French winemakers cling to hand-picking traditions

A burly man tips a basket of grapes onto a whirring conveyor belt, and spry 67-year-old Eliane Mourgues leans in to quickly pluck out any bad ones.

Tiring work for a retiree, but at the 19th century Chateau Cantenac Brown in the Margaux wine region, there are no harvesting machines - someone has to do it by hand, and pickers are getting scarce.

"This is my eighth harvest," Mourgues says over the hum of the sorting belt, picking away rapidly as the bunches of hand-picked grapes roll by. "It's more rewarding then staying at home."

"It's physically tough, but I'm always on the lookout for little schemes," said a fellow grape-picking pensioner, Annie Cadel, 61, at a separate vineyard, coincidentally named Chateau Brown. "For 800 euros a month, it's a must."

Most of the grape-pickers have vanished from the vineyards around Bordeaux, but despite rising labour costs and mechanised harvesting, a core of vintners here are clinging staunchly to their manual harvesting traditions.

Mourgues and Cadel are among their recruits - the teams of pensioners, students, travellers, and the unemployed drafted in to pick the grapes for winemakers who refuse to turn to machines.

"My biggest problem is to finish the harvest with enough pickers," said Jean-Christophe Mau, owner of the Chateau Brown winery in Pessac-Leognan.

"The last days are cold, it rains, naturally things deteriorate, and some find it too difficult. There are some years when I make 90 work contracts in three to four days," he says.

Lilian Barton-Sartorius, who manages 68 hectares with her father Anthony Barton at Chateau Leoville Barton and Chateau Langoa Barton in Saint-Julien, says the family hires 130 people for the 12 to 15 days of picking.

"Ten percent don't show up, 10 percent quit after a day or two, which leaves me with two teams of 40," says Barton-Sartorius, the seventh generation of her family to own the estate. "The paperwork we have to fill in is extraordinary."

French employment laws also cause headaches for vintners who need to bring in a crop quickly with manual labour.

"We always find people to pick but it's much more difficult to manage a manual harvest, particularly with the increasingly strict regulations that limit work hours," said Jean-Pierre Marty, director of Chateau Talbot.

"It would be easier with machines but we would not have the same quality," he insists, however.

According to Bordeaux's Wine Trade Council, one in five chateaux continue to harvest by hand - driven by tradition and the desire to produce the finest wines possible in a fiercely competitive market.

"It's tradition, but we can also be more precise in the selection of grapes in a manual harvest. We can choose the wine we want to make," said Jose Sanfins, director of Chateau Cantenac Brown.

Grape-pickers were traditionally drawn from a peasant class living on the estates, in nearby hamlets or travelling from Spain and Portugal. The latter have stopped coming and the local grape-pickers have all but disappeared over the decades, migrating to cities.

The demanding standards Bordeaux sets for grape maturity, needed for smooth tannins and rich aromas, requires a flexible work force: vintners work plot by plot, waiting for ideal ripeness, with pickers stopping and starting for 12 to 15 days over a month.

"They call us to work for three days, then they call us to work one day the next week. You have to be available. That's the advantage of being a retiree," said Odette Gauchet, 67, picking the grapes at Sauternes' most famous estate, Chateau d'Yquem.

Chateaux toss in incentives to keep the best workers. Some pay a 10 percent bonus or an extra day's pay to everyone who finishes the harvest. Others receive an expensive bottle of grand cru.

And a few, such as Cantenac Brown and Leoville Barton, still hold the traditional, hot noon meal of hearty stew or grilled steak.

In Leoville Barton's elegant rustic dining room, the long wooden tables are set for the pickers' lunch - with everything but knives.

"In the old days, the vineyard workers always had their own pocket knives" that they brought with them to the table, explains Barton-Sartorius.

"Traditions die hard."

Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
world cup 2014LIVE BLOG: Hosts Brazil take on the Netherlands in third-place play-off
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
life...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
arts + entsReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice