Vineyard visits during the harvest season, known as le vendage, can be great but make sure you time your trip right if you want to see the grapes being picked and join in the fun…
When is the best time for seeing the wine harvest in France?
Le vendage takes place in early fall in most parts of France. Exact timing depends on the region, the grape variety, the winemaker’s instincts and the sum of the year’s climate. It’s not as if you can buy your plane tickets a year in advance and hope to skate into your favorite winery with a plan. But keeping up on who’s picking what isn’t difficult because these days everyone is talking about it via social media, follow your favourite wine maker and you’ll be kept up to date with events.
Le vendage creates a need for extra vineyard staff to pick the grapes, with machines or by hand. In areas of the country where the vines are terraced, such as Côte-Rôtie, the harvesters carry baskets on their backs as they approach each vine along the climbing terraces. Drive the rural roads of France and you’ll share space with the tractors and trucks that bring the grapes from the vineyards to the co-ops and the wineries. There is a buzz of excitement in the air, and it’s really something to be a part of a harvest that will mature over many years in many cellars. Lots of wine lovers plan trips to their favorite regions at this time of year, in order to be around during harvest and get a feel for this step in the life of the wine they’ll buy and enjoy down the line. It’s also a gorgeous blue-sky time to visit France and if you are there for the beauty, you’ll be wrapped up in fall foliage, which on its own is enough to take the top down and drive the backroads.
Being around for harvest means living like a local, which may have a downside if you’re interested in meeting winemakers and visiting tasting rooms. Le vendage is all-hands-on-deck, so everyone on staff may be too busy to meet with you. It’s not that they don’t want to chat, but consider the volume of grapes that are being put forth during this short harvest phase. It is anticipated that the 2014 harvest yielded nearly 600 billion bottles of wine. Some years though bring signs of a struggle. Even on a good year, if you’re hoping that prices will drop on your favorite French bottle, that it unlikely to happen since the shortages of the past are topped up in successful years.
Perhaps you will visit during le vendage, or stay home and wait for the finished product. Or, for a perfect mix, visit during a slightly slower time and chat with the winemaker and walk around the vines. You might be able to see the facility and witness the grapes during the process that occurs after harvest, production. Hanging around the tasting room ensures that you’ll get to experience the best part of the whole cycle: a glass of wine in your hand.
Jill Barth is a wine writer in Chicago who thinks you’d like a lovely glass of wine.