The CIVC has just released the start dates for this year’s harvest in Champagne
Here’s a snap shot of the document
Lots of columns and figures, and I suggest that you enlarge this image and the ones below, to see all the detail.
So much for the information, but what can we understand from this?
Actually an awful lot that you might, at first glance, overlook and it all makes the organisation of the harvest much more complex than you might imagine…
Not What You Might Expect
The first thing to notice is that, for the purposes of the harvest dates (and many other official purposes), the Champagne region isn’t divided into the classic 4 areas that you may have heard of:
Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs and Côtes des Bars
Instead, 5 different categories are used based on what the French call departement which means something like ‘county’. This is done in order to include all villages, even ones that don’t fit neatly into the 4 classic areas.
Anyway, they are:
First Out Of The Blocks
The next thing to notice is that a separate date is given for each grape variety to reflect the fact that they don’t all ripen at the same rate.
If you have difficulty enlarging the images you can study the original by clicking on this link
Another thing to note is that there is quite a wide variation from one area to the next and sometimes, even from one village to the next. Let's take a closer look...
The earliest start dates are down in the Aube region - the southernmost part of Champagne
This area, planted mainly with Pinot Noir, typically has that little bit more sunshine than further north and the grapes ripen a tad more quickly giving what some say is a softer, more rounded taste to champagnes from this area.
In Balnot-sur-Laignes they can start as early as 24th September and I can’t see any starting date later than 1st October in the Aube region.
Les Grands Crus
The best-known parts of Champagne are in the Marne departement, so let’s see what’s happening there.
Here the start dates are a few days later than in the Aube. Most villages wont get going until October and in Arcis-Le-Ponsart they can’t start until 9th October. That’s the latest date I have seen for this year and it’s a full 16 days after the first village starts down in the Aube.
Generally speaking the Chardonnays on La Côte des Blancs will be ready at the end of September.
( Avize, Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger and Chouilly all on 28th September, Chouilly 30th September - Cramant and Oiry on 1st October)
Whereas the Pinot Noirs will be later ( Verzy 6th October, Verzenay 7th October – perhaps not surprising since the slopes in Verzenay face north and get less sunshine than some other villages).
A Complex Operation
With all these different dates to cope with you can imagine how complicated this can make things for a champagne producer who has to organise his team of pickers.
If the champagne maker has vines in a fairly limited area around one or two villages, that’s easier; the grapes will be ready to pick at more or less the same time without too many gaps in between – gaps are definitely not what you want if you have hired a team of pickers and have to pay them, even if they are sitting around doing nothing just waiting for the next plot of vines to pick.
If you have vineyards spread out over many different villages, possibly quite a distance apart, then as you can understand, it’s even more difficult to decide exactly where to send the pickers and when.
Picking ideally should be done on exactly the day when the balance of sugar and acid in the grapes is perfect (or as good as it’s going to get in any given year), but if you’ve got more than one plot that is ready on the same day, what do you do? Especially if they are many kilometres apart.
The big houses can cope because they have teams of pickers across the region, but for the small grower champagnes and other operators with just a limited number of people to do the picking, it’s not always so easy.
Fortunately you are not obliged to start on the first permitted day. You can wait, if you so wish, for reasons of organisation, a change in the weather, or the degree of ripeness of your specific plots.
Finding The Perfect Moment
Of course, yesterday’s announcement doesn’t come as a complete surprise for the vignerons. For the last few weeks there have been teams out in the vineyards twice a week taking samples of the grapes and analysing them to see how the sugar and acid levels are developing. These teams report back to their colleagues in their villages and then relay the information back to the CIVC which collates the data and comes up with the harvest dates chart based on the feedback from the people on the spot.
Ideally, at the time of picking the sugar content of the grapes should be enough to give 10% alcohol in the wine that is made from the first alcoholic fermentation. If it’s above that level, that’s fine up to a point, but you don’t want the level of acidity to fall too much either because that would mean a dull and flabby wine.
It’s all a question of finding the right balance and despite all the modern techniques for analysing and measuring it often comes down to the skill and experience of the vignerons who take the final decision about when to pick.
Just another aspect of champagnes that proves there’s far more to it than meets the eye.
Over the coming weeks I will be posting lots of Harvest Bulletins so do come back again soon to see what's going on and to get those all-important insights into what's really going on behind the scenes.