Turckheim, France. For the past two weeks I have been living on a street called rue des Vignerons (wine growers’ street), appropriately named because it is at the edge of a vineyard. Less than half a mile from my rented house is the Route des Vins, a two-lane road that weaves its way through the thousand-year-old wine- producing region of Alsace, France.
This 105-mile stretch, which connects Marlenheim in the north to Thann in the south, is a popular destination for wine tourism. In the fertile area between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River grow seven varieties of grapes from which the local wines derive their names. Only the Pinot Noir is red. All the others are white wines: Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Sylvaner.
As they pass through the many wine-growing villages that the road crosses, bikers and motorists can stop at wine caves for a tasting. The geology of a vineyard – whether its soil has a high concentration of limestone, for example – creates subtle differences in the flavor of the grape and the wine. The French call this terroir.
Right now, with the vendange (grape harvest) in progress, the Route des Vins belongs to the vendangeurs, or grape pickers. On a sunny day, from a distance, drivers can spot their cars and trucks parked on the side of the road. Then, as one gets closer, or pulls over behind them, it’s possible to observe the pickers at work. Holding their red-handled grape shears, they move rapidly up and down the neatly planted rows, snipping large bunches of fruit and dropping them into plastic pails.
Though time is of the essence, like most other people in rural France, the vendangeurs take at least a one-hour break for lunch. After depositing their latest harvest into large yellow containers, they put aside their shears and have a picnic. While some eat tailgate-style, off the back of trucks, others spread out the repast at a long table.
At fêtes des vendanges, or celebrations of the harvest, like one we attended September 16 in the village of Ammerschwihr, this tradition gets passed along to the next generation. In the early evening children and their parents assembled in front of the hôtel de ville, or town hall, carrying buckets and grape pruners.
First there was a tractor ride through the village, to the accompaniment of wind instruments. Symbolically, adults followed the tractor on foot. The destination was a children’s garden at the edge of the village where grape vines are cultivated all year for this purpose. With their parents’ help, the children picked the grapes, deposited them in the tractor and, back at the hôtel de ville, took turns working the old-fashioned grape press that turned their small harvest into a super-sweet juice. Plastic cups were distributed and everyone got a taste.
Out in the vineyards, the fruits of a day’s labors get loaded onto trucks and tractors and transported to processing plants. As the grapes are pressed, the first product of the harvest emerges: a sweet, cloudy, slightly fermented liquid. This delicacy, available only during the vendange, is in other regions called bourru. At shops where it is sold – typically in recycled plastic bottles – we have seen signs announcing, Le bourru est arrivé! (The bourru has arrived.)
Up the hill from our house, at Cave de Turckheim, a cooperative of local grape growers, there was no sign. But when my husband and I stopped there one evening to buy a bottle of wine, we spotted a man at the counter with what looked like a plastic container for carrying small quantities of gasoline. And right away I knew what it was. “C’est le bourru?” I asked the saleswoman, in what I thought was a demonstration of savoir faire. Apparently not in this region, where it is simply called vin nouveau (new wine).
Either way, I wanted in. So the next day I returned with my own empty water bottle, which holds 1.5 liters, requested a fill and asked to see how it is done. In sharp contrast to the shop’s elegant wine-tasting area – with its granite countertop, glass stemware and long, slender bottles of Alsatian wine – this corner was like something out of an auto repair shop.
Attached to a large vat of vin nouveau was a long hose and a pump. Into my bottle the saleswoman placed a funnel, and then channeled through the liquid. The offering that day was from the harvest of Pinot Blanc grapes. And tomorrow? She shrugged, “Je ne sais pas.”
The clerk left the bottle open until the moment I exited the store. To minimize fermentation, one screws on the cap just long enough to get the wine home, and loosens it after that. Vin nouveau will keep two or three days in the frigo (fridge).
My purchase set me back €3.25, or about $3.88, at the current exchange rate. There was no charge for the chemistry lesson that went with it.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.