As the weather turns colder and the days begin to shorten, the time is ripe for France’s annual grape harvests.
With cooler temperatures, fewer tourists, and towns preparing to fête the incoming grape crop, it’s a great time to travel to some of the most famous winemaking destinations in France.
Every year, young people from across the globe join la récolte (harvest). For three precious months these eager travelers cut, select, clean, and even stomp the tons of grapes necessary to make France’s most beloved export.
Generally speaking, the window for the harvest runs from late August to mid October, though it can stretch into November and even the first frost. So ingrained in French culture is the harvesting of wine that the old French calendar designated the period between September and October as vendémiaire (from the term vendange, or grape harvest). However, growing grapes is no summer picnic. There is a wide margin for error within the general range, and harvest dates vary depending on the climate. In hotter weather, fruit matures more quickly and must therefore be picked early to avoid becoming overripe. Multiple other factors determine the length of the harvest season, including temperature, rainfall, cloud cover, and wind. Slight variation can mean the difference between “vin” and “vinaigre.”
As France’s main claim to drinkable fame, wine plays a huge role in French culture. It is therefore unsurprising that harvest time is celebrated! Back in the day, the mayor of town would publicize the harvest start date, opening their doors to laborers arriving to assist with the task of emptying the vines. Meals, wine tastings, and festivals of thanksgiving were part of the yearly ritual. All hoped to reap a strong crop and a bountiful income from the fruits of their labor.
Regions that cultivate sparkling wines, such as Champagne, Alsace, and Bourgogne, still require grapes to be picked by hand using clippers. The day is long: workers spend between 8 and 15 hours picking, moving, and sorting the grapes. Other regions may use mechanical tools, but the triage process still requires the human touch. Working the harvest is a unique experience for an American seeking bucolic France.
For more information on the precise dates and how to work for the season, head to France’s website for agricultural employment opportunities.
If you’re looking to experience the vendanges first-hand, a few regions allow one to work in along the vines for a day, particularly in Alsace. A region that harvests later in the fall, multiple cities along the region’s famous “Route des vins” offer festivals and parades with tastings of both local wine and cuisine.
Similar festivals can be found in Burgundy, with wine tastings and local street fairs in Chablis, Nuits-St-Georges, and most famously, Beaune. Check out November’s main event, “Les Trois Glorieuses de Beaune.”
If provincial life doesn’t suit your traveling style, even Paris has something to offer for this oft-rural celebration. The Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre Grape Harvest Festival is a five-day event celebrating the new grape harvest from a small vineyard within Montmartre. Started in 1934, this rousing party has turned into an annual cultural festival complete with a parade, bands, fireworks, and multiple wine auctions. This year’s event will take place October 5th – 9th.