by Paige Donner
Vendangeur is what a grape picker in France is called. And if you enjoy drinking your champagne and your Beaujolais, these people are your heros.
Many of us in the United States still harbor romantic notions of experiencing a wine harvest, preferably in the vineyards, joyfully picking grapes from morning ‘til dusk with a friendly group of brethren. Those dreams are completely unrealistic, especially in Champagne.
In Champagne harvest is industrialized, even if the picking is still done by hand. At least 100,000 pairs of hands are needed to harvest the grapes quickly during the one to two weeks when the annual harvest takes place. Time is very much of the essence as there really are only a few days when the grapes are optimal for picking. Busloads of grape pickers, mostly from Eastern Europe as well as large groups of Senegalese and other French-speaking Africans from Parisian suburbs, are brought in to the region just before harvest begins and are then quickly bussed out of the region after harvest ends.
Épernay, whose temporary harvest employment office operates as one of the main regional hubs doling out harvesting jobs, administered roughly 3,500 jobs and job-seekers during the first few days of harvest in Champagne in 2014. Pickers earn an average of about €9 per hour.
Oswald and Lina, two young Lithuanian students, who declined to have their photos taken, came for the romance of the experience. Oswald did the harvest last season (2013) in Champagne’s Aube region near Troyes, and this year brought his girlfriend Lina, a young architecural student, along with him to experience “the beautiful French countryside, the small charming towns and the quaint old churches.”
The morning I spoke with them, Lina and Oswald had spent two nights sleeping in the park along with hordes of other hopeful harvesters who had also just arrived. Harvest had started only the day before. Lina was eager for a hot shower. Another couple, also Lithuanians, were taking her to the Red Cross which had set up hot showers and sanitary facilities for the few days of harvest period. I mentioned to them the modern public pool with hot showers at the far end of town. It was the first they’d heard about it.
According to Jean-Marc Biehler, a local resident of Mardeuil, a small village just near Hautvillers, where the famous Dom Perignon Abbey perches, explained that when he and his professor-wife were still students at university, they worked several harvests to earn extra money just before going back to « uni ». But now, in the past 10 or 15 years, university starts earlier and earlier in France, before harvest. This is why, he said, you don’t see many French people doing the picking in the Champagne vineyards these days.
Carole Grenier, who ran the the temporary harvest employment offices in Epernay for 2014, and her assistant, Charlene Tonnellier, explained that more and more in recent years the employment contracts go to large enterprises who loan out their workforce during harvest time. So rather than finding or filling jobs for individuals, she, for the most part, fills job contracts for 50 to several hundred people at a time. And this is all done through middlemen and labor brokers.
When I asked if harvest in Champagne is any more difficult than anywhere else, she replied, “Yes, it is. Champagne grapes grow low to the ground, so it’s hard on the pickers’ backs. It’s days of backbreaking work spent stooped over.” She also explained that food and lodging is provided less and less because of the social costs involved. “If you find a harvest job that provides you with lodging, you have done very well and been very lucky,” said Grenier.
The best advice for anyone who still wants to experience picking grapes during harvest time in France ? Go to Burgundy. It is much less industrialized and you are more likely to find small operations that are still run more like a family. One operator that offers his services to travelers wanting this harvest experience is Netherlands-based Appellation Controlée.
Hand Harvesting vs. Mechanized Harvesting
There are really only two regions left in France where picking grapes by hand is the law : Champagne and Beaujolais. All the other AOC’s and regions allow for mechanized picking.
In Champagne, just Northeast of Paris where AOC champagne grapes grow, you will see no machines harvesting grapes in the vineyards. Nary a one.
Why ? Because, it is against AOC regulations. Still. Which means that if you own a champagne vineyard and don’t abide by the strict, and strictly enforced, regulations, you can’t sell your wine with the golden little label of “champagne” on it.
Since last year, however, there has been much discussion about whether Champagne, as a viticultural region, will allow for mechanized picking. The community is divided. The die-hards say that it will be the last region to keep its harvest-by-hand customs. This is because they can afford hand-harvesting, what with the prices they get for their grapes. And because champagne grapes are so delicate, with most of them being pressed for their juice right in the vineyards, just after picking. This yields the best quality juice, it’s said. Which makes for the best champagne, goes the local wisdom. In fact, there are 3,100 pressoirs or grape presses, spread throughout the vineyards of the 319 grape growing Champagne villages. This is for the roughly 403 million kilos of grapes harvested per year.
But the more modern-oriented grower-champagne producers and even some of the big négociants seem to be leaning towards mechanization. Why ? For one it will limit the influx of the 100,000 itinerant workers-grape pickers who “invade” the region every year. It will also cut down on the ” extravagant ” social costs that the champagne houses and vineyard owners pay to employ the pickers (legally) each year.
The Business of Champagne
Just a few facts and figures to set the stage for grape-picking at harvest time in Champagne, France :
First of all, Champagne is one of the few wine regions in the world where the people who grow the grapes used for the winemaking make a good living. Not only do they make a good living, with little or no government subsidy required as is the case for much of the world’s wine regions, they make an average of about four times as much as other profitable winemaking regions, like Napa. “Here in Champagne we are just simple farmers. Rich farmers, though, to be sure,” commented Cyril Janisson, fifth generation champagne producer, vineyard owner and native Champenois who heads the champagne house Janisson Baradon & Fils.
