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Published: October 22nd 2008
La Gatte in the morning
and Aleksandra sipping the absurdly strong (but piping hot) coffee.
I'm FINALLY going to write about the harvest! Yay! Aren't you excited?? I know I am. So, over a week ago now, three of my suitemates and I went to Chateau La Gatte, a small Winery just outside Bordeaux. We woke up before the sun rose on a chilly Saturday morning (you know how much effort that takes from me) and hopped onto the bus. Then the tram. Then another tram. Then another bus, Greyhound-like in appearance but less sketchy, and the trip only took 40 minutes. After dozing on the bus in a very Lisa-like fashion (head back, mouth agape) I disembarked with the girls into what appeared to be the middle of beautiful yet rather deserted French countryside. And it was COLD. We power-walked in the general direction of what we hoped was the winery, leaving wispy trails of misty breath behind us. And yes! It was the winery! And there to greet us was an elderly French couple who gave us no indication of where Meghan's friend (who owns the winery) was or what we should be doing, but they did give us coffee (which I despise, but it was hot and I was freezing so I choked
View of the river
From the cabernet sauvignon part of the hill.
it down in several very bitter, very vile, creamless gulps) and warm, delicious hunks of what they called cake salee (literally "salty cake") which was like a biscuitty loaf of bread laced with baked-in ham and cheese. MMM. I ate lots of that. After about 20 minutes of loitering in front of the chateau holding coffee cup hand-warmers and nibbling cake salee, Meghan's friend, a New Yorker named Michael, showed up with a "big" (by French standards) van to shuttle us to the vineyard where others were working. We bounced along sans seatbelts (my head hit the top of the van a couple times) while Michael told us (in rapid-fire New York fashion) all about the winery and his family how they ended up in Bordeaux (it's a long story, so I won't repeat it, though he somehow managed to get it all out in about 6 minutes). We stopped at the top of a little hill to gather some supplies and admire a breath-taking view of the vineyards, the lakes, the river, the chateaux, and the remains of several 17th century windmills, all glowing in the early morning sun. Michael told us that the grapes up here at the
From 1632, I think Michael said. It may have been 1634.
top were cabernet sauvignon and would not be harvested for a few more weeks. We each grabbed a big plastic basket and a pair of clippers and headed down the hill toward the merlot vines a bit farther down.
Down at the merlot vines, several other people were already working. There were many other pickers like us, with baskets and clippers, squatting in the rows and clipping off big bunches up dark purple grapes with sticky, purple fingers. There were also a few men carrying huge plastic buckets on their backs, who we learned were called porteurs, or "carriers". Michael told us which grapes to keep and which to reject. The rejected grapes were to be removed from the vines as well, and left on the ground, since apparently the vine will "get sick" if bad grapes are left on. Once our baskets were piled to capacity we were told to simply yell "PORTEUR!", and one of the bucket-men would come around and kneel so we could dump our grapes into his bucket. Once the porteur has more grapes than he can carry, he walks to a tractor with a big vat on the back, climbs up a ladder
Two chateaux and a porteur
The chateau in the far background is one of the oldest and most prestiguous in the region. I forget the name, unfortunately. You can also see one of the porteurs with his big blue bucket.
leaning against the side, and leans forward so that all of the grapes tumble over his head and into the back of the tractor. It seems like such a primitive and labor intensive process! Apparently they sometimes use picking machines for some of the younger, sturdier vines (and the hand-sort the grapes later, back at the chateau), but some of the vines we were picking from had been around since the 1930s and so were too delicate. Michael told us that the really, really high-class, crazy-expensive wineries only do hand-picking for all of their grapes AND hand-sort them later, sometimes more than once.
So we picked. My hands did get really, really sticky. Michael invited us to sample the grapes as we worked, but to warned us to be careful not to overdo it, since, apparently, "this stuff is worse than prune juice, if you know what I mean." It all seemed very authentic, just the kind of thing I hoped to experience here in France. I felt a little transported back in time, working there between the rows, warmed by the sunlight filtering down through the leaves, listening to men and women chat pleasantly in French all around
Don't they look perfect? MMMerlot!
me. The grapes themselves were incredibly sweet and juicy. And the weather was amazing all day. Yeah, I ruined my once-light-green, now-light-green-and-dark-purple pants beyond saving, but it was totally worth it.
