There is one time of year that every vigneron focuses on all their life - harvest time. Anything can happen in the vineyard up until the moment that the grapes are all safely tucked away in the winery- rain, frost, hail, rot, mildew, bugs (both microscopic and the buzzing flying kinds)... in NZ birds can swoop on any unprotected vines, though in France seemingly this is not an issue - though larger hungry beasts can target the fruit before hunting season starts- wild boars!
As we navigate the narrow roads between vineyards and towns we happen across our first pickers of the season. When the sugars and acids are at just the right balance along with maturity in the grapes it is time to harvest. In Marlborough this is largely mechanised, with custom equipment resembling the lovechild of a tractor and mining equipment rolling between the vines collecting bunches of fruit. Here in Burgundy small armies of manual pickers are dispatched, today a small group has descended onto a plot in Meursault, one of the oldest sites in the region and despite being on almost flat land rather than the coveted slopes this particular block in ‘Les Charmes’ is rated a Premier Cru. The rocky, thin, calcareous soils offering up an ideal terroir for Chardonnay grapes.
The pickers are swift in their work, filling large plastic containers on their backs with the precious cargo. About 15kg worth of grapes is a full load, which they cart back to a waiting wagon beside the road. The workers seem to welcome the interruption to talk with us, and several in jest offer up their secateurs and packs for me to take their place. I feel they are only half joking as it is awfully hard work stooping to collect small bunches barely 30cm off the ground. By the end of the day their hands, knees, and backs will be groaning from the effort... only to roll out the next day to another block coming to peak maturity.
One of the pickers beckons us closer to inspect the fruit, by NZ standards we might consider these grapes slightly under ripe, they are a bright luminous green, rather than the slightly golden colour that Gisborne might prefer. The key here is retaining the freshness of acidity, and retaining a lean minerality in the finished wine. A rare treat he offers up a whole bunch for us to taste. We feel especially privileged seeing as this harvest will be smaller than usual, and the wines from this Cru will sell for anything between $100-1000 per bottle. As we munch away he is surprised to hear we come from New Zealand, he was visiting his friend at a Waiheke winery over Christmas and has fond memories of both NZ and our wines. The world really is one big village sometimes. We leave them to their work, timing is of the essence as rain is forecast in a couple of days, and the concentration of the wine will be higher if they are picked while still under stress from a lack of water.
The next day we go further afield to the town of Autun, less than an hour’s drive from Beaune. We arrive just in time for the beginning of the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the town’s liberation in WW2. A noisy parade of restored military vehicles wind through the city streets including a half-track, jeeps, an ambulance and more, all lead by a military marching band.
The town square hosts numerous dignitaries, and the locals listen to an eloquent speech by the mayor describing the sacrifices made by soldiers and villagers alike, a solemn wreath laying ceremony is accompanied by a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise. There is a large military school in the town so the crowd is bolstered by significant numbers of young cadets, all very dapper in their uniforms as the flag of Free France flies nearby.
Afterwards we walk beside the ancient Roman ramparts of the town, past a makeshift tournament of ‘Boules’ where the normal round balls have been replaced with square wood blocks. When tossed on the old cobbled streets they bounce in random directions and unexpected speeds, levelling any advantage of skill to that of pure chance. It is all in good fun, accompanied by glasses of cheap red wine and loud popular music. We visit one of the town’s museums, with a surprisingly extensive collection of art from the 12th to the 17th century, and fragments of mosaics from Roman times discovered in the town centre.
Tomorrow we must reluctantly move on from Burgundy, though more treasures await us in the Rhone.