Picking Grapes in Languedoc, France


Fetching directions……

 A Francophile shares a day out picking grapes in the real France: Languedoc

Picking grapes in France.

Part diary, part travelogue, Chez Mwah: How to Languish in the Languedoc tells the story of the reality of owning a holiday home on a budget in southern France. This is not the posh South of France – not your chic Nice, stylish Cannes or rolling fields of lavender strewn with white linen suits and Panama hats.

Judith Dowden has lived here for many years and shares her personal story, along with great advice for travelers to the region.

This is what’s known as the “Other South of France” inhabited by gnarly vignerons and their tiny grape-laden tractors buzzing about, spilling purple juice on the dusty tracks.

Nor is it that dream house off “A Place in the Sun” with its gravel drive and stone walls swathed in wisteria, a beady-eyed old madame tottering out to greet you with freshly baked madeleines.

This is a scruffy townhouse with worrisome neighbors and inexplicable leaks. Why does everyone on “A Place in the Sun” start talking like an estate agent anyway? Why do they come out with stuff like “Well, Jasmine, it’s a good size room, with a double aspect and lots of potential”. This is just one of the author’s many, many bugbears you are about to share.

Written with both humor and affection, the book will transport you to a small village in the center of the Minervois region, soaked with sun and local wine. Imagine trying to resist the pop of a cork when an intensely blue sky is stained pink by the sunset of aperitif hour, like Syrah seeping into a tablecloth.

The setting sun dips into lakes, rivers, and sea like a Maraschino cherry into your Dubonnet. Learn about the unwritten rules of apero hour; the quandary of what to pack for a long, hot sojourn; how to stay sane when beset by flies; how to throw the party of the Summer; experience squabbling over a game of boules under the dubious scrutiny of the village veterans; join local life by risking your fingertips to a pair of grape picker’s secateurs; discover how to deal with an unrelenting stream of ungrateful house guests. (Clue: begin by providing expensive soaps and end up by leaving maps and strong suggestions regarding satnavs. And what do these people do with all that loo roll!)

You’ll be spun wildly around Avignon in a tiny car, by a drug-crazed Pink Floyd fan. You’ll wander, dazed and bemused through a deserted village dressed only in a nylon housecoat. You will be whisked from one delirious fete to the next. If it’s not the fete of the olive, it’s the fete of the garlic, melon or apricot. There are village fetes which last for days and involve propping up wine barrels in the street and listening to brain splitting music.

All places, hotels, and restaurants are tried and tested. All are affordable for travelers on moderate budgets, but who still love a good time, a clean sheet, a well-cooked dinner and a beautiful setting. In addition, there is no more need to worry about what the hell les Messieurs propping up the cafe bar are supping with that vivid red, green and purple tinctures. All this – and much more – is explained.

Excerpt from the Book: La Vie En Rose

Languedoc, one of France's most beautiful provinces.
Languedoc is one of France’s most beautiful provinces.

Early one morning, we received an email from a wine-maker friend:

“We’ve decided to start the vendange today. If you are free to help this morning, come and find us in the vines.”

How exciting. The final piece of the puzzle. A house in the Languedoc, bills from EDF, a baguette drawer, our own well – and now we were going to be an integral part of the heritage of the area. Grape picking for our vigneron friends. It just doesn’t get more French.

The first and most obvious question was, what to wear? Should I be channeling Huckleberry Finn – a pair of washed out denim dungarees with a jaunty spotted neckerchief? How about a long, cool dress that would waft around in the fruit scented breeze?

No, I think I’ll opt for a cotton print skirt, with pockets for my vintner’s equipment and mascara. A hand, casually looped in one pocket says……I’ve turned up here to help, but I’m not desperate or anything. A spotless T-shirt and a rather stylish straw hat from the market, which hails originally from Australia – a nod to the Hunter Valley. A nice touch I thought.

I did consider a heel, but in the end, went for new grey pumps with bright white soles and matching laces – practical, yet not in a George Sand sort of a way.

I think Chanel Rouge Absolut lipstick would be a bit much here, even for me. A MAC lip gloss? Very sticky, might attract flies. I could pop into my poche just in case. Now, how to do my hair……

All that sorted, two hours later we parked up outside their house. I knew that their vineyard was behind it, but just to check I asked a neighbor, who pointed to the left:

“Oui, la-bas. C’est pas loin a pied.”

