Sweating in Burgundy – and loving it!

That man Riaan Smit reports on his last few days’ work,in Burgundy and offers some insight into wine industry economics.

I have been asked whether it is worth the effort ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ and cost ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ to work in France as a stagiaire (trainee).

,I am on my way back home after spending five weeks of hard, hands-on, vineyard labour at Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent, a Cru Beaujolais in Burgundy. This is my second stint as a trainee in France in 10 months, having worked a harvest at Chateau La Gordonne, in Provence, during September last year.

,Classes started again at Elsenburg on Monday after the long World Cup break. I will be a week late. Frankly, I will enjoy the 30+ degree Celsius, shirtless, days in the vineyards here, rather than being bundled up against the cold, Cape weather, and at Elsenburg.

,Has it been worth it? For me, tout `a fait – absolutely – work and otherwise.

,First, the otherwise: I like the French. I find them pleasant and easy-going, although sometimes quite direct – do not take it for rudeness. I honestly do not know where the myth of French rudeness comes from. My only experience of rudeness has been in a Parisian bistro – by a waiter. That is pretty standard and hardly representative of French people.

Riaan's windmill vineyard.

I also like being in France. I like the place, the beauty of its old worldness. I feel comfortable and safe. Ok, we are talking the platteland here. I sleep with my windows open; I do not look over my shoulder constantly when I walk somewhere at night; I leave the Berlingo open outside the local supermarket; You can leave your cell phone and stuff on the table in the local bar when you go for a pee; I like the disciplined driving on the main auto routes; and I love the side mirror scrapping and chicken-playing on the little back roads (without any sign of road rage ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ it is simply a way of life).

,I would not mind working here for a year or three when I graduate from Elsenburg end of 2011. My dream job? Working for Distell’s cognac distillery, Bisquit, in France. Well, working anywhere in France at a winery.

,Workwise? The vineyards here are so different from ours in South Africa. The Gamay vines (the only red varietal allowed in the Beaujolais) are normally planted 0,9m apart with a row spacing of 1,2m. That is tight ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ about 9000 vines per hectare. Special elevated tractors are used with interchangeable implement attachments. A row of vines will pass under the belly of this tractor, with the wheels on either side of a row. One of the back wheels is also hydraulically adjustable to compensate for slight variations in row spacing and to help stability.

,Vines are either “bush vines”, trained in a goblet style, or a rough, free-standing, one-dimensional, two, or three-arm style, with the shoots being held upright with two wires. These wires can be loosened on both sides of a row of vines and tightened to lift shoots to expose the grape bunches to air and light.

,The infrastructure for this method is cheap and rudimentary. But why not train the vines in a double-arm, trellis system? Some of the young vineyards (not many) are being cultivated with this in mind – I saw one beautiful example. It will certainly save manpower. But then, when you plan a parcelle (a block of vines) to grow for the next 50+ years, it does not make sense to invest in expensive infrastructure that will have to be renewed every 10-15 years or so.

,Gamay vines grow liberally ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ shoots were often taller than my 1,9m height when tucked up – but the basic structure of the vines are much smaller and stunted than in South Africa. This is probably because of the planting density and the – mainly – poor decomposed granite soils. In any case, vines have to be kept fairly low to the ground for the special tractors to operate.

,Lesson learned? You are on thin ice when you preach a “best practice” for growing vines. It is a tough, adaptable plant. Your only objective is to create a system with which you can get the optimal balance between vegetative (leave and shoot) growth and reproductive (grapes) growth, while accounting for soil, aspect, and cultivar factors.

,Incidentally, on a weekend trip down to the Northern Rhone, I marveled at the wooden tripod system (and height) of the Syrah vines on the very steep slopes of the C?+¦???+¦?+¦????te Rotie and also in Crozes Hermitage. I cannot think of any other training method that will work on these slopes. I also saw typical South African style vineyards on the flat lands to the south of Tain l’Hermitage ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ complete with wide spacing and height.

,Nobody here has even as little as 2 hectares contiguous vines. For example, Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent has about 30 hectares sprinkled among the blocks of other owners in a radius of about 1 km around the Chateau. The reason for this fragmentation is not only ownership due to inheritance over many generations. It is a deliberate ownership system for two reasons:

,You can add complexity to your wine by spreading your blocks over different terroirs, and just as importantly, it protects you against hail damage. Moulin-a-Vent means “mill of the wind” and the wind blows in some fierce thundershowers and, sometimes, hail. When I was away over a weekend chasing the Tour de France, a hail storm damaged about 30% of most bunches in some blocks, while other blocks had no damage at all. Imagine your 30 hectares, neatly fenced of, being hit by this storm. There goes 30% of your production.

,The different ownership of adjacent blocks (there is no boundary fences anywhere) affords a fascinating comparison in soil cultivation practices. Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent is in the second season of a switch to using only plowing to control weeds. Many blocks next to theirs look like deserts ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ not a weed in sight because of the use of chemical weed controls over many years, and also no ploughing.

Funny little tractor thingy in Burgundy.

