Vendange: What you really sign up for when you agree to help with the French wine harvest

Every autumn across France, thousands of workers help harvest the grapes to make another wine vintage. But what sounds like a pleasant day out is actually back-breaking labour, as Patricia Feinberg Stoner found out.

Vendange: What you really sign up for when you agree to help with the French wine harvest
The wine harvest in 1945. Things have moved on a little since. Photo: AFP

Every September and October, as the welcome cool weather finally returns to the Languedoc, the fields are suddenly black with industriously bent backs and clanking machinery, the roads busy with pick-up trucks with their tottering loads of heady-smelling, faintly rotting grapes on their way to the cave co-operative.

Every village has its fête to celebrate the harvest, usually with music and a barbecue, sometimes with fireworks.

We were, therefore, well accustomed to the spectacle and celebration of the vendange (the French wine harvest) but we had never actually participated, until the day that our friend and neighbour Antoine, who had a couple of tiny vineyards up in the hills, hinted that he could do with some vendangeurs (grape pickers) for a day or two’s work.

READ ALSO All you need to know about France’s wine harvest

Modern workers harvest the grapes. Photo: AFP

The appointed day dawned very black, but that was because we were up and out of bed by 5.30am – an unprecedented hour for us.  

At eight on the dot we were up at the mazet, the little shepherd’s hut in Antoine’s vineyards.  

We were far from the last to arrive. The rest of the merry gang – we were nine in all – straggled in at intervals during the morning.  

After a day of picking, I understood why they – cannier by far than us innocents – had chosen to start later.

We were assigned our tasks and sent off with secateurs, two to a row to strip each side with maximum efficiency.  

Working opposite your other half, I discovered, is the best option. There’s an element of ‘I’ll reach that one for you’ and ‘Mind your fingers’ and ‘Let me carry that heavy bucket.’ Working opposite the patron is the worst option. He picks tetchily and fast, leaving you far behind as you struggle with a recalcitrant bunch.

Then it was breakfast time. Sadly, there were no rustic benches, no long, rough-hewn table spread with a checked cloth under the trees by smiling apple- cheeked old ladies. Instead it was a listing picnic table and several rather dubious folding chairs.

But there were croissants and fougasse (a local bread), cheese and saucisson and pâté, tea and coffee, chilled water and fruit juice – even beer and wine for those who could face it at 10am.  

And the sun smiled down and the breeze cooled us and the view over the valley was glorious and we realised that vendange really is like every cliché you have ever read or seen in a movie.

I have to admit, though, that as the day wore on my mind was less on pastoral idyll than on screaming muscles. Bend, crouch, snip, kneel, bend, snip, lift – the person who invented the expression ‘backbreaking’ knew what he was talking about.  

But of course it’s all worth it for the wine

But every now and again the evocative shout of ‘Seau!’ rang out, as someone filled their bucket and needed an empty one.  

Every now and again a clandestine grape found its way into your mouth (don’t tell Antoine). Every now and again you’d look up and catch a rueful grin from your opposite number. It made it all seem worth while.

At last we were done. Twenty-three rows and 2.5 tonnes of merlot grapes – not bad for a small band of largely inexperienced pickers. The patron was happy. The cave seemed to be happy. We were happy. It was over.

The traditional end to the vendange, at least chez Antoine, is the grillade. The chef from the local café appears and, over a fire lit in a circle of stones, produces brochettes and steaks and baked potatoes, with homemade pâté to start and homemade apple pie to finish.  

And, of course, someone had brought along a guitar…

As the wine flowed and the stories got taller, we stretched our weary limbs and reflected fondly on the hot shower to come and a lie-in the next day.

And then it dawned on me.  We hadn’t done the vendange at all. True, our backs were broken, our fingers cut to ribbons, the nails stained purple in perpetuity. True, a tolerant friend had allowed us to bumble round his vineyard for a day, and we had hopefully repaid him for the experience by picking a useful amount of grapes. But that’s not the real vendange.

The real vendange is done, increasingly these days, by machine, or if by hand then by gangs of hardy annuals who arrive for the season and pick doggedly day after day. The men and women who answer ads like the one in our local bar: ‘Grape pickers needed at Roquessels. Three weeks’ work’. Three weeks?  I couldn’t manage three days.

But next year?  Well maybe, just maybe…

This piece is an extract from At Home in the Pays d’Oc – a Tale of Accidental Expatriates by Patricia Feinberg Stoner.  To find out more or to buy a copy, click here.

Member comments

  1. I have 2 hectares of vines around my property in Lorgues in the central Var. For 17 years I used Riviera Radio to announce the start of the vendange and invite everyone to come to pick. They brought their picnic and I provided the wine and they were paid in wine at 2 bottles an hour. Now I rent my vines to my vineyard neighbour.
    Lindsay Phillips

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What changes in France in July 2022

Summer's here and the time is right for national celebrations, traffic jams, strikes, Paris beaches, and ... changing the rules for new boilers.

