French invite English wine tourists to do the hard work

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French wine producers struggling to cope with the demands of the frenetic annual harvest, or vendange, are getting help with the back-breaking work of grape-picking this year from some unlikely, unpaid recruits: British tourists.

Recent harvests have seen a dearth of good workers willing to get down on hand and knee from dawn til dusk for little more than the minimum wage.

Many seasonal workers have been tempted into less strenuous jobs and the owners of some of France's most traditional vineyards have racked their brains to find people who still see the attraction in poorly-paid work that all too often leads to chronic back problems and extreme fatigue.

But now, it seems, they have found an unexpected solution. For the past fortnight, energetic British enthusiasts have been flocking across the Channel to the rolling countryside of France's wine-making regions, eager to partake in the process of picking, pressing and bottling, and prepared to succumb to all kinds of muscle ache in order to take home a bottle they helped to produce.

For the first time in the long and glorious history of French wine, not only are these vendangeurs working for free, they are more than willing to pay for the pleasure. At a rate of €10 (£6) for three hours' work, les rosbifs feel they've hit upon a bargain - and French producers cannot believe their luck.

The illustrious Caillivet chateau in Mazéres, south-west France, is one of the first vineyards to encourage tourists to come and tend to its vines and is so far proving particularly popular among the British.

Last Wednesday alone, six couples from the UK, all self-avowed lovers of wine but none with any experience of its practicalities, braved the grape-laden vine equipped with a pair of clippers and a bucket each.

"It was an unforgettable experience for them. They were delighted," Richard Voisin, of the Langonnais tourism bureau, told The Independent. "This idea attracts a lot of British people who are passing through the area on holiday.

"After the picking, they watch the grapes being pressed, and they can even take a sip of the first juices.

"Many like to buy a bottle of the produce to take home with them. And the great thing is, because they are paying instead of being paid, they can stop whenever they like - even after 15 minutes.

"The vendange can usually only be done by young people but this is for the more mature."

The grape-picking initiative, launched by the tourist office of Sauternais, Graves and Langon at the beginning of this year's harvest, takes those who have signed up on a tour around some of the most traditional and prestigious vineyards in France, where hand-picking is still the preferred method of harvesting.

While many producers now use machines to do the work for them, some small and high-quality manufacturers still rely on human hands for a more discerning yield.

Caillivet chateau, known for its fine Merlot and Cabernet, is one such vineyard, in whose authentic production process hands-on tourists can now participate. It is, explained M. Voisin, the tried and tested concept of wine tourism taken one step further. "People are no longer satisfied with just the standard visit," he explained.

Many tourists are not content with a few sips from a few glasses, he said.

"They want something more - and there is nothing better than the vendange itself for that."