Photographing grape picking in Champagne

It is grape picking time known as 'vendanges' here in the champagne district of France.  This is a fantastic photo opportunity and perfect for my research in setting up my tours and workshops in champagne that I am programming for 2016.  I love champagne and have a house nearby so have thrown myself into this unique and picturesque area to offer these photo classes to anyone who loves champagne and photography.

As I had done a lot of research for this project in recent months, I called up a couple of the independant champagne houses that will be visited on my tours and asked if I could tag along. I spent a glorious day in perfect weather at Alain Mercier.  We all set off at the crack of dawn on several tractors to the nearby vineyards and the picking began.

This is pure reportage photography. No time to set up a shot, and there's so much going on at once.  The grape pickers are dispersed into the vines and people of all ages are picking grapes, filling up baskets, tipping them into crates. Sitting, kneeling, bending, smiling, laughing and occasionaly scowling when they get stiff or carry heavy baskets! Where to point the camera to?  Then there is the tractor collecting the crates and lifting them up.  Within a short time the row is completed and they are off to the next one. 

The best way to photograph all this activity is to make a mental list of all you need to tell a story.  Overall shots showing the scene, people picking the grapes, some close up shots,  portraits, some details, groups of people together talking, the tractors at work,  the lunch break etc.

I was lucky as the weather was great and I managed to get a couple of super back lit photos early in the morning with the mist still over the valley.  Light or lack of, is a photographer's friend and enemy.  When you are working for a magazine, you are given the date and off you go. Tough if it rains!  Beautiful, moody pictures can be had in bad weather, but that's another story. 

The young people at Alain Mercier were a great bunch of people, friendly, singing and bantering most of the time   They allowed me to take all the pictures I wanted, although of course i didn't bother them too much as the work has to be done.  Back at the champagne house, the grapes are immediately crushed into juice and the process begins. This is done in a 'pressoir', which today are different versions of huge mechanical metal bins but in the old days were rather stunning wooden vats. Many champagne houses keep the old pressoirs but use the modern ones.

I was invited to a delicious hearty 4 course lunch back on the premises. Bottles of champagne and wine were liberally opened and there was a great ambiance.  I took some candid pictures of that too.  I didn't use a flash for the lunch or for the pictures in the pressoir, although it was quite dark.  It produced photos with movement which I love anyway.  I have a fuji XE2 that I can handhold if I'm careful at an 1/8th of a second although I would recommend a 1/15th if possible.

For my workshops and tours in 2016, I can't gurarantee that the dates chosen will include the grape picking.  Each year it happens at a different time, roughtly 100 days after the vines flower.  This year was particularly early but it seems to happen in September and no longer in October.  No worries, plenty of other photos to take in champagne.

Years of working for Cuisine et Vins de France taught me a lot about taking pictures of food and wine.  Love of good food and wine and taking those pictures has never left me!  Join me in 2016.