The harvests come at the time of year when the grapes are picked, and this determines the vintage of the wine, the harvest year which will be shown on the label: this means that vintage 2003 was harvested last year, in 2003.
Traditionally, this takes place in September, but it often starts in August and sometimes ends as late as October! In fact, the harvest date depends on how ripe the grapes are, and this varies from year to year and from region to region, not only in terms of quality, but also in terms of earliness! Everyone remembers the heatwave that affected the 2003 vintage (last year!) so strongly, bringing the harvest date forward by several weeks (and in some cases more than a month!) in almost every vineyard in France!
Calculated on the basis of the lifecycle of the vine, in other words the sugar content and the ripeness of the grape skins, harvests take several days, or even weeks, depending on the size of the plots. Thus, in theBordeaux vineyards, where several varieties are grown, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are not harvested on the same date, because they don't ripen at exactly the same time.
The harvest period makes its mark on the wine-growing landscape. In fact, the winding routes down the hillsides are busy with tractors carrying crates of grapes to the presses, while an army of humans moves through the rows of vines. If you decide to go there by car during this period, go armed with a little patience.
The harvests leave their mark on the rows of vines, denuded of their precious bunches of grapes. However, in some regions, the grapes are left a lot longer, and harvesting takes place in October or even November!
This is the case in Jurançon in particular, where the grapes dry on the vine, concentrating their sugar (these grapes are known as "passerillés"), and producing strong, sweet wines. These make delicious aperitifs.
At Sauternes (Bordeaux), and in Alsace, or the Layon valley (Loire), certain grapes are harvested late, but this process requires a little mushroom, botrytis cinerea, which permits the development of the "noble rot", the origin of a fabulous concentration of flavors and sugar in the grapes. The sweet, strong wines obtained this way (Sauternes, Sélections de Grains Nobles, Coteaux-du-Layon, etc.) are some of the best dessert wines you will ever taste.
Harvesting, which was manual in the past, tends to be mechanized nowadays. But the results are not the same in terms of quality, and some regions formally prohibit the use of harvesting machinery: this is the case in Beaujolais and Champagne, for example. Wine tourism during the harvest season is a splendid experience!