The wine we drink at home and you drink on one of our mosaic courses or painting holidays, comes from Domaine Isabelle in the village. Charles and Isabelle have become our best friends in France – but in all the years we’ve known them I’ve never worked in their vines.
Mid-morning breakfast: Isabelle, her bread, their pâté, their wine – and Miga.
They have always practiced ‘ agriculture raisonnée’ – paying due respect to wildlife and conservation methods, and using the minimum of chemicals necessary. Now they are going 100% ‘ biologique’ or organic – which involves even more work. And which involves me this week.
The rows between the vines – les sillons, as in Roussillon – get regular harrowing, to keep down weeds and aerate the heavy clay. But the gaps (les billons or cavaillons) between the vine-plants themselves pose a different problem : how to deal with the weeds without damaging ‘ les souches’ .
Up to the ’50’s, the work was done by hand – with the hoe and the horse-drawn décavailloneuse. The tractor speeded up the process – but the work remained the same : careful ploughing around every vine. It was the advent of powerful chemicals in the ’70’s that changed the ‘nature of the game’.
One man with a sprayer and a 5 euro bottle of glyphosate (initially patented and sold by Monsanto in the 1970s as Roundup) could do the work it took two men a day to do – in an hour. The double-bladed décavailloneuse above was brought out of retirement this week.
Below is a video of Isabelle and me, guiding the handles – with Charles at the wheel.
The trick is to help the curved bars in front of the ploughshare to strike – or stroke – the base of the vine. These guide-bars – les tâteurs, literally tasters or feelers – are linked by lever and spring so that the shares are retracted – just in time . . . But a ridge of earth with tough old weeds has formed at either side which frequently spoils the neat movement in and out. That’s where you see Isabelle battling to push the blade back out, or me yanking the lever back in before it rips out a vine. It’s quite physical – and you really shouldn’t take your eye off the ground for an instant . . .
The trick for Charles was to keep a steady line precisely down the middle of le sillon – the slightest deviation of the little front wheels makes a big difference 4 metres back at the blades – quite nerve-racking.
Two regional expressions of this work: tirer le régou, from the provenςal rega, a furrow; and tirer le crépis, a wavy line. Where the weeds are thin and le billon not too humped, le tâteur can be left to work on its own. But our second parcelle were merlot vines – fragile plants compared to the cabernet, which is tough and supple ‘comme le chewing-gum‘ says Isabelle. She hates this particular parcel of vines. It was badly planted from the outset by the neighbour they bought it from : too closely spaced, and not trained to grow straight when young. So now we are pushing and pulling, swearing and swerving around these bent stems – and occasionally ripping them out. Our score was even at the very end – 3 all – when she lobbed her last victim onto the bonnet.
And the undesirable américains? Here’s one we we uprooted –
It’s a stump of the late-19th. century root-stock that all French vines were grafted on to, to protect them from phylloxera. Its advantage was the thick bark that the insect couldn’t penetrate – its disadvantage the fact that its grape-buds never develope. Its a hardy root with a love of life – but also just another weed that has to go.
By coincidence we both own identical ’80’s-style shades : les Blues Brothers says Charles, or the Gondoliers.
Here’s a link to a short video of a horse-drawn décavailloneuse, from 2006 near Nimes, as part of a demonstration by Jean Clopes, au Mas de Theyron à Boisseron (Hérault) – and to the blog of Stephan Przezdziecki writing about the same work, up-country en Pays de Layon, Anjou.