Driving about an hour southeast from Toulouse, a short hop off the highway just before Carcassone puts one right in the middle of the Aude Department. Beyond the famous fortress, the Aude produces fantastic wines and offers tantalizing views of the Pyrenees.
For the second year, we roused ourselves early on a Sunday morning and drove down here with our friends Rebecca and Bernard to Château Guilhem. Situated in the little town of Malviès, in the territory of Malepère, the wine estate was holding its annual harvest fundraiser to support Autisme 31, a non-profit. It’s a great cause, but for us, it’s also a chance to plunge a bit deeper into an essential part of French culture and gastronomy.
After a short breakfast of pastries and coffee, Bertrand Gourdou, head of Château Guilhem, grabbed a microphone and offered up a tribute to the 300 volunteers who had signed up to gather would eventually total 7 tons of grapes to make 500 bottles. From there, we grabbed clippers, buckets, and marched out to the vinyards to begin gathering.
The rows of Merlot and Cabernet grapes stretched over the estate’s rolling hills. Fortunately, the weater was mild, and the work was strenous but high-spirited.
As we clipped grapes and threw them in a basket, porters came along with giant buckets strapped to their backs to gather the harvest and carry it back to the trucks. To our delight, our son, Liam, plunged into the spirit of the day by deciding to be a porter. After carrying the grapes, he had to climb a ladder and execute a rather awkward maneuver of bending over so the fruit spilled out in the back of the truck while not falling over himself.
Eventually, these will all end up here, spending the next few years being transformed in the estate’s organic wines.
But more immediately, the harvesting finished by late morning and then we returned to the chateau to sample the goods.
I can never quite figure out how the economics of the fundraiser works. There are some donations from sponsors, and some of the wines sold that day must go to Autisme 31. On the other hand, the morning in the field and the wine tasting are followed by an extremely generous lunch for all the volunteers.
Of course, the centerpiece was cassoulet, the staple of southwest France, with white beans, duck, and sausage. This being Sunday and French lunch, the buffet unfolded over several hours in the estate’s gardens. But eventually the steaming casserole was ladled into ceramic bowls, and we dug in to complete the day’s culinary and sensory tour.