Harvesting Season has started, may les vendanges be successful!

Sunday November 27th

One of the key moments of Champagne making has started this week, harvesting. This key moment of the Champagne production is called vendanges, and it is all about timing.

There are really only two regions left in France where picking grapes by hand is the law: Champagne and Beaujolais. All the other AOC’s and regions allow for mechanized picking. In Champagne, just Northeast of Paris, where AOC champagne grapes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grow, you will see no machines harvesting grapes in the vineyards because, it is against AOC regulations. Still and since the 18th century.  Each harvest is different in terms of grape ripeness, potential alcohol levels and natural acidity – so picking the right moment to harvest is essential.

Twice a week, just as the grapes start to change colour (véraison), samples are taken from some 450 control plots spread throughout the Champagne area. The selected clusters are then checked for rate of colour change; average weight; estimated sugar and total acidity content; also for any incidence of grey rot.

The results are transmitted the same day via internet, so allowing the Comité Champagne to establish reference values for each parcel of vines, together with mean average values (potential alcohol levels, natural acidity, etc …) for each department and grape variety. A data summary is then notified to the technical officers concerned, starting with the regional heads of the AVC (Association Viticole Champenoise). This enables them to attend the pre-harvest meeting with a very clear idea of when picking should start in their respective communes.   

Champagne wine is exclusively produced from the grape berry pulp. It is the pulp that contains the organoleptic compounds and elements required for effervescence (sugar, acidity, etc); and only pulp alone can deliver the desired clear, pale juice, bearing in mind that 3/4 of Champagne wines are made from black grapes. Pulp extraction is specifically designed to avoid colouring or staining the musts when pressing black-skinned grapes.

Hence the need for manual picking, selecting whole, undamaged clusters that must remain that way right up to the point of pressing itself. Pickers have roughly a three-week window in which to work – beyond that point the grapes will be past their best. Just to complicate matters, all Champagne grapes reach their peak of ripeness at about the same time. Some 120,000 pickers work in teams (hordons in French) of four per hectare, of which nearly 100,000 are given bed and board by the vinegrowers and Champagne makers. Read the harvesting experience of Ann Mah in Champagne here.