September is a hive of activity in champagne. The anticipation of the harvest, followed by the shear hard work and organisation around the event is a heady time.
Harvest dates are set by the Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) and change yearly depending on the weather conditions. Interestingly, the harvest dates are not the same for everyone. Each village is assigned a date when they can start harvesting. And the date that Chardonnay harvesting is allowed to start, may not be the same day the Pinots can start being picked. There are over 300 villages listed, so deciding on the harvest dates for each is a huge job. The dates are ultimately decided on by the CIVC, who work with a committee of people from each village. These dedicated committees take samples of grapes from local vineyards in the days and weeks before harvest. The grapes are analysed for acidity and sugar content, and the results sent to the CIVC, who use them to determine the harvest dates. Start dates this year (2014) range from 8 September to 19 September – if you are interested, the full list can be found here.
The preparation by the growers and houses is enormous. All champagne grapes must be all hand picked, teams of pickers are sourced locally and from all over Europe. Large houses such as Veuve Clicquot have 1300 people participating in the effort. They are grouped into teams of about 50, and must be transported, fed and lodged during the harvest season.
Less people are involved for the smaller growers, but the logistics of organising enough pickers, lodging, feeding and transporting them remain the same. One person who knows all too well the organisation involved during harvest time is Caroline Brun, from Champagne Roger Brun. Born and bred in the hallowed grounds of Aÿ, Caroline is the first woman in her family who is responsible for managing her own label within their range. And she is very hands on from the start, participating in the harvest and hand sorting the grapes as they go through to the press. Caroline adores harvest time. She is one of those Champenoise who underlines my belief that these people have bubbles in their blood. Her enthusiasm, even for such an enormously difficult job is infectious.
‘Nature gives us tools – some years are better than others. Some years are easier than others,’ explains Caroline.
The weather plays a huge factor – too much rain, the grapes are too juicy and the intensity of flavour is not there. Too much sun, the grapes get too ripe and are too sweet. The wrong amount of rain, and the skins are too thick and harder to press, decreasing the yield. Nature provides a palette for the wine maker artistes to create a superb drink that will not disappoint.
The palette starts with the bunches of grapes, which are delivered to the winery from the fields.
Here they are placed onto a conveyor belt and hand sorted before they go to the press. Immature grapes are discarded, making sure only the best grapes make it to the pressing process. The first press makes the best juice, and this is usually kept aside for special cuvées, but the grapes can be pressed up to four times to maximise the amount of juice obtain. According to Christian Renard, vineyard director of Veuve Clicquot, 25.50 hl of juice is extracted from 4000kg of grapes.
With millions of bottles of champagne produced each year that is an enormous amount of grapes that need to be picked!
With the juice extracted, the winemaker is able to start creating!
There are no quick rewards involved. It will be almost 3 years before the final product can be drunk, and in some vintage years it can be over 10 years before the winemaker can taste the nectar of his or her labour.
Despite all the stress involved around harvest time, Caroline Brun says ‘I love it!’
Caroline’s new baby is her label ‘Brun de Fille’, which is a play on words with ‘Brin de Fille’ which translates as ‘A Girl’s Touch’. If Caroline has anything to do with it, I am sure the finished product is sublime. I have never had the opportunity to taste her champagne, but hope that next time I am in France, I can sit down with her and toast her creation!
If you would like to follow the harvest this year more closely, Christian Renard from Veuve Clicquot is publishing his Harvest diary. Click here for daily updates straight from the vineyard!
Champagne Bollinger have just released this beautiful video of the 2014 Harvest. It’s poetry in motion!
Photos courtesy of Caroline Brun