In 2013 there were 304.9 million bottles of champagne sold worldwide. That represents $5.4 billion global sales worth of champagne. Champagne is big business.
This year, 2014, champagne producers are aiming to reach a total sales output of 307 million bottles worldwide.
And none of this, not one drop of this golden elixir, would exist if it weren’t for the grapepickers, the « vendangeurs » as they are called in French.
Champagne grapes are the most expensive grapes in the world. The 2014 price per kilo was set at between €5.17 and €6.06 depending on the village the grapes are grown in. In Champagne there is a hierarchical classification of the villages with the top-shelf grapes coming from the Grand Cru villages such as Aÿ, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Ambonnay. The next tier are the Premier Cru villages and then there’s all the rest.
Champagne by the Numbers
There are 319 villages that are authorized as champagne grape growing villages in Champagne. This authorization comes from the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne), the Champagne Bureau who makes all the rules and enforces them. In fact, in Champagne, you don’t even have the right to harvest your grapes until the CIVC decrees that you can. The dates each year are set village by village by this God-like trade organization. They go back quite a ways, too. Champagne was one of the first wine regions – on Earth – to lobby for and get AOC status. So these guys are the big boys and they regulate the big business of champagne.
A few more numbers :
- 33,571 hectares (82,956 acres) of vines in production in Champagne
- 15807 parcels of vines
- 13,648 vineyard owners, of which more than half cultivate less than one hectare of vineyards
- 13104 vineyard owners sell their grapes
- 4629 vineyard owners commercialize their own champagne (that accounts for 65.7 million bottles)
- 135 co-operatives for champagne grape growers
- 43 co-operatives commercialize their own champagne (28.3 million bottles)
- 392 négociants (the licensed agents authorized to buy grapes and sell bottles of champagne on the market, these include the big houses such as Roederer, Bollinger, Lanson, Moët, etc.) which account for 210.9 million bottles of champagne
Of the 304.9 million bottles of champagne sold globally in 2013,
- 167.3 million sold in France
- 74.7 million sold in the EU
- 62.9 million sold in the rest of the world
If You Go
I recommend staying in the lovely little Grand Cru village of Aÿ, France. It is situated between Reims and Epernay in the Montagne de Reims. Chamapagnes Bollinger, Deutz and Collet call the village home among dozens of other fine champagne producing houses.
The easiest way to get there is to fly into Paris. From Paris take the fast train, the TGV, to Reims, which is about 45 minutes or the slower train, the TER, to Epernay which is an hour and 15 minutes. Both leave from the Gare de l’Est in northern, central Paris.
Round-trip tickets Paris-Epernay cost €48.20 for adult, second-class fare ; Roundtrip Paris-Reims on the TGV varies in price from about €60 to €85 for adult second-class. Aÿ is a short 5 minute taxi ride from Epernay, another €10. From Reims a taxi to Aÿ will cost at least €30. There is a charming commuter train that connects Reims and Epernay which stops in Aÿ: €7.50 Reims to Aÿ. But the train departs only a couple of times a day so check schedules.
Where To Stay
There are at least three very good accommodations to choose from in Aÿ. The hotel Castel-Jeanson is owned by the Goutorbe champagne family and the renovations they’ve done to this property are extensive and even include an indoor swimming pool. From €127 – €225
Hotel Castel Jeanson 24 bis rue Jeanson casteljeanson.fr +33 326 542 175
For a homey, B&B experience, the Clos St. Georges is a gated estate. It has a separate little honeymooner’s cottage on the property in addition to its six rooms. Eric and Sylvie Aubert also offer one of the best tables for lunch and dinner in the region. €98-€150
Le Clos St. Georges 7, rue Jules Lobet Aÿ, France levieuxpuits.com +33 326 569 653
Just opened in time for 2014’s harvest is the Champagne Sacret Chambres d’hôtes. In addition to the B&B’s stylish décor and the smell of fresh paint, you have the added thrill of staying on a working champagne estate where the wine is vinifying in vats underneath you. €150-€200
Champagne Sacret chambres d’hôtes 3, rue Billecart Aÿ, France Champagne-sacret.com + 33 326 569 920
Where to Eat
In addition to Le Vieux Puits at Le Clos St. Georges, mentioned above, there is also La Maison du Vigneron and L’Assiette Champenoise. The latter (€200 pp with wine) got its third Michelin star last year and the former is a solid and simple country kitchen restaurant (appetizers €15, mains €30, deserts €12).
La Maison du Vigneron RD 951 Saint-Imoges lamaisonduvigneron.com +33 326 528 800
L’Assiette Champenoise 40, Avenue Paul Vaillant-Couturier Tinqueux assiettechampenoise.com +33 326 846 464 (Closed M, T , W)
To Learn More
There are several local tour guides based in the region. All are good, but Cris has been doing it the longest.
Cristourschampagne-ardenne.com +33 326 882 637
Brand new in Champagne is the Cité du Champagne. This historical and cultural center’s exhibit offers museum-worthy artifacts and photos and a cellar tour. Not to miss.
Cité du Champagne 14 Boulevard Pasteur Aÿ, France champagne-collet.com
+33 326 551 588
Paige Donner is certified champagne expert (by the CIVC) and writes regularly for USA Today and 10BEST.com as their Paris and France Travel Expert writer/photographer/editor. Contact her at About.me/paigedonner.