This fall, instead of just talking about the Champagne Harvest, I decided to join the army of pickers who, every year, descend upon the region. In order to immerse myself in les vendanges (the harvest) I contacted Champagne Jacquesson, a small Champagne House that farms about 19 hectares of vineyard around Dizy, and asked if I could join their picking team. In Champagne, by law, the fruit has to be hand picked. People come from all over France—and in some cases from other countries—to pick. At Jacquesson, the bulk of the people are local (from the Marne area) and most of them have several harvests under their belts.

Pressing Pinot Noir in the traditional square 4000 kg Coquard press at Champagne Jacquesson

Though a lot has changed in recent decades, the Champagne harvest is still intrinsically folkloric and vibrant. The mood is jolly and most people are happy to be part of another harvest, and to catch up with old friends. And most Houses look after their harvest staff, so a day in the fields or at the press comes with several meals. At 9 AM, a coffee break and breakfast (croissant or sandwich) is delivered to the pickers, at midday a four-course lunch is served, and at the end of the day everybody has a few glasses of bubbly before going home. Very few places today house their pickers, as was done in the past. But winery staff—if they are not local—are generally given a bed, and all winery staff will generally also enjoy an evening meal (and more Champagne) together.

Harvest lasts about ten days and, like all things in Champagne, it is strictly regulated. The rules are determined every year by the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne) which regulates:

1. the yield per hectare for the 2012 production

2. the extra yield allowed for reserve wines

3. the average alcohol percentage of the must

4. the allowed amount of chaptalization

5. the earliest and latest picking dates

Once I was involved in the harvest, the process and the reasons for these regulations became clearer. 2012 has been a challenging year due to many factors including severe winter frost, spring frosts, hail and cold weather during flowering, and a very wet spring and summer resulting in severe outbreaks of powdery and downy mildew. All of the above have played havoc with the potential yields and because of this the total harvest is expected to be about 26% lower than average.

This year, the production has been set to 11 tons per hectare; last year it was 13.5 tons. This figure is based on the average yields out in the field as well as market requirements—and vignerons (growers) are encouraged to make the appellation requirements, as payments for the grapes are calculated accordingly.

cellar with small tanks at Champagne Tarlant - Benoit vinifies every plot and every pressing separately

Every year, the rules stipulate the appellation production as well as the amount which can be used as Réserve Individuelle (RI) or personal reserve wine for each champagne producer. In 2012 1000 kg on top of the 11,000 may be harvested and added to the RI—but very few people will have enough grapes to meet the absolute allowed maximum of 12,000 kg (12 tonnes) per hectare. In fact, all the people I have visited and spoken to (at Champagne Jacquesson, Champagne Tarlant, the co-operative Goerg, Champagne Jean Bliard and Champagne Philippe Gonet) will have to dig into their RI to make up the appellation quota. They can do this by unblocking reserve wine which they had accumulated in previous years.

Chardonnay from Vertus at Champagne Goerg

Though the yields are relatively low, the fruit has ripened well thanks to a dry and hot August and September, so the average alcohol percentage for the must for 2012 has been set to 9.5%. This is quite high in comparison with other years when it tends to be closer to 8% or 8.5%. The alcohol percentage is measured in the pressed juice which makes up the cuvée. The amount of sugar one can add to the must this year has been set to 2%, or 3.36 kg/hl. However, as most musts at the wineries I visited have had an average of more than 10.8%, chaptalization will not be needed. The aim is to make a base wine with alcohol around 11%, resulting in a Champagne around 12% alcohol.

The earliest picking dates are decided per village (commune) by a committee made up of growers who taste and test the sugar levels in the grapes in several vineyards in the village. In general, the latest picking date is 21 days after the earliest picking date, however as there was quite a bit of variation in the average ripeness (due to the uneven flowering period) the CIVC decided this year to allow for a harvest period of 28 days. The last day of pressing has been set for the 28th of October, which is pretty late.

