Grape picking begins in Champagne amid growing shortage of workers

Vignerons are turning to workers from abroad due to a lack of local pickers

Four pickers per hectare are needed to work the fields during the Champagne harvest
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The Champagne harvest requires up to 120,000 people to work the fields for two weeks of intensive work, but vignerons are struggling to find the numbers.

The harvest is a massive undertaking across 319 communes, all following the schedule set by the Comité Champagne, which safeguards the character and identity of Champagne.

The Comité studies the growth and the sugar content of the grapes to determine when the harvest should begin.

This year, it is on September 5, that the 120,000 workers can start picking grapes and filling their baskets. They must do this with little pause and a feverish intensity for two weeks if the precious grapes are not to spoil.

However, vignerons from all over France have been struggling to find the vast number of pickers they require.

“It’s a recurring problem,” said Cédric Carcenac, from Vins de Gaillac in the south west, “and this year it’s a little bit harder.”

Even students, who return to University on September 18, are not coming in the numbers they did previously.

“I’ve been in this business for 14 years,” Teddy Mathieu, head of harvest company PTV told France 3. “Maybe it’s just not as convivial as it used to be, but the low pay doesn’t help.”

“Before, we would always work with teams from the local area, but for the last two years we have worked exclusively with people from eastern Europe.”

Fortunately for the vignerons, what is low pay in France is still good pay in Romania, where the minimum hourly wage is only €3.70.

At Domaine Gérard Lassaigne there are 29 Romanian pickers working under the resurgent heatwave.

“It’s very hot but we have to keep working through it,” said Mario from Romania on France 3. “Compared with last year, this time there are a lot more grapes to pick."

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It is unknown how many Romanians are working as pickers in the Champagne region, although in 2020 there were an estimated 100,000 working as seasonal labourers in France.

“There have always been lots of migrant workers,” says Marie-Claire, from Epernay, who picked grapes from the age of 14 in the 1960s.

“In the 1990s it was gypsies who would come for the harvest. The vignerons used to love them because they brought their own food and didn’t need feeding!”

Champagne vignerons typically offer room and board, and Champagne too, to seasonal pickers.

“The pay was never good,” says Marie-Claire, “but there was always plenty of food and wine.

“At the end of the harvest each vigneron would throw a party with lots of champagne.

“We used to have a lot of fun, but the harvest became more professional over the years.”

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