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Behind the scenes at the annual harvest
The Champagne harvest arrived early this year – and that is good news.
By the Langrée & Stahel Editorial Team
Friday September 29th, 2017
Champagne has just finished its three weeks of harvesting throughout the region. Harvesting takes place 100 days after the grape flower and usually lasts 10 days, so it generally falls at the end of September. However, the unusually warm weather prompted an early harvest this year – in late August – making it among the five earliest harvests in Champagne’s history. This means that the wine quality is expected to be very good.
Key steps in the pressing process
Once harvested, what happens to the precious Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay Champagne grapes? Simple: they’re pressed!
Immediately after harvesting, grapes are brought to the pressing centre (pressoir). On arrival, the date and time the grapes were picked are recorded, as is the vineyard of origin (cru). Each batch is then pressed separately, partly for traceability purposes but also to ensure a homogeneous qualitative press load, according to grape variety, vineyard plot or group of similar plots.
Champagne wine is exclusively produced from the grape berry pulp. The pulp alone delivers a clear, pale juice – and bear in mind that three-fourths of Champagne wines are made from black grape – Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. Pulp extraction is specifically designed to avoid colouring or staining the musts when pressing black-skinned grapes.
It takes about four hours to press 4,000kg of grapes. Every 4,000kg marc (traditional unit of measurement for a press-load of grapes) is numbered and recorded in the pressing logbook (carnet de pressoir), noting details of grape variety, cru or year and destination (whether to be retained by the winegrower or sold to a Champagne house). The grapes are also tested for compliance with the minimum alcohol content by volume that is specified for the vintage in question.
The next step is separating the first pressing juice (the cuvée, representing 20.5hl) from the second (the taille, representing 5hl). Each has quite specific characteristics. The cuvée is the purest juice of the pulp, rich in sugar and acid. This produces wines with great finesse, subtle aromas, a refreshing palate and good aging potential. The taille is also rich in sugar, but acid content is lower while mineral content (especially potassium salts) and pigment concentrations are higher. The taille musts produce intensely aromatic wines – fruitier in youth than those made from the cuvée but less age-worthy.
The juice (moût) is then left to decant to eliminate the impurities (bourbes) that will be eventually sent to a distillery, whereas the clear juice will be transferred in steel barrels – or wooden barrels for some growers – so that the three steps of alcoholic fermentation of winemaking can begin.
These days, viticulture is much more than grapes. It’s also about understanding and preserving the environment. At Langrée & Stahel, we care for sustainable production and products. For Champagne, this starts obviously in the vineyards. But it keeps going until the wine fabrication. Cage washing is compulsory after each press load. As part of the commitment to sustainable viticulture, solid residues that remain after pressing (aignes) are sent for distillation, and winery waste water (used for cleaning in the course of pressing) is recycled and treated so as to avoid any risk of environmental pollution.
Did you know?
Once the grape is cut manually, as is the tradition in Champagne, each harvester harvests around 3,000 grape stacks daily, amounting to roughly 300 to 400kg of grapes. It takes 1-1.2 kg of grapes to make one 750 ml bottle of Champagne.