Like the other vineyard foremen at châteaus in the Bordeaux region of France, Jackie Bonneau of Château Loudenne must second-guess the weather. He waits, anxiously, during the dry, sunny days of August and early September for thegrapes to become riper, riper, riper. But the longer he waits to pick the grapes, the greater the risk of hailstorms, which can wipe out an entire crop in minutes, or rain, whichwaters down the grapes' flavor and can cause gray rot. So when he decides it's time to pick, it's like a mini war. For two weeks the ranks of workers more than double as cousins, aunts, sisters and brothers of the 11 full-time vineyard employees are mobilized to pick enormous amounts of fragile fruit in a very short time.
Gathering the harvest is backbreaking work, so refueling with hearty meals at midday is essential. The pickers at Loudenne are lucky. At many vineyards in France today, workers must provide their own lunches. But at Loudenne, Josette Riondato still cooks the traditional pickers' meals from a repertoire of dishes she has developed during her 34 years at the château. Her recipes are rustic and restorative--like roasted guinea hen, served with the Cabernet or Merlot grapes that growin the vineyard or with figs freshly picked from a tree outside the kitchen door. Many of her dishes are the slow-cooked variety, including pot-au-feu and blanquette de veau, a homey veal stew, which she prepares in giant cauldrons built into the harvest kitchen's copper-and-tile potager, a kind of simmering stove. Soup, charcuterie, salad, cheese, fruit and dessert round out the meal--along with a generous supply of Château Loudenne wines.
Loudenne is 40 miles north of the city of Bordeaux, in the Médoc peninsula. The incredibly beautiful vineyards rise up from the Gironde waterway six miles north of the village of St-Estèphe, which marks the border of the Haut-Médoc, one of the premier winegrowing regions in the world. In 1875, the English wine merchants Walter and Arthur Gilbey bought the château, chiefly because its location on the Gironde was ideal for transporting Haut-Médoc wines. But today Loudenne wine is respected in its own right. The red cru bourgeois, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend, at $14 per bottle, is a good-value alternative to the more elevated Médoc appellations, which like many top Bordeaux wines are increasingly exorbitant. Loudenne also produces a fresh and fruity white Bordeaux, made with Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes, and a rosé, La Rose de Loudenne.
When Charles Eve, a Master of Wine, was appointed director of the property in 1989, he and his wife, Pat, inherited not only the Loudenne tradition of feeding a temporary army of pickers but also the house staff to do it, including Josette and her husband, Sylvain. This cook-and-butler team still perform their duties side by side, as they have since they hired themselves out to the château in 1965. Although the harvest is hard work, the Riondatos help make it a celebration too. By the time the pot-au-feu and wine have been cleared, the kitchen is filled with laughing and singing pickers who are ready to begin their afternoon assault on the vines.