Wine Harvest Cruising: France’s Best-Kept Secret

For many visitors to France, a major draw is the country’s centuries-old legacy of winemaking, particularly during the grape harvest months. Our wine harvest cruises through such renowned regions as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Loire Valley and Alsace have long been popular with oenophiles keen on an inside look into the production behind some of the world’s finest vintages.

Though summer may be the peak cruising season for many travellers, the vineyards of France offer up delights and surprises all year round. As the days shorten and the vine leaves turn golden, vintners begin the age-old tradition of harvesting grapes and start the winemaking process anew. If you choose to cruise in the off-peak season in Autumn, you’ll be well-rewarded with a peek into one of France’s most time-honoured traditions.

Burgundy Autumn Vineyards

La Vendange: The Harvest

In France, wine harvest time is known as ‘la vendange’. Because wine grapes ripen at different rates depending on species, la vendange spans about two months – typically from August to October. During this time, the French countryside is bustling with activity as vintners work to haul in the wine harvest. Though the process has been mechanised somewhat in some regions, most vineyards still harvest by hand, hiring temporary, seasonal help during this time to deal with the enormous volume!

But you needn’t get out in the fields and get your hands dirty to enjoy the wine harvest. In many French towns, the wine harvest season is cause for celebration and local festivals take place all across the country.

The Wine Makers at Buzet near the Canal de Garonne

When is the Harvest?

When to decide to pick is decided months in advance, and also almost on the day. It’s part guess work, but also rooted in science. And quite regulated. Come late spring, early summer we await the flowering on the vines. Little clusters of flowers bloom from the new vine shoots, with each tiny flower having the potential to become a grape due to self pollination. It is anticipated that harvest generally will begin 100 days after the first flowers bloom.

As the grapes ripen and mature, they are measured for their sugar content. A refractometer is used each week, then each day as grapes get riper. A graph will show the steady increase in the sugar levels, known as brix. The wine maker is looking for a specific sugar level or brix to harvest at.

The location and its weather play a big part in the ‘when’. To the south in hotter climates grapes are harvested earlier than those in more northern climates. Cooler or wet weather can cause delays as well in when to pick. And sometimes a wine maker may decide to pick later to allow the grapes to ripen even more, garnering higher sugar levels to make a sweeter wine.

Bordeaux Wine Guide Grapes

How They Harvest

It surprises many visitors to France that the vines are so low. Typically at knee height, with the foliage stretching upwards to about waist or chest height only. The grapes growing will be just above the vine, so maybe 2 feet or 1/2 metre off the ground. Consequently, this makes for very physical work when it comes time to pick the grapes.

The majority of France’s grapes are harvested by hand. This allows for better control of quality and less damage to the vine and grapes themselves. The pickers, ladened with buckets, walk up a vine row, cutting the grapes from each vine and putting the bunches in their buckets. These buckets are then lifted and poured into larger buckets, either carried by a porter to a tractor, or taken directly to it by the picker, depending on the size of the vineyard. The grapes are then hauled by the tractor to the winery to begin processing.

Grapes Buckets

Who Harvests

All of France joins in the Vendange. As almost every region has some form of wine making, it’s a sort of right of passage for each young French person to have done at least one harvest. There are no age limits, from the young to the old, all will help if they can. There are the seasoned workers who work all year in the vineyard alongside neighbours and friends. Everyone is asked to participate.

Depending on the size of the vineyard will depend on how many pickers you need. If it’s relatively small, family, friends and those living locally will help out. For the larger wineries, they will start advertising in January and February for workers. People come from all over to join in, sometimes for just a day, sometimes for weeks, some regulars and some trying a harvest for the first time.

Grape Pickers

A Wine Harvest Cruise in Autumn

During the autumn the vineyards are a hive of activity. There are parked vans that brought the pickers. Tractors coming and going, hauling large boxes of grapes to the winery. Teams of pickers moving individually up the rows, bending to cut and then moving on to the next vine.

What takes a year, from pruning in November until the measuring of the sugars in August, all culminates in a short frenetic burst of energy as the grape harvest is brought in. And within hours of being picked, the juice is in the process of being made into wine, ready to bottle or age in oak barrels or other containers.

Domaine Chanson vineyards

Festivals and Celebrations

Since nearly every region of France produces wine, there’s hardly a dull moment in between August and October. One of the season’s most prestigious festivals takes place each September in Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux. Since 1199, this medieval town has held the Jurade de Saint-Emilion, during which local winemakers open their cellars to the public for two days. Similar festivals also take place in the Beaujolais region to welcome the latest Beaujolais Nouveau.

Whether they’re big regional affairs or local celebrations, French wine festivals, called Fête de Vendanges, are an annual rite of Autumn. You can expect to see grape-pressing, taste regional foods, hear local music, and – naturally – drink a wide variety of local wines.

Wine Harvest

Autumn in the vineyards

And if you really need another reason to cruise in France during the Autumn, consider that the off-peak season is more relaxed than the busy summer months. With children back in the classroom, you can expect fewer crowds.

What’s more, Autumn in France boasts bright, warm days and crisp nights, plus a dazzling display of yellow, orange, and red foliage across the countryside. Try Autumn cruising just once and you’ll never look back.

If you’d like to learn more about Harvest Cruising itineraries and possibilities, or you’d like to find out about our current availability, please contact a member of our Cruise Team for a no-obligation chat. If you are unsure of where to start, why not order a brochure to be delivered straight to your door!

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