300,000 pickers needed for grapes

Smaller but healthier grapes means the vendange starts with the hope of quality but not quantity

24 August 2015

AFTER a very sunny and dry year the vendange grape harvest has started in Burgundy and Beaujolais with growers expecting a lower than average tonnage but better quality.

With 200 hours of sunshine in Beaujolas at the end of July the heatwave kept the grapes smaller but has also helped keep them healthy - without rot or mildew – and Gilles Paris of Inter Beaujolais said the smaller grapes had lower acidity, helping produce quality wine.

Picking in Beaujolais started yesterday with the first of an expected 50,000 vendangeurs heading out into the vines after a short rainstorm on the Sunday that helped freshen the plants.

In all there will be 300,000 pickers on short-term contracts helping bring in the harvest – with many on the Smic minimum pay of €9.61 gross per hour or on piece rates per kilo collected.

Anyone over 16 can apply to pick grapes – even those who are on paid holiday – and there are no social charges to pay on the earnings.

Picking is due to start in Champagne in the second week of September and the demand for pickers there is enormous as the whole job is done by hand. That means 120,000 pickers, or four per hectare, including 100,000 casual workers.

Each month Connexion features artisan wine maker Jonathan Hesford, who runs Domaine Treloar in the Aspres region of Roussillon. Named The Terroirist, his A Year in the Vineyard column shows the work and the decisions involved in making wine.

Here as an example is a column from the end of spring where he tells of seeing the first buds on the vines – and gives valuable pointers on the tell-tale signs of quality wines:

Soil gives tell-tale signs
to the quality of wine

Walking through the vineyards of France at this time of year is very revealing. It’s great to see the buds bursting with the promise of another exciting vintage of wine to come.

However, take a closer look at the soil under the vines and you will learn something else.

In order to make good wines, vines need to struggle a bit. In fertile soils they would produce big bunches of big grapes and lots of foliage. Big grapes make more dilute wines.

Lots of foliage creates shade which limits ripening and creates a perfect environment for fungal diseases to flourish.

Vignerons need to look after their soils. They need to make sure the vine has enough nutrients and water to grow and that there is not too much competition from weeds.

Most conscientious vignerons today believe that allowing wild plants to grow in the vineyard over winter is beneficial. They create organic matter, allow rainwater to be absorbed and maintain the soil structure.

Once spring arrives, vignerons want to limit competition, primarily for water. They can do this in a number of ways. Ploughing is the traditional method. Not only does it kill the weeds, it aerates the soil.

However, it’s difficult to plough under the vines and too much working, especially with a rotivator, will destroy the soil structure, dry it out, kill the beneficial bacteria and cause it to compact.

Other vignerons will try to maintain beneficial plants between the rows. It’s important to not let them grow out of control but regular mowing, removing the “bad” weeds and propagating the good ones is a good way of maintaining organic matter in the vineyard.

It requires a higher level of knowledge, yields will never be high but it is the method that makes the most of the terroir and generally makes the most interesting wines of a region.

Organically certified vineyards are prohibited from using herbicide, but used judiciously, herbicides can be more environmentally friendly than over-ploughing. Their major threat is to fish when washed into streams or lakes before it breaks down naturally in the soil.

But does the vigneron just spray the bad weeds in hard-to-reach areas under the vines or does he blanket-spray the whole row? If all the weeds are prevented by herbicide, there will be no organic matter to feed the soil and the vines’ requirements will need to be replaced by chemical fertilisers. This blitzing and heavy fertiliser use is generally favoured by vignerons who are looking to maximise their yields.

Each of these methods – ploughing, herbicide and cover-crops – can be used in combination.

So if you live in a wine-producing region, next time you take a walk through the vineyards or gaze upon their beauty from the window, have a closer look at the soil. Has it been blitzed by herbicides, rotivated into dust or is it a thriving part of the terroir that will define the wines of your region?

When you buy wine, think of the environmental impact of wines made on the tightest of budgets. Lower-yielding, environmentally-friendly wine may be a little more expensive but will be a more interesting reflection of the terroir which your local caviste will be happy to explain.

To read Jonathan Hesford's A Year in the Vineyard each month, you can find The Connexion at newsagents across France. Use www.findthepressinFrance.com to find your nearest stockist – or click here to download a pdf version now for €3.50.

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