I volunteered, last year, to hand harvest pinot noir is Somerset. This is the story of a very unglamorous harvesting experience.
While the larger quantity of grapes is machine harvested, the popular belief is that hand harvesting is required for the production of high-quality wines. There are inexpensive wines such as the Beaujolais Nouveau which requires hand harvesting by law and there are expensive, premium wines which are machine harvested and produced at a great scale.
As manpower for this back-breaking work becomes increasingly expensive and scarce, winemakers have turned to the opposite, they now charge a fee for tourists to come to do the work for free. Sold with photos of handsome models, laughing joyously in front of epic winery scapes and beautiful weather in the south of France, I volunteered, last year, to hand harvest pinot noir is Somerset. This is the story of a very unglamorous harvesting experience.
The alarm goes off at 4 am - even the dog is unimpressed. It’s early October and as I pull the curtain a torrent of rain hits the window. By the time we get to the vineyards, daylight has started to appear and, donning out Barbours and wellies we are briefed on how to use the secateurs and allocated rows. Despite the sideways rain clattering our faces, we all kick off with great enthusiasm. My dog is watching with great curiosity and scoffs the grapes that fall to the floor. Indeed sometimes I would turn around to find him gormandizing the contents of my crate.
After a couple of hours of stooping, kneeling, carrying and drench, tea-time is announced and we all scurry over to the promise of warmth accompanied by jammy dodgers and bourbons. Tea is an Englishman's fuel during winter, but sadly after a short break, tiredness kicks in for most, who can’t be bothered to get back at it. The second plot is suffering heavily from grey rot, so we now have to be selective. All formation order has broken down and half the group is mostly sitting around chatting. But the other half power on with the promise of a boozy feast when we’re finished.
Let’s jump ahead to when we finish and our boozy feast is a few boxes of vegan takeaway and 2 bottles of Muscadet. In the right moment, I love a Muscadet, but after hours in the cold, could have demolished something a bit more warming like a Claret. Standing around, cold and drenched all the way through, the group slowly pitters off as everyone heads home to shower, likely back to bed too.
In conclusion, if you want to do a harvest, steer clear of the UK, go to the south of France, where their good weather and culinary devour will look after you. They may serve you Muscadet, but I hear if you harvest in Champagne, they reward you with Champagne and instead of tea, the fuel is brandy. Now there’s a winter warmer.