Other harvest regulations (which do not change from year to year) describe the maximum yields in liters. Per 4,000 kg of grapes, one is allowed to press up to 2,550 liters of wine. One needs to separate the first 2,050 liters (la cuvée) from the last 500 liters (la taille). And in practice, the first 50 liters of free-run juice is kept separate as it often includes quite a few impurities — especially this year where a lot of pesticides, copper and sulfur have been used. The rebêches (the must which is extracted after the 2,550 liters) may not be more than 2% in 2012. This last juice either goes to a distillery together with the grape skins, pips and stalks where it will be fermented and distilled into Marc de Champagne, or it can be used for the production of Ratafia. Either way, the rebêches—just as the cuvée and the tailles do—have to be recorded and declared in the carnet de pressoir (press ledger), which this year has to handed over to the CIVC by the 2nd of November.

Different presses are used in Champagne, but the most common size I saw was a 4,000 kg press manufactured by Coquard. The larger establishments have 8,000 kg presses (often pneumatic) and smaller growers sometimes have 2,000 kg presses. Quite a few houses, including Jacquesson, still use the traditional basket press (square or round) but more and more establishments have switched to the modern presses. One common denominator is that the pressing must be extremely gentle in order to obtain as clear a juice as possible. The musts are often allowed to settle overnight and are racked off before they are put in the fermentation tanks or barrels.

Loading the new Coquard press at Champagne Tarlant with Chardonnay

As I write this, I am aching all over from bending over most of the day to pick grapes that are growing about two feet off the ground. But all in all I have really enjoyed my hands-on Champagne harvest experience. I enjoyed the atmosphere, the camaraderie in the field as well as in the press houses, and the generosity of the vignerons.

tasting Chardonnay straight from the press with Jean-Phillippe Moulin, the winemaker at Goerg

Furthermore, the quality of this year’s fruit is outstanding. Due to hard work in the vineyards all year—and some lucky late-summer weather—there is very little disease, the small yields have ripened evenly and the natural sugar levels are pretty high. All the juices I tasted at the different presses have been exquisite: they are well-balanced, with a great acidity, lots of concentrated flavors and enough sugar not to need chaptalization. Most winemakers and cellar masters believe 2012 has been a challenging year, but it has all the promise of a great vintage. I will be very interested to revisit and retaste a lot of the wines at the blending stage next spring.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://palatepress.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/caro_twitter-e1337129825708.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Caroline is a wine educator as well as a wine marketing and social media consultant based in Champagne. She holds a WSET advanced certificate and is a certified sommelier studying for her advanced sommelier certificate. She has a particular interest in Champagne, terroir and natural wines and food and wine pairing. She blogs about all things wine related at Missinwine and Vinogusto[/author_info] [/author]

About The Author

Caroline Henry
  • http://themorningclaret.com/ Simon Woolf | The Morning Claret

    Fascinating stuff Caroline. Does anyone else use these massive square presses? I’ve never come across one anywhere else in the world (but then again I’m not that well travelled compared to your good self).

    Did you read that Nyetimber, one of the UK’s most prestigious sparkling wine producers, has decided not to harvest, or make *any* wine this year, as harvest conditions and the quality of the fruit were so bad.

    • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ Arnold Waldstein

      I thought only Fulvio just didn’t make wine on bad years?

      • http://www.missinwine.com Caroline Henry

        Fulvio, Chateau Yquem and Nyetimber ;-)

    • http://www.missinwine.com Caroline Henry

      Hi Simon,
      Thank you for your comment. The square (and round or that matter) Coquard presses are unique to Champagne – and indeed there are not that many square ones left these days. The press is designed to press 4000kg, as gently as possible. As just over 2/3′s of the grapes used to make Champagne are black the gentle pressing is needed to avoid too much colouring of the juice. It is really amazing to see the presses in action, to taste the juice right from the press (as we did at every producer we visited), and to see the manual “retrousse”.