After only 20 minutes of picking, Michael yelled, "Coffee break!!" and everyone dropped their clippers and buckets and headed over to the tractor, where Michael's wife (a French woman) had brought down a bunch of coffee, orange juice, sparkling water, pastries, and more of that amazing cake salee. We jabbered and ate and I took pictures of the neighbors' dogs who were peering at us through the fence. They have five huskies. There was also some other mystery dog milling around among us. No one knew where he came from but everyone stopped their conversations to scratch his ears and feed him bits of cake salee as he trotted happily through the crowd.
We went back to work for maybe another hour and a half. Then, it was lunch time! We headed back to the chateau (Mehgan and Aleksandra and I rode in the back of the van with all of the buckets. Aleksandra, a real city girl, born and raised in Vienna, freaked out every time
overseeing the coffee break
we went over a little bump. It was pretty funny). Once we were back at the winery, we all "washed" our hands in a big bucket of cold hose water (Aleksandra was a bit horrified by this as well) and went around the back to watch a few men run a machine that dumps all of the grapes we collected into another machine that separates the grapes from the stems. The grapes, crushed into a juicy red pulp, flow up a hose into giant metal cylinders, and the stems shoot out the back into a big pile constantly being raked aside by two other men. After maybe 20 minutes, Michael yelled out "Aperitif!!" and everyone herded back into the main courtyard. An aperitif is another wonderful French tradition, were people gather before a meal to have a glass of wine or some other kind of alcohol and some light snacks like nuts or crackers, and socialize a bit. We enjoyed a glass of rose, made right there on the premises (still in unlabeled bottles, even), which was quite good, even though I'm not much of a rose person. While we sipped and mingled, two little girls set the lunch tables,
Riding in the van
among the buckets
which were set up in an elegant picnic style in an old garage and out in the little courtyard (I learned later that one of the girls is Michael's daughter and the other is the daughter of family friends, who we chatted with later. Both girls, not more than 10 years old, are fluent in both French and English).
Lunch was a four-course meal accompanied by a few bottles of cabernet sauvignon (also bottled there at La Gatte), and lots and lots of baguette. Eating is very different here in many ways, but one thing that stands out to me the most is the treatment of bread. First of all, bread is served with every meal, even simple family meals at home. Second, bread often does not go on your plate; instead it sits next to your plate on the table. Touching, even grabbing the whole loaf of bread to tear yourself off a piece is perfectly acceptable; people are not nearly so concerned about germs and being dainty. Bread is a constant part of the meal, and is replenished at every course. Fascinating! Ok, I digress. The first course was chicken noodle soup ladled out of big pots
into each bowl. Everything was personally prepared by one woman, the chateau's chef ("She has a nasty temper but she's amazing cook, so we keep her," says Michael). Next was pot roast (delicious) with big rustic, steaming chunks of carrot, potato, and some kind of light green leafy vegetable (delicious) and some kind of mystery pork substance formed into a loaf and sliced (weird, but delicious). Then came the cheese. I think it was French emmental (looks like swiss but tastes much, much better, sweeter and bit fruity), and brie. And more bread. Then, dessert. They called it creme chocolate, and it looked like really dense chocolate pudding, and it was soooo tasty. Also, some kind of brioche. Then they served coffee, which I abstained from this time. The meal lasted about two and a half hours.
Then, we went to a different plot and spent another hour harvesting Merlot. And then we went back to the chateau, drank some tea, and socialized into the late afternoon. Before Michael drove us back to the tram station (which he insisted on doing; he couldn't let us take the bus back after all of our unpaid hard work! Funny, I didn't
feel so much overworked as content and full of delicious food and wine) he gave us each a bottle of the rose we'd sampled earlier as a thank-you. I couldn't believe it. After such an amazing day, I felt like I should be thanking him!
So that was our wonderful day at Chateau La Gatte. I bet you're jealous, huh?
I miss all of you very much; I've gotten to the point where I'm thrilled to be here, but homesickness is also starting to set in a bit. I really appreciate all of your comments and emails; thanks for reading 😊
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