I brought my car to a halt in a never-before visited corner of the Chinon appellation. I knew I had found the right place as here, on the edge of an undulating landscape of vines, there were parked a motley collection of vehicles; a mini-bus streaked with decades of dirt, a couple of small vans, and a selection of Euro-box hatchbacks with regulation sun-blistered peeling paint across their bonnets. Around this little gathering there was strewn the paraphernalia of an ongoing harvest. There were boxes and crates, perhaps once intended for carrying freshly picked bunches of grapes from vineyard to van, but here I suspected they would be pressed into service as makeshift tables and stools once lunchtime arrived. There were also signs of a pause in picking yet to come, namely a few bottles with their corks in situ, as well as a couple of thermos flasks with the usual tartan design. Should French thermos flasks not have their own design, the tricolour perhaps, or some Charlie Hebdo cartoon? Scattered around this traitorous flask there lay casually discarded items of clothing, sweaters and scarves (nothing more risqué than that, I should point out – this wasn’t a scene from Carry on Camping), presumably shed as the morning sun had risen in the sky.
There was, however, something missing. Where, I wondered, were the pickers?
I had only made my arrangements to meet Matthieu Baudry in the vineyard the previous evening, and his directions had been spot on, for which I was grateful. I have spent many days exploring the vineyards of Chinon, especially those along what I call the première côte, the prestigious limestone slope that runs roughly parallel to the Vienne, past Cravant-les-Coteaux and on to the town of Chinon itself. And I have also explored the town’s vineyards, as well as those to the west, the various terroirs of Beaumont-en-Véron and Savigny-en-Véron, and of course the vineyards on the river’s left bank, around Sazilly and Anché. But other than having once checked out the famed Château de la Grille, this was my first time nosing around the vineyards on the plateau to the north of the town. Nevertheless, with Matthieu’s instructions in mind – “take a right off the bypass at the sign for Couly-Dutheil, then next left, and follow the road up to the vineyards” – I had found their parked-up convey without a single wrong turn.
Thankfully I recalled where Matthieu said he and his team (pictured below) would be picking, a parcel destined for the domaine cuvée named Le Cimetière aux Chiens, which translates as The Dog Cemetery. I once asked Matthieu’s father Bernard Baudry the origin of the name; he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders, so I think it is as much a mystery to the locals as it is to you and me. I struck out for the parcel in question (which I knew from maps of the region, in case you are wondering), and before long I spotted Matthieu and a few dozen pickers, dutifully and rapidly making their way through the vines. I made my way over to see how he and his extensive team were getting on with the harvest, a harvest which many had thought back in April would not be happening at all. Why? Because, tragically, the 2017 vintage is the second consecutive vintage in the Loire Valley to have been hit by a hard spring frost.