      I did read Nyetimber gave up on this year’s harvest, yet the same day I read an article about the good quality (in general) of the English fruit that has been harvested. I am not sure what happened at Nyetimber, but it is a fact that this year vignerons have had to work a lot harder in the vineyard. They had to watch the vines like a hawk as diseases were extremely quick to creep up. And spraying has been a real challenge as the ground often was to wet for the tractors to get through (and not sink in). It was like this in Champagne and from what I read I think the English vineyards suffered the same hardship. However, I do admire Nyetimber to give up on a whole year’s work just to guarantee the quality. This is a very difficult moral as well as financial decision but one which in the end no doubt will gain them a lot of respect.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ Arnold Waldstein

    Nice one Caroline.

    I certainly know more that I did for certain.

    Two things:

    1. How much do harvesters get paid? Or did I miss that?

    2. “And in practice, the first 50 liters of free-run juice is kept separate as it often includes quite a few impurities — especially this year where a lot of pesticides, copper and sulfur have been used.

    Can you elaborate on this?

    There are champagne house that are organic are there not?

    • http://www.missinwine.com Caroline Henry

      Hi Arnold,

      Harvest workers get paid between 10 ish and 11.50 (Euro) and hour, pickers get the 10 Euro – in fact it is a little more but I do not have the exact figure here and the debardeur – the guys that empty your baskets and “carry” the creates from end to end get a little more (around 11.50). Lets say it is definitely hard work for the money, but the rates in Champagne are more than 2 Euro’s higher than they were in the South of France where I worked harvest last year.

      Yes there are organic Champagne houses as well as growers. Eg Jacquesson, were I worked harvest, is organic in all of it’s own vineyards, yet to fight mildew and oidium they use copper and sulphur as organic farming regulations allows this. In fact I wrote an article on Vinogusto earlier this year explaining the new European organic regulations (http://www.vinogusto.com/blog/en/2012/394/new-european-organic-wine-regulations-valuable-or-a-cop-out) and the amounts of sulphur allowed are pretty high. Most growers are way below the maxima, but in difficult years, like 2012 was, one has to spray if one does not want to loose the whole crop. Also because both sulphur and copper do not kill the disease as they are not absorbed by the plant (whilst most chemical sprays are)- they need to be reapplied regularly and there definitely were residues on most grapes this year. I just would like to note that organic farmers just about everywhere would have sprayed more often and hence would have had more sulphur and copper residues on their grapes.
      The free run is kept separately whilst the press is going – once it goes into tank, it will be aded to the tailles. Some producers, like Jacquesson, do not use the tailles for their wines and sell the juice off on the spot market, but even then it means that someone will make wine of them. Having said this, the spray residue in the tailles will be just about negligible when it is added as part of the big blend, as there is 4 times as much cuvee than tailles :-)) I hope this explanation made things a little clearer for you!

  • Thibaut

    the distilled “rebêches” can be used to produce spirits (Marc de Champagne) or base alcohol for the liqueur called ratafia. However, an overwhelming part of these volumes from the local distilleries (don’t ask figures please) end up as industrial and pharmaceutical alcohol, or bio-ethanol (alcohol-based fuel used for the city buses of Reims for example).
    Cheers and thanks for the instructive and detailed post, Caroline

    • http://www.missinwine.com Caroline Henry

      Thank you Thibaut for commenting and enlightening us on the other use of the distilled “rebêches” – I really like idea that the city buses in Reims use bio-ethanol derived from local grapes :-)

  • Carla silva

    Interesting article! You’ve given us nuggets of really interesting information that u dont frequently come across. Enjoyed the read. Now i feel like some champagne :)

    • http://www.missinwine.com Caroline Henry

      Thank you Carla! I hope you enjoyed your Champagne!

  • Gianni Ballabio

    That’s an interesting summary, but in your haste to frame it you left out some important stuff, like what time in the morning you started work. You also could have made much more of the fact that the real miracle of Champagne is that the grapes at harvest yield an essentially unpalatable juice that is transformed into a wonderful drink by chaptalisation, the liqueur de tirage, and, the final dosage in most cases. You also didn’t mention that many growers are expecting 2012 to yield some tremendous wines as a result of the weather’s ‘natural selection…

    PS: Who did you talk to to get those hourly rates? I think sensible growers pay per kilo…