,The result in leave density and yield is startling: The Chateau’s vineyards (and those of others who use the same “bio” methods) are so much more balanced in growth ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ with the size of berries clearly more even and advanced. These grapes have a better chance of attaining full ripeness.

,The hardest, back-breaking work has been to hammer a couple of thousand tuteurs ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ stakes ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ into the ground next to newly planted vines. These pegs are not initially for support, but trigger the sensor on an in-and-out plough ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ essential for weed control. I will return one day to show my kids “my” two blistered-hands vineyards.

,The work has been physical and I am toned and tanned. The four guys I worked with ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ Pierre, Angelo, Didier, and Carmillo ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ work incredibly hard. During the growing phase of the vines, they start at 05h30 and work until 17h00, with a lunch break between 12h00 and 13h30. They do not simply make up the hours, they work productively. Each is responsible for just over 7 hectares of vines and maintain all the equipment themselves.

,The winemaker, Guillaume Berthier, works just as hard as his employees (who says he is mad to work so hard, but clearly respects him hugely). As I am writing this ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ around 18h15 – he just left the yard on one of the tractors to plough a block of vines. (He returned at 20h25.) It is nothing unusual.

Winemaking is not a desk job, nor gazing at barrels through a glass window. Wine gets made out there in the vineyard.

,I vaguely followed the debate around the Financial Mail article on the dire financial state of the South African wine industry. Most wine estates have hordes of workers. I know this is a historical situation and that a fair number of owners view this provision of work as a social responsibility.

,But Government makes more money from the South African wine industry than the industry itself through excise duties, taxes, etc. If this milking of the industry does not stop, then owners should seriously look at reducing the number and increasing productivity of remaining workers.

,The industry keeps the social fabric of countless rural communities together through employment. If the industry goes under, Government looses a goose laying golden eggs, and it will have to deal with social crises in these communities. You need a new model for labour? Come and have a look in France. (And, by the way, the famous French 35-hour work week, is rather liberally applied in the wine industry, it seems.)

,As GT Ferreira said in the FM article, he likes making a profit. So he should ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ there is nothing wrong with making money. And remember, a profit is what is left over only after a decent return on capital invested has been deducted.

,I have never formally met Mr Ferreira, but in the late 1990s he regularly shopped at my 711 in Uniepark ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ arriving in a denim jacket in an open-top jeep. He once bought a case of 24 Coke tins and asked for a discount. I gave him 5%. That’s cool ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ the asking part by one of the richest men in South Africa. Incidentally, I sold a shit-load of wine in that store by completely disregarding liquor laws ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ just like the countless shebeens did in Idas Valley, barely a kilometer away from my shop.

,I am not making any profit out of my 5 weeks of labour here. I earn just enough to cover my flight ticket and living expenses (very nice accommodation was provided free of charge). I had a Citroen Berlingo van over weekends (with free tanks of diesel provided) and this allowed me to earn precious experiences visiting Burgundy and the Northern Rhone to taste some great wine and to see fabled wine growing appellations.

,I missed my wife, Karin, and two small kids Jana, 4, and Jean, 2, ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ Sunday evenings desperately so. At least we could see each other on Skype every week.

,I have had a great time and I return home a little fitter in body and soul. Au Revoir!

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8 thoughts on “Sweating in Burgundy – and loving it!

  1. Riaan, it was with delight that I have followed you time in France. Your writing is full of insight and shed light on the France wine industry, making this complex world a little better to understand. I sincerely hope that we will read more of your reporting on wine matters.

  2. Enjoyed following your stories. Thank you for insight. Will we read more about your Elsenburg journey?

  3. Sjoe, dit was nou baie interessant! Mens vergeet altyd hoe belangrik die grond en groei omstandighede is as dit by wynmaak kom en sien net die wynmaker wat deur sy glas na die wyn kyk. Daar was nou weer ‘n hele debat oor wie eintlik die prys vir ‘n wyn verdien en niemand het iets gese oor die wingerd self nie. Hoop die regering skrik wakker oor die wynbelastings, ons land kan nie bekostig om nog werkloses te he nie! Welkom terug!!!

  4. Riaan, it was with delight that I have followed you time in France. Your writing is full of insight and shed light on the France wine industry, making this complex world a little better to understand. I sincerely hope that we will read more of your reporting on wine matters.

  5. Thank you Riaan for your insight into the real life of French viticultures, and their timeless and hard work ethic. Perhaps the romance with the vines is an earned love……over time!
    I visited France in 2006 and it left an indelible impression on me as well. I too, would like to do what you so aptly described. A total submersion into the relm of the vine. It is something I dream of often. Thank you again …………I hope you get to work in a cognac distillery.

  6. Good day everyone, my name is Thabiso from Johannesburg . I will be enrolling in Elsenburg agriculture Institute for the year 2017. The problem is I couldn’t get accommodation from the campus and I have never been to Cape Town before. I wanted to ask if the’s a Township nearby Elsenburg College whereby I can rent a place.??
    Email: bongathabiso16@gmail.com
    Thank You

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