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer holidays

The holiday season in France officially begins on Thursday, July 7th, as this is the date when school’s out for the summer. The weekend immediately after the end of the school year is expected to be a busy one on the roads and the railways as families start heading off on vacation.

READ ALSO 8 things to know about driving in France this summer


But it wouldn’t really be summer in France without a few strikes – airport employees at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports will walk out on July 1st, while SNCF rail staff will strike on July 6th. Meanwhile Ryanair employees at Paris, Marseille and Toulouse airports will strike on yet-to-be-confirmed dates in July.

READ ALSO How strikes and staff shortages will affect summer in France

Parliamentary fireworks?

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne will present the government’s new programme in parliament on July 5th – this is expected to be a tricky day for the Macron government, not only does it not have the parliamentary majority that it needs to pass legislation like the new package of financial aid to help householders deal with the cost-of-living crisis, but opposition parties have indicated that they will table a motion of no confidence against Borne.

Parliament usually breaks for the summer at the end of July, but a special extended session to allow legislation to be passed means that MPs won’t get to go on holiday until at least August 9th. 

Fête nationale

July 14th is a public holiday in France, commemorating the storming of the Bastille which was the symbolic start of the French Revolution. As usual, towns and cities will host parades and fireworks – with the biggest military parade taking place on the Champs-Elysées in Paris – and many stores will remain closed.

As the national holiday falls on a Thursday this year, many French workers will take the opportunity to faire le pont.

Festival season really kicks in

You know summer’s here when France gets festival fever, with events in towns and cities across the country. You can find our pick of the summer celebrations here.

Paris Plages

The capital’s popular urban beaches return on July 9th on the banks of the Seine and beside the Bassin de la Villette in northern Paris, bringing taste of the seaside to the capital with swimming spots, desk chairs, beach games and entertainment.  

Summer sales end 

Summer sales across most of the country end on July 19th – unless you live in Alpes-Maritimes, when they run from July 6th to August 2nd, or the island of Corsica (July 13th to August 9th).

Tour de France

The Tour de France cycle race sets off on July 1st from Copenhagen and finishes up on the Champs-Elysée in Paris on July 24th.

New boilers

From July 1st, 2022, new equipment installed for heating or hot water in residential or professional buildings, must comply with a greenhouse gas emissions ceiling of 300 gCO2eq/KWh PCI. 

That’s a technical way of saying oil or coal-fired boilers can no longer be installed. Nor can any other type of boiler that exceeds the ceiling.

As per a decree published in the Journal Officiel in January, existing appliances can continue to be used, maintained and repaired, but financial aid of up to €11,000 is planned to encourage their replacement. 

Bike helmets

New standards for motorbike helmets come into effect from July 1st. Riders do not need to change their current helmets, but the “ECE 22.05” standard can no longer be issued – and all helmets sold must adhere to a new, more stringent “ECE 22.06” standards from July 2024

New cars

From July 6th new car models must be equipped with a black box that record driving parameters such as speed, acceleration or braking phases, wearing (or not) of a seat belt, indicator use, the force of the collision or engine speed, in case of accidents.

New cars II

From July 1st, the ecological bonus for anyone who buys an electric vehicle drops by €1,000, while rechargeable hybrids will be excluded from the aid system, “which will be reserved for electric vehicles whose CO2 emission rate is less than or equal to 20g/km”.

What’s in a name?

Historically, the French have been quite restrictive on the use of family names – remember the concern over the use of birth names on Covid vaccine documents? – but it becomes easier for an adult to choose to bear the name of his mother, his father, or both by a simple declaration to the civil status. All you have to do is declare your choice by form at the town hall of your home or place of birth.

Eco loans

In concert with the new boiler rules, a zero-interest loan of up to €30,000 to finance energy-saving renovations can be combined with MaPrimeRénov’, a subsidy for financing the same work, under certain conditions, from July 1st.

Rent rules

Non-professional private landlords advertising properties for rent must, from July 1st, include specific information about the property on the ad, including the size of the property in square metres, the area of town in which the property is in, the monthly rent and any supplements, whether the property is in a rent-control area, and the security deposit required. Further information, including the full list of requirements for any ad, is available here.

Perfume ban

More perfumes are to be added to a banned list for products used by children, such as soap-making kits, cosmetic sets, shampoos, or sweet-making games, or toys that have an aroma.

Atranol, chloroatranol (extracts of oak moss containing tannins), and methyl carbonate heptin, which smells like violets, will be banned from July 5th, because of their possible allergenic effects.

Furthermore, 71 new allergenic fragrances – including camphor, menthol, vanilin, eucalyptus spp. leaf oil, rose flower oil, lavendula officinalis, turpentine – will be added to the list of ingredients that must be clearly indicated on a toy or on an attached label.

Ticket resto limits

The increased ticket resto limit ended on June 30th, so from July 1st employees who receive the restaurant vouchers will once again be limited to spending €19 per day in restaurants, cafés and bars. The limit was increased to €38 during the pandemic, when workers were working from home.