French winemakers cling to hand-picking traditions

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A burly man tips a basket of grapes onto a whirring conveyor belt, and spry 67-year-old Eliane Mourgues leans in to quickly pluck out any bad ones.

Tiring work for a retiree, but at the 19th century Chateau Cantenac Brown in the Margaux wine region, there are no harvesting machines -- someone has to do it by hand, and pickers are getting scarce.

"This is my eighth harvest," Mourgues says over the hum of the sorting belt, picking away rapidly as the bunches of hand-picked grapes roll by. "It's more rewarding then staying at home."

"It's physically tough, but I'm always on the lookout for little schemes," said a fellow grape-picking pensioner, Annie Cadel, 61, at a separate vineyard, coincidentally named Chateau Brown. "For 800 euros a month, it's a must."

Most of the grape-pickers have vanished from the vineyards around Bordeaux, but despite rising labour costs and mechanised harvesting, a core of vintners here are clinging staunchly to their manual harvesting traditions.

Mourgues and Cadel are among their recruits -- the teams of pensioners, students, travellers, and the unemployed drafted in to pick the grapes for winemakers who refuse to turn to machines.

"My biggest problem is to finish the harvest with enough pickers," said Jean-Christophe Mau, owner of the Chateau Brown winery in Pessac-Leognan.

"The last days are cold, it rains, naturally things deteriorate, and some find it too difficult. There are some years when I make 90 work contracts in three to four days," he says.

Lilian Barton-Sartorius, who manages 68 hectares with her father Anthony Barton at Chateau Leoville Barton and Chateau Langoa Barton in Saint-Julien, says the family hires 130 people for the 12 to 15 days of picking.

"Ten percent don't show up, 10 percent quit after a day or two, which leaves me with two teams of 40," says Barton-Sartorius, the seventh generation of her family to own the estate. "The paperwork we have to fill in is extraordinary."

French employment laws also cause headaches for vintners who need to bring in a crop quickly with manual labour.

"We always find people to pick but it's much more difficult to manage a manual harvest, particularly with the increasingly strict regulations that limit work hours," said Jean-Pierre Marty, director of Chateau Talbot.

"It would be easier with machines but we would not have the same quality," he insists, however.

According to Bordeaux's Wine Trade Council, one in five chateaux continue to harvest by hand -- driven by tradition and the desire to produce the finest wines possible in a fiercely competitive market.

"It's tradition, but we can also be more precise in the selection of grapes in a manual harvest. We can choose the wine we want to make," said Jose Sanfins, director of Chateau Cantenac Brown.

Grape-pickers were traditionally drawn from a peasant class living on the estates, in nearby hamlets or travelling from Spain and Portugal. The latter have stopped coming and the local grape-pickers have all but disappeared over the decades, migrating to cities.

The demanding standards Bordeaux sets for grape maturity, needed for smooth tannins and rich aromas, requires a flexible work force: vintners work plot by plot, waiting for ideal ripeness, with pickers stopping and starting for 12 to 15 days over a month.

"They call us to work for three days, then they call us to work one day the next week. You have to be available. That's the advantage of being a retiree," said Odette Gauchet, 67, picking the grapes at Sauternes' most famous estate, Chateau d'Yquem.

Chateaux toss in incentives to keep the best workers. Some pay a 10 percent bonus or an extra day's pay to everyone who finishes the harvest. Others receive an expensive bottle of grand cru.

And a few, such as Cantenac Brown and Leoville Barton, still hold the traditional, hot noon meal of hearty stew or grilled steak.

In Leoville Barton's elegant rustic dining room, the long wooden tables are set for the pickers' lunch -- with everything but knives.

"In the old days, the vineyard workers always had their own pocket knives" that they brought with them to the table, explains Barton-Sartorius.

"Traditions die hard."

© 2010 AFP

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