerges. His clothes hang loose and his hair is thinning but still mane-like. Andy introduces us and his handshake is firm. His name is Yves, he’s a retired journalist who owns some vines, though not the ones we’re picking today.
Philippe arrives with the truck and we follow him up to Le Rimbau, the high hills behind the town. The valleys form natural amphitheatres; terraced with vines, criss-crossed with lanes, paths, roads and dry-stone gutters. Cork oak forests border the vines giving home to countless wild boar.
We park at the top of the Catala vineyard and the rest of the pickers arrive. Pickers come in all shapes and sizes. Some are Gallic caricatures: thin, goateed and with a rolled cigarette hanging permanently from the corner of their mouths. One year, there was a South Pacific rugby player; mountainous, earning extra cash between weekly matches. Some work in the vines all year round, others are vendangeurs, here just for the season. They live on campsites or in cheap flats, drink wine, smoke dope and, hopefully, work hard.
To the uninitiated it can be a tricky business. It’s very easy to slice a finger and not realise it until you see the blood falling on the schist.
Everyone grabs a bucket and a pair of secateurs. The vineyard is cone-shaped, wide at the top and then tapering down to a narrow point at the bottom of the hill. It faces south/south-east, getting as much sun as possible. The upper half is properly terraced with drywall, while the lower plantings sit untamed on the slope. The vines are Grenache Gris, and their bunches are ripe and dark. Some of the vines have been shaped by the wind and lean awkwardly away from the source of the gales.
Philippe tells me not to pick anything ridden with rot, while Andy warns me away from ‘second set’. Second set are bunches that develop later and higher up the vine. They look perfect; tiny bunches that rarely bear any blemishes of the season. They’re easier to find and to pick and never have any bugs crawling through them. They appear as an idealised aesthetic concept of a bunch of wine grapes. So of course you can’t pick them. They’re under ripe. It’s the enormous bunches, bursting with ripe fruit and grown so large some need two hands to guide into the bucket, with the odd berry blemish and the occasional smooshed grape, the ones hidden under a thicket of leaves, twisted between two branches of vine, clutched by the small green tendrils of vine creep, whose stems are obscured by the sheer mass of fruit ripened by a summer of the Mediterranean sun, those are the ones that need to be picked. When it’s Grenache of any tint, there’s a whiff of honeysuckle accompanying the bunches as they drop into the bucket.
The slope is steep; precarious, and it gets steeper as we work down the vines. We pick as we descend and as we get further down we reach the rows that cannot be ploughed, even by horse. On either side the underbrush encroaches.
Once we reach the bottom we about-face and pick on ascent. The schist terrain is loose, bordering on unstable. Rocks like shards slip under foot and the pickers’ feet start many a mini avalanche.
Gnarled and knotted, the strong Mediterranean sun bleaches the bark and, were it not for the luminous green of the dinner-plate sized leaves, you would think they were dead.
Old Grenache vines, Noir, Gris or Blanc, begin to look more and more like the wrong side is buried. They twist and tangle, looking like a hydra or the Kracken. Gnarled and knotted, the strong Mediterranean sun bleaches the bark and, were it not for the luminous green of the dinner-plate sized leaves, you would think they were dead. The canopies are large, important to protect the grapes from that beating sun. However, the leaves combined with the labyrinthine branches make picking the bunches somewhat less straightforward than those of those tidy trellised rows that appear in all the pictures. The vines don’t grow tall, they grow out; they spread their tendrils as wide as can be. To the uninitiated it can be a tricky business. You’re snipping blind. Secateurs happen to be very sharp. It’s very easy to slice a finger and not realise it until you see the blood falling on the schist.
The pickers joke and smoke and grumble and make great pace ascending the vineyard. Aside from rolling or lighting their smokes they don’t stop for anything. Once their buckets are full, they empty them into the porteur’s tub.
The porteur’s job is unenviable. Strapped to his back sits a conical white plastic tub that can hold over 50 kilograms of grapes. The tub has curved lips on either side, so that when the porteur empties it, he just tips sideways towards a waiting comporte. He steps precariously from picker to picker, and then up through the rows of vines, back to the trucks and comportes. The mini avalanches that perturb the pickers pose more of a threat to the porteur. You wouldn’t know it to watch him, imperturbable, the shards of schist slipping down the slope beneath his feet. Just a brief pause to collect himself and up he climbs. He’s in constant motion and needs to work even quicker than the pickers. No one wants to wait on the porteur.
As the sun rises higher towards noon, so too do we as we pick vine after vine. The heat creeps up on you as the morning fades. I realise too late that I didn’t drink any water before we left the house and the drums start in my temples. Standing up from each vine thrusts a blade into my head and I need a second or two to get my bearings. Halfway back up the vines I drop a rotten bunch onto the ground and the head picker starts swearing. He chats to Andy and Andy chats to me. I’m dropping too much fruit. Being too picky.
And I learned an important lesson: fruit isn’t perfect, and seeking perfect fruit is a luxury that few wineries can afford. Vineyards are not the fresh produce section of a supermarket. My idea of grapes and the reality was somewhat disjointed. A bunch of healthy grapes with a section suffering from rot? Pull the rotted bit off and keep going.
Suitably chastised, I do keep going, but ever slower. My head is now in constant pain with dehydration and the giggles of the other pickers begin to prey on my confidence. I feel their eyes, and in my imagination my incompetence grows with every bunch that falls into my bucket. In my mind, they laugh at my slowness. In reality, they laugh at my presence. They cannot believe that I am here willingly, on my holiday. The idea that their brutal work is something people would pursue as some sort of perverse recreation is hilarious to them. Understandably so, I suppose.
Richard W H Bray (London, March 2014)
Richard W H Bray is an author and winemaker. His first book, Salt & Old Vines, a memoir of the several vintages worked in the South of France, was released in April 2014 and won the Gourmand UK award for Best French Wine Book. Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, he’s lived in the UK for 26 years but never lost his accent. Salt & Old Vines can be found at Unbound, on Amazon, and at discerning book shops. His next book, a novel, can be preordered here.