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Cahors Wine Grapes

Cahors Wine Grapes

Late September and the temperatures were still sizzling. We’d had no rain for weeks and the leaves on my pear trees were drooping disconsolately, like a guilty dog’s ears. In the vineyards the farmers frowned, growled and stroked the grapes contemplatively. They were ripe and just about ready for picking but they would have been better for a drink. It has to be supplied by nature too, a vine destined to make AOC Cahors wine cannot be watered artificially. It was too late anyway, having failed to produce a shower at the right time the weather mustn’t be allowed to break now, and ruin the year’s prospects. A good spell of sunshine is absolutely crucial for the harvest and the forecasters were on their mettle, a whole community depended on their getting it right.
The Quercy was holding its breath.
Late one evening we were lingering over a last glass of wine on the terrace, admiring the streaked blood-orange and amethyst of a late summer sunset, and we heard it, that distinctive purr that would trigger pandemonium.
It was a grape harvester; we could just see it in the vineyards belonging to Chateau Cenac on the far side of the valley. The vendange had begun. Tomorrow they would all be out. The stubby blue harvesters, sailing through the vines like land-locked catamarans, the ancient tractors and trailers, coaxed out of the barns, covered in a fresh veil of cobwebs and staggering round the narrow, serpentine roads dropping little gifts of anonymous provenance and rusty appearance along the way. Children, home from school and elderly ladies in their navy print pinnies would be put to work wherever possible. Breakfast would be a shot of caffeine taken standing, lunch – sacred ritual – would be cut from two hours to one, and dinner would be eaten long after sunset. There wasn’t a moment to lose.
Next morning, as I bumped down the winding road that twists and turns round the hills to Luzech, I spotted the cavalcade from our neighbours over the hill. Monsieur the elder was in the lead, followed by a pristine harvester and a tractor that looked as if it was second-hand when Methuselah was alive. They ground slowly to a halt beside me, Monsieur graunched his window down a little further and extended his hand for a greeting – he was too preoccupied for kisses, but to merely wave, or, heaven forbid, ignore me altogether would have been completely alien to his chivalrous French soul.
“Eh ma petite?” He began, predictably. I told him I was en forme, and asked him if he thought the weather would hold. He shook his fingers as if they’d just sustained a powerful burn. It’s obviously not a question one should ask. Three days would be sufficient, he explained. Of course it’s all much faster nowadays, they have the harvesters now, he waved a nut-brown hand towards the peculiar shaped monster behind him, he remembered the days… A prolonged blast on a hooter from a frustrated Renault driver, stuck behind the tractor, recalled him to the present and the urgent job in hand.
“Eh bien petite,” he continued hurriedly and almost dislocated his shoulder trying to reach my cheeks.
“A bientot M’sieur!” My window sighed back into place and I left him to dream of the bad old days.
The land had baked to a deep golden crust in the late summer heat, a haze appeared on the roads, and purple stains began to spread on the hairpin bends where ancient tractors had shed part of the load, doubtless while rushing home for lunch. Elderly machines in the last stages of disintegration were abandoned at the side of the narrow lanes – rusty entrails spewing from their sides – there was no time to waste in nursing, any possible resuscitation would have to wait until after the harvest.

Harvesting

Harvesting

All day long the indefatigable workforces laboured – the colour of our neighbour’s skin turned from crème caramel to crème brulee in forty-eight hours – even we were pressed into service. In this ancient place where every family is connected with the vines in some capacity or another, every available adult and every reasonably mature child toils until well after dark. And who looks after the younger ones? Any sane adult not directly involved in the vendange, naturally. We qualified on the second two counts – and obviously just scraped by on the first – because we found ourselves running a highly popular, impromptu crèche from sunrise to crepescule.
Once the grapes were safely gathered and crushed, the skins were hauled off to the old distillery at Castelfranc. Pressure eased and there was time to haul the abandoned tractors out of the hedgerows and coax them quietly into the vast, dark interiors of ancient owl-infested barns where they’d hibernate until their appointed resurrection the following September. There was also time for everybody to relax and look forward to a storming night out at the Fete des Vendanges.
This rumbustious knees-up is a very local event, a cross between a harvest festival and a barn dance, but with rather more oomph and much more sophisticated fare. The new local wine is given its first outing, weeks before the commercial hoo-hah of Beaujolais Nouveau hits the road. It’s awful of course, most new wines are, but by the time you actually taste it you will already have eaten a four course dinner, consumed a handful of chestnuts – freshly roasted over the glowing braziers – and drunk two or three bottles of much more palatable local nectar, so your taste-buds won’t be on top form anyway.
After dinner, and a dubious degustation, comes even more dubious dancing. I am not a dancer. I cannot shimmy my slender hips and wave my arms in a willow-like fashion calculated to drive a man out of his senses. As a child I spent one tortuous night every week for twelve years, in a draughty hall, bending my unwilling legs into frightening shapes in a fruitless attempt to learn ballet, and I can barely manage a demi-plie. This lack of natural talent doesn’t seem to matter however. If you have two legs, two arms and enough hair to identify you as female, there’s no excuse. The men of these country villages, stoned to the wide, will whirl you across the ancient cobbles until you’re unsure whose feet are whose and which arm to grab when you fall. It’s exhausting, exhilarating and highly enjoyable.
I bounced back to the bar with my red-faced partner, to where the beloved was quietly consuming a jug of new wine and doing a striking impersonation of Basil Fawlty whenever he was encouraged to dance. I wondered about his ability to steer the car back up the steep, tortuous road to our house. Downing half a glass of Perrier I took to the floor in the well-upholstered arms of Le Baronne, a vigneron from the other side of the valley. His style was very much old-fashioned ballroom, and though he didn’t mention it, my jigging up and down on his toes could hardly have complemented his smooth-flowing steps. I suspect he may have been trying to waltz, but his spectacular midriff and my woeful ignorance hindered progress a little. We were both exceedingly thankful when the band struck a lively note. He immediately stepped up a gear and bopped around like a Munchkin on Speed, while flinging me from one side of the marquee to the other. By the time I landed back with Basil I was more than ready for a rest, a glass of something fortifying and a handful of newly roasted chestnuts. Huge, hot and more delicious than any chestnut I’d ever tasted in my life, they had the savour of the earth, the fire and early autumn. Naturally I guzzled far too many.
Over by the band I spied our young neighbours, propped up against a tent pole, once more intent on the only other business that would be tolerated in this shrine to the Gods of food and wine. They weren’t the only ones of course; in that little corner of the cobbles Aphrodite definitely held sway.

© Amanda Lawrence 2008

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The Fete des Vendanges from French Vie

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