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February 19, 2016updated 02 Nov 2022 10:13am

Corton Chronicles Two: Fall

“Young man,” said Madame accusingly, her irony like a distant flash of lightning signaling the approach of a thunderstorm, “you have been here a week and picked nothing…”

The boss’s wife was standing beside the long table at supper, hands planted firmly on hips and head tilted to one side with a demanding expression on her face. She was looking at me.

“Tomorrow we finish the picking with the Aligoté in the garden. You can’t do much damage there, so you’ll help,” she declared.

“My agenda’s rather full tomorrow, Madame,” I replied sheepishly, waving my little black book and worrying that the storm might be about to break.

“Pass me that agenda,” she retorted. “I’ll soon rearrange things for you. It’s time you put down that camera and did some proper work!”

Heads around me might have been lowered, but the faces were smiling, and after she had registered my embarrassment, so was Madame’s.

So far on my harvest shoot, including a week among the 100 or so vendangeurs of a much larger domaine, I had been able to avoid any direct involvement in the harvest — by turns cold, wet, hot, nasty, sticky, backbreaking, boring, and (for those who have never experienced it) “romantic.” I had hoped that the only harvest-related task I had still to avoid was the ultimate in harvest immersion: pigeage à pied.

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My previous visit in September, to capture veraison, had involved nothing more rigorous than walking through the vineyards and tasting highly acidic grape juice as samples. Even the lizards soaking up the welcome sunshine were sluggish. But this was far more interesting than anything to be seen in August, when everyone is on holiday, the sunlight is too harsh, and the vines are too darkly green for my liking.

Now, during my harvest visit, the grape juice had really hit the spectrometer — but less literally than metaphorically. I had seen lots of workers collecting sample bunches in plastic bags, and lots of winemakers nibbling grapes and inspecting pips, but nobody using a spectrometer. Even more than usual it was a vintage when you needed to taste the grapes rather than relying on the numbers.

It had been a trying year altogether for the vigneron(ne)s. I met one unfortunate grower who would make only one eighth his normal volume of Corton-Charlemagne due to the hail damage he suffered over the summer. When I offered my sympathy, the response was typically, stoically Burgundian: C’est comme ça (“That’s how it is”).

The pickers started well before dawn, being in the vineyard by 7:30. Bent double, with aching backs and legs, and scarred and stained hands, they moved slowly and silently along their rows. Two hours later, after their cassecroute (“the breaking of the crust,” their sustaining morning snack), some of them managed to sing as they continued their work.

You have to spend some time picking grapes to realize what hard work it is — no wonder French is giving way to Polish in the vineyards and that there are parts of France where the grape harvest seems to be slipping from the cultural makeup, though this late harvest, lasting well into October, meant that the number of native students would anyway have been greatly reduced.

Wherever the pickers come from, there is always a strong esprit de corps among them, especially in the face of an interloping photographer. The boss may agree to photographs, and be impressed if I know the name of the vineyard, but the pickers themselves have to be wooed and won over as well. It is always best to observe what the group response to my presence may be, then to target any reluctant subjects with a charm offensive.

I find working with two cameras useful, especially if one has an impressively long telephoto lens. I have to work fairly quickly and at least look as if I know what I’m doing. Even if I don’t get it right first time, I try to come across as a perfectionist rather than incompetent. When I get something I like, it’s good to express my gratitude and to show the subject, before wishing them bon courage and letting them return to the vines. A good snap often results from good teamwork. Having knocked about the hill fairly often for six months, I am now a familiar sight to many of the vineyard workers, which always makes my task easier.

Back in the cuverie there will be sorting on the triage table and possibly some other activity to shoot. Punching down the cap will be early in the morning and late at night, so it’s a long day for me, too. I always need to be almost as alert as the winery workers are to the risk of carbon dioxide as it rises — colorless, odorless, and potentially fatal — from the fermentation vats. It can also be a hazardous place in other ways, with heavy pipes and odd, long-handled implements that look as though they might have been used at the Battle of Crécy (1346) waiting to trip up the unwary visitor.

It’s an alien environment, where some knowledge is necessary. Fortunately for me, a lot of the work is repetitious, so I’m able to watch first and shoot later. Many of the harvest tasks in both vineyard and winery seem to vary very little, but somehow each day throws up new images that are all part of the story.

On the eve of my departure, I went back to help pick the domaine’s Aligoté in the back garden, as instructed by Madame, so I could share in the paulée, the end-of-harvest festivities, that evening without feeling too guilty. It was actually my third paulée of the year — all of them different but all of them a celebration of wine’s origins, as well as of the skill and dedication required to produce it. Madame narrowed her eyes and nodded at me as she passed me my first course. Félicitations (“congratulations”), she grinned, pretending (I hope) to be surprised that I had survived.

The next morning was clear and starry, so it was easy to be off before dawn as usual. As I drove up on to the hill, above Ladoix and round by the Bressandes vineyard, there, as I had hoped, lay Mont Blanc, a pink silhouette, rosé rather than white, in the early morning light. Sometimes, c’est comme ça.

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