Every year in wine growing regions around the world, winemakers call on seasonal workers to team up and help with the annual grape harvest. In France, this period is called "les vendanges"- a word that refers both to the harvest itself and the experience of harvesting. It's something you do ("j'ai fait les vendanges") but also something that happens to you.
There are many stories of how the vendanges have changed people's lives- the short period of time is often the source of inspiration, exciting encounters, and unforgettable experiences. I think of the vendanges as France's version of summer camp for college kids and adults- it's a time set apart from the rest of the year- and the distractions of daily life- when people come together, form a community, and synchronize to the rhythm of nature.
I did the vendanges in 2014 and count myself among the large number of people who can say it changed the way I see the world. Not only did the experience inspire lasting friendships, it also lit a fire in me concerning everything that goes into biodynamic farming and natural winemaking.
When the vendanges came to an end last year and it was time to say good-bye, I was sure I wasn't saying "adieu", but rather "au revoir", knowing that I would be back again to visit the vines soon.
By early December I was back. The weather had changed and the trusty boots that served me so well in September did little against the winter morning chill. But that wasn't the only difference from the harvest season. Now, instead picking the fruit of the grapevines, we were to cut back the branches by pruning each vine, being sure to pay careful attention to the equilibrium and harmony of each knobby vine foot.
There are several ways to prune and the act, like all aspects of biodynamic farming and winemaking, is a mixture of science and philosophy, fact and feeling.
Unlike industrial or conventional wineries, natural winemakers concentrate on quality rather than quantity, by pruning vines so that they have a chance to produce ripe, healthy fruit rather than being overburdened by too many bunches. This is done by manually pruning each grapevine, choosing a primary fruit bearing branch on each side of the "cep" , or foot of the plant. The grapevines are pruned to stay low to the ground, assuring that sap can travel to feed the vines more easily and economizing energy that the vines will later invest in growing fruit.
For winemakers that favor a low-intervention approach to wine making, the act of pruning may be one of the most intentional manipulations they will exercise in the life cycle of a vine/wine. While the role of man/woman is evident in the practice of pruning, and not something that occurs naturally in the life of a vine, it is not so much a violent act- but rather a humbling experience not taken lightly by the winemaker, who understands that they are affecting the destiny of not only the next year's harvest, but of the form of the vine stock itself.
Pruning vines that are often older than you are, and will most likely be around longer than you, too, is taking part in a long history of decisions made by winemakers who came before you as well as sending a message to generations of winemakers who will come.
In certain cases, when vines are pruned "à la baguette", or using a method that leaves one large cane, or branch, on each side of the grapevine foot, a secondary step is necessary. This step is called "Pliage" and refers to the act of folding and tethering the longer branch to a wire so that it will grow parallel to the ground. This method is often used with Sauvignon vines, who benefit from the restructuring that provides structure and stimulates growth.
Using steady and firm gestures to bend the grapevine branches proves the flexibility and resilience of the plant. The branches will resist slightly as you fold them and use a special stapler to attach them to a low-hanging wire (this doesn't hurt the branches- just creates a lose circle around them and the wire so that they stay in place), but they (rarely) split or break, and adapt readily to their new formation.
Another superpower of grapevine branches is their ability to make new life. On an early April visit to Laurent Saillard's parcel of Sauvignon I was lucky enough to observe the birth of a "marcotte". Marcottage is when you take a branch of a grapevine that was left to grow long in the past year or two, and bury the middle part in the ground.
After time, the buried branch will start to grow strong, downward reaching roots and a new vine stock is born, filling in the previously vacant neighboring space. It's a process that takes years to prepare and longer to reap the fruit of- but it's a beautiful way to create life in the vines and really makes you appreciate everything that the vines can give.
One of the greatest things the vines offer, no matter what time of the year, is the opportunity to be silent and simultaneously in dialogue with something ancient, both inside and around you. Great winemakers listen to their vines and help them tell their story so that we can drink it all in.