Thursday, August 20, 2009

French Village Life at Wine Harvest, 1879

This edited excerpt from "Facts About Champagne and Other Sparkling Wines", by Henry Vizetelly, 1879, is very descriptive of French village life during a wine harvest in the latter part of the 19th century.

With the exception of certain famous vineyards of the Rhône, the vinelands of the Champagne may, perhaps, be classed among the most picturesque of the more notable vine districts of France. Between Paris and Epernay even, the banks of the Marne present a series of scenes of quiet beauty. The undulating ground is everywhere cultivated like a garden. Handsome châteaux and charming country houses peep out from amid luxuriant foliage. Picturesque antiquated villages line the river’s bank or climb the hill sides, and after leaving La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, the cradle of the Condés, all the more favoured situations commence to be covered with vines.

The pleasantest season of the year to visit the Champagne is certainly during the vintage. When this is about to commence, the vintagers—some of whom come from Sainte Menehould, forty miles distant, while others hail from as far as Lorraine—are summoned at daybreak by beat of drum in the market-places of the villages adjacent to the vineyards, and then and there a price is made for the day’s labour. This is generally either a franc and a half, with food consisting of three meals, or two francs and a half without food, children being paid a franc and a half. The rate of wage satisfactorily arranged, the gangs start off to the vineyards, headed by their overseers.

In these ordinarily quiet little villages the majority of the inhabitants were afoot, the feeble feminine half with the juveniles threading their way through the rows of vines half-way up the mountain, basket on arm, while the sturdy masculine portion were mostly passing to and fro between the press-houses and the wine-shops. Carts piled up with baskets, or crowded with peasants from a distance on their way to the vineyards, jostled the low railway trucks laden with bran-new casks, and the somewhat rickety cabriolets of the agents of the big champagne houses, reduced to clinch their final bargain for a hundred or more pièces of the peerless wine of Ay, beside the reeking wine-press.

The men are mostly in blue blouses, and the women in closely-fitting neat white caps, or wearing old-fashioned unbleached straw-bonnets of the contemned coal-scuttle type. They detach the grapes with scissors or hooked knives, technically termed “serpettes,” and in some vineyards proceed to remove all damaged, decayed, or unripe fruit from the bunches before placing them in the baskets hanging on their arms, the contents of which are from time to time emptied into a larger basket resembling a deep clothes-basket in shape, numbers of these being dispersed about the vineyard for the purpose, and invariably in the shade. When filled they are carried by a couple of men to the roadside, along which dwarf stones carved with initials, and indicating the boundaries of the respective properties, are encountered every eight or ten yards, into such narrow strips are the vineyards divided. Large carts with railed open sides are continually passing backwards and forwards to pick these baskets up, and when one of them has secured its load it is driven slowly—in order that the grapes may not be shaken—to the neighbouring pressoir, so extreme is the care observed throughout every stage of the process of champagne manufacture.

In many of the vineyards the grapes are inspected in bulk instead of in detail before being sent to the wine-press. The hand-baskets, when filled, are all brought to a particular spot, where their contents are minutely examined by some half-dozen men and women, who pluck off all the bruised, rotten, and unripe berries, and fling them aside into a separate basket. In one vineyard we came upon a party of girls, congregated round a wicker sieve perched on the top of a large tub by the roadside, who were busy sorting the grapes, pruning away the diseased stalks, and picking off all the doubtful berries, and letting the latter fall through the interstices of the sieve, the sound fruit being deposited in large baskets standing by their side, which, as soon as filled, were conveyed to the pressoir.