So we set off, me swinging my matching basket, filled with essentials for the professional grape picker like water, camera, perfume, phone, spare sunglasses.

After one and a half hours, not having seen a soul, we stomped back again, bickering. Obviously, I blamed my husband for faffing around at home, making us late. Now my morning, my day, actually probably my whole life was ruined, as we had missed out on the grape picking experience.

Then up roared our friend in a bright orange mini moke and an even brighter grin. “Oh, here you are! Just in time for lunch.”

We sat on a shaded terrace around a long table with our fellow workers. Well alright, I know we hadn’t actually done any work, but still, we felt the camaraderie, the bonhomie. Anyone could tell I was one of them. Accepted and fully integrated. We threw ourselves into the banter. “Biensur…..d’accord……donc…..mange tout Rodney…..”

Plump chunks of pink Pate de Campagne accompanied by glistening cornichons were followed by a hearty pork stew. Some coffee (small, strong and black of course) – and then “Allons- y”.

We all bundled into jeeps, tractors, and trucks and headed off in bumpy convoy, in a direction that was diametrically opposed to that pointed out earlier by the neighbor.

At the end of a row of vines, clutching a pair of secateurs and a bucket, we listened intently to instructions. Leave the little grapions, cut just above the fruit, no foliage and leapfrog each other down the row. How fabulous, I thought, that despite the seriousness of the task they still found time for recreation.

I hadn’t played leapfrog in years and gave a silent prayer of thanks that I’d put on a sturdy pair of pants.

I soon realized however that it actually meant, keep passing the picker in front of you. Never mind. Here we go then, I am now a true Langedoccian, indispensable to the process of creating this Syrah.

Snip, pick, drop, snip (oops another fingernail gone), pick, drop.

Disconcertingly another, more proficient picker would occasionally attack my vine violently from the other side. A flash of the blade and a flurry of the leaf by Edward Scissorhands, and I was fearful for my digits. I ran ahead a few bushes and hid until he or she decided to go and pick on somebody else.

Snip, pick, drop, snip, pick, drop.

Back at home hours later, exhausted but with a huge sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, I happened to pass by a mirror. We seemed to have an intruder!

This person had on a weird bushwhacker type hat. Any visible hair was plastered down flat and dripping with sweat. Her face was bright pink and – good god – were those flies stuck to her lips? Her T-Shirt was stained with sweat and purple juice. Her legs were bloody and scratched, ankles covered in a fine brown dust.

Her pockets seemed to be inexplicable stuffed with cosmetics and it looked like she’d been given a manicure by Stevie Wonder. Some filthy grey shoes were splattered with something looking suspiciously like sanglier excrement. She was clutching a misshapen basket that had tractor tire marks all over it.

“Thank goodness I don’t look like her!” I thought, bounding up the stairs. I say bounding, actually hobbling with a crooked spine, as a backache was starting to kick in. Under a steaming hot shower, dousing myself in, what else but Occitaine shower gel, I scrubbed the grit and foliage out of my Audrey Tatou locks and sighed, “La Gloire de Mon Hair”.

We were now fully accepted as part of the vigneron community. We had broken bread together – “Le Pain Quotidian”. We’d shared a bonding experience and we had French blood running through our veins like Malbec through a tablecloth.

I stumbled back downstairs, had beans on toast with a mug of tea, and fell asleep in front of the telly.

Aaahhh, la vie en rosé.

Judith Dowden has been a long-termJudith Stafford Francophile ever since her first French lesson at the age of 7, in a demure English private school. Madame roared up to the school gates in a little red sports car, wearing a snazzy brown suede jacket and Chanel Rouge lipstick. Judith was smitten.

She traveled to France at every opportunity and then, towards the end of a career as a lecturer, achieved her dream of owning a house in a small French village.

She has spent her working life in and around London, where she lives with her husband, an artist. Together they have traveled extensively throughout the United States, Japan, Australia and Europe. Her travel writing has won prizes and she is a regular blogger and a popular contributor to a magazine that covers the Languedoc, where her French house sits. 

She is an experienced home exchanger and thoroughly recommends this method of travel. She is planning to publish a book about her unique experiences of swapping lives with others around the world. 

Judith divides her time between the buzz of London and the peaceful vineyards of the Minervois, relishing the contrast between the two locations. Vive les differences!

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