Holding squats for 8-hours straight in full sun might sound like a new fitness craze or an especially diabolical Workout Of the Day. But if you look closer you’ll see rubber boots, jean shorts, and a sticky pair of stainless steel shears. The dead giveaway, however, is the landscape: endless rows of pinot noir and chardonnay spanning the Côte-d’Or, leaves rustling in the breeze, and temporary signs erected on every small street reading “Attention: Harvest in Progress.” It might not be the latest workout trend, but the vendange is French fitness at its finest.
Related: Like working out with a view? Maybe you should give surfing a try.
When you hear the word wine, the first thing you think about isn’t necessarily fitness. But the vendange—or wine harvest—is one of the most physically intense activities I’ve ever done. And I cross country skied on Mont Blanc for three full days having never touched a pair of skis before. The first year I packed my bags and headed to Nuits-Saint-Georges, I didn’t know what I was in for. But now, three years into my tenure as a couper at Domaine Vincent Ledy, I’ve learned how to prep, persevere, and (well) prosper for 72 hours of squat, snip, squat—and occasionally—sip.
Not every vineyard approaches harvest the same way. Some opt for heavy machinery while others lean into tradition, care for the land, and—to put it bluntly—back-breaking labor. In Burgundy, grape vines are typically “old growth”—meaning they were planted on average 50 years ago—the pieds are never more than a foot off the ground, and mature grapes hover mere centimetres from the earth. To ensure not a single cluster of ripe grapes is missed it means squatting, ripping off leaves, and gripping your sécateur firmly as you find the point of purchase and snip the bundle off the vine, letting it drop into your bucket.
Fitness en Plein Air
I like to think of wine picking as the world’s hardest Super Set. You start with a squat, then perform a series of forward lateral raises paired with a right-handed grip exercise as you squeeze the sécateurs, sticky with years of grape juice, shut. There is a mental element, too; you might not be rocking a tabata timer, or counting down the seconds until you can drop to your knees from a plank. But if you look to your right there are grapes to be picked as far as the eye can see.
Sometimes you find yourself chatting with friends, other times you’re just trying to make it to the next wooden post to signal you’ve advanced. There is a goal on the horizon that you are working toward. And no, it is not the wine. It’s history.
Fitness, for me, is about connecting to my body. Finding my goal, and pushing myself past my personal best. But when I’m in the vines, each cut, each grape, each squat connects me with the history of the moment. Just like team sports, it’s about more than myself. Each worker at the Domaine is part of something bigger than themselves—bigger than the burning quads and creaking knees. They’re part of the vineyard’s lifecycle, each filled bucket joins you to a tradition that transcends decades. Three years from now when I taste the 2022 vintage I’ll remember the weather, the conversation, the exhaustion. The exact same way I remember where I was when France won the ‘98 World Cup and the way my jaw dropped to the floor when Zidan’s headbutt was heard around the world in 2006. Picking wine might feel like an endurance sport, but working towards a vendange entier is a team sport.
Counting Down Until the Casse-Croûte
One of my favourite moments in the vines is the casse-croûte or “breaking of the bread” when you’ve finished the first section of the morning and all the coupers stop for breakfast. Everyone reaches for coffee, cups, water, and warm croissants tumble out of flimsy bakery bags. This tradition is at the heart of French fitness. It’s about pairing the work with the reward. There is not guilt, not guile, every crumb is enjoyed, every sip is relished, and the hard work feels just a little easier—until, that is, you bend down again and you feel the burn from the calves to the dorsal muscles.
This year, I upped our casse-croûte by bringing along a few foodspring protein bars for the group. After the croissants were demolished, the protein bars ensured our energy was sustained in a way simple carbs just can’t. We joked all afternoon that the workers who ate the whole bar were able to finish their rows faster—only thing is it wasn’t a joke.
We tend to think fitness only happens in a gym or at a track. But fitness can take all sorts of forms. Carrying your kids around the house, building Ikea furniture, and even—especially—picking grapes. In fact, the wine harvest is one of the most physically strenuous activities I’ve ever done. And I’ve played rugby at a national level.
Up until I began coming to Burgundy for the harvest I found my physical limits in powerful scrums, hooking the ball with my foot while focusing on staying up right and preparing to hit the ground running the moment the arms and legs untangled. Gaining ground one tackle, ruck, and sprint at a time. Now that I know the physical and mental challenge that lays between each row of vines running down the 100m rugby pitch getting chased by 15 strong, fast, and freighting women feels strangely easy.
Although rugby tournaments didn’t typically end with gooey slabs of Brillat-Savarin and straight-from-the-barrel wine tastings.
Workouts that’ll help get you in great shape for next year’s harvest: