Our Blog - Harvest at Chateau Guilhem
France and Wine are somewhat synonymous, and therefore, doing a grape harvest was on our list of things to do. Just so happened, our first year, we had the opportunity through the Americans in Toulouse AIT group and Chateau Guilhem, which is in Languedoc (about 60-90 minutes from Toulouse depending on which part). The Estate has been in the same family for 6 generations and is just south of Carcassonne. From the vineyards, you can see the Pyrenees on a clear day. The estate house was built at the end of the 18th century. It spreads over 30 hectares of limestone hillsides. The cellars themselves were built in 1853 and have a set of vats including stainless steel and concrete.
We didn't realize exactly what the "Fête des Vendanges Solidaires" was when we signed up .. all we knew is that there was a grape harvest along with lunch and tastings. We took the opportunity to sign up. It has actually been going on for a long time .. this is the 14th year that they have had this Fête, and at least for the last few years, proceeds have gone to a specific charity. This year, it was Autism 31 (Autism within the "31" department within France, which is Haute-Garonne department which contains Toulouse). We thought it would be a somewhat small thing when we got the email, but when we arrived, we heard they were expecting 400 people!!
As we arrived, we gathered with a set of the AIT folks, along with everyone else.
They kicked it off about 9:30... based on the website, this is the head of the chateau/estate now, the 5th or 6th generation at the vineyard.
We then headed up to the vineyards ... we walked past a couple sets up to the "top", where we got amazing views of the area, including what we are told is the foothills of the Pyrenees that is on the France/Spain border area. Some of the sections had already been harvested and others weren't quite ready. Our section, which we were told were Cabernet Franc grapes, were ready for us. This was our first time "up close" in an actual vineyard!
This is an interesting picture ... as we were walking up, we went past a set of stalks that were FULL of snails! Each of those little white round things is actually a snail hanging on to the talk stalk.
So we got to the top, and we got our little rectangular bucket to put the grapes in as we harvested. Tom got the opportunity to be a "porter" ... so people harvest into their own little buckets, and the porters roam up and down the aisles and the buckets get emptied into their larger buckets carried on their backs. When they are full, they go and empty into the truck (more pictures on that later).
So here is where we started, and a picture of me harvesting a bunch of these lovely, dark purple grapes.
Tom took some time off from being a porter and got to actually harvest as well
So here is the truck and the porters .. they go up a small ladder and then basically turn themselves upside down to empty their grapes into the truck. Tom says that the leg going outwards is "very important ... key" to the whole process!
A bunch of random pictures of the area, showing the vineyard and the mountains in the background, some with the group that was harvesting.
Once done and back down, we were able to watch the next step of the process. They take the truck and the grapes get poured into a machine which de-stems them ... the grapes come out one side on the belt while the steps and spit out the other side.
Then into the cellar, where the owner talked about the different "generations" .. his great grandmother had used a set of tanks near the door, then his grandfather used concrete vats .. his mother went to this set of stainless steel tanks, but he had gone back to using the concrete vats as it was better to control/maintain the temperature. The concrete ones are in the last picture.
Then out into the garden of the estate house, and they had a HUGE spread laid out .. multiple stations with as much wine as you wanted ... along with charcuterie (chorizo and a parma-type ham) with baguettes, ratatouille ... and cassoulet from Castelnaudary, the "home" of cassoulet.
A little bit of "entertainment", these 4 people in robes were from the "Order of Cassoulet of Castlenaudary", and they were initiating 3 people into their "society" (it was in French, that is as close as I can translate it). They would read a decree off the long board, and then each new person would have to read an oath (which seemed to be in the local Provencal/Occitan language). The one in the middle is the mother of the current estate owner, and the other woman is the head of the Autism 31 group. The man, Emmanuel, I'm not sure who exactly he *is* but seems to work for the Chateau. The funny part for him was that they kept bringing up that he isn't actually FRENCH, but, in fact, BELGE (Belgian)!
We had a great time, and we are thinking of making sure we try to do this event every year. Not only was it a good time and a well put-on event, but the wines are actually quite good (Organic wine, no less).