The bunches of grapes reach optimum ripeness at different times, some sooner some later, depending on the variety of grape and the place where it grows. So it is important to monitor the ripening process by observing the grapes in each growth – a responsibility that falls to the Réseau Matu (ripening observation network). Consisting of volunteer professionals – winegrowers, vineyard managers, House managers, etc – the Réseau Matu monitors ripening in 404 vineyard plots that represent the Champagne vineyard as a whole. Twice a week, clusters of grapes are picked, weighed and then pressed. The juice is then immediately analysed to measure total sugar content (as an indication of future alcoholic strength) and total acidity, using these data to assess the grape samples for ripeness.
Based on the location of the vineyard in question, local representatives put forward a date that looks right for harvesting each of the varieties in their particular growth. The Association Viticole Champenoise (AVC) then collates this information and suggests a provisional harvest calendar for each vineyard. On the basis of these proposals, the exact dates for the start of harvest, village by village, are fixed each year by prefectoral decree. Any deviation from these dates and the entire harvest will forfeit its right to Champagne AOC status. Harvesting earlier than the stated date is only possible with a dispensation from the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) once the plots in question have been formally checked.
This process explains the difference in harvest dates between one Champagne vineyard and another. Harvests may start any time from mid-September to the beginning of October.
Each year based on professional advice the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) sets the maximum authorised yield per hectare that will be entitled to AOC status. Any surplus, known as DPLC (dépassement du plafond rendement autorisé) must go for distillation – it cannot be used to make wine of any description whatsoever.
Land of Champagne : 03 - Harvests
Three authorized grape varieties are used to make Champagne: the Chardonnay, the Pinot Noir and the Pinot-Meunier. Each one has very specific characteristics:
The Chardonnay (white grapes) represents 27% of plantings. It is the preferred variety on the Côte des Blancs, and more generally in all east-facing coteaux (sloping vineyards). Chardonnay wines are characterized by delicate aromas and a crisp freshness that promises good aging potential — qualities that give Blanc de Blancs Champagne wines a distinctive elegance and also contribute to the finesse of the blended Champagne.
The Pinot Noir (black grapes with white juice) accounts for 38% of the area under vine, mainly planted in the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Bar vineyards. Pinot Noir wines are distinguished by their aromas of red fruits, alcoholic strength and marked structure.
The Pinot-Meunier (black grapes with white juice) accounts for the remaining 35% of plantings and represents the dominant variety in the Vallée de la Marne. It needs less heat to ripen than the others so tends to mature more easily in difficult vintages. Like the Pinot Noir, the Pinot-Meunier typically gives intense, very fruit-forward wines that bring roundness to the blends.
The Pinot Noir and the Pinot-Meunier, contrary to what you might think, yield white wine, representing two thirds of all the grapes harvested in Champagne. Hence all the care taken to prevent the red pigments in the skins (which give PInot its deep violet colour) from seeping into the must and colouring (or "staining") it – unless of course, the aim is to produce a rosé wine.
Harvesting in Champagne is governed by very strict rules. The entire crop is picked by hand, aiming to deliver the clusters to the press house intact. So for the time being at least, that rules out mechanical harvesters. Also the vineyards are picked in one go to ensure the uniform quality of the juice.
The clusters are very carefully transported in perforated crates that allow air in (to keep the berries well aired) and water and juice out.
Compliance with these rules is the key to maintaining quality and safeguarding the distinctions between each grape variety. The better the compliance, the more subtle and harmonious is the blend (cf the blends produced by the Champagne Houses).
The harvest is carried out by groups of pickers organised in teams or hordons. They work in pairs, row by row, one picker on each side of the row, cutting clusters from the vines with secateurs and placing them in small baskets with a capacity of 2-3 kilos. A single picker averages 3,000 clusters a day (equivalent to 300-400kg of grapes) working continuously for 12 days. "Porters" take the filled baskets to the ends of the rows where the clusters (previously sorted as necessary) are transferred to large wicker baskets with the capacity for 70-80kg of freshly harvested grapes. Known as mannequins, these are increasingly replaced by small, perforated plastic or resin crates that are designed to keep the berries cool and well-aired. The perforations also allow any rainwater to escape. Each crate is identified by picking team and vine plot and the clusters are checked for ripeness, removing any imperfectly ripe fruit.
The next step is down to the tractor drivers, whose job it is to transport the grapes to the press house as carefully as possible. Each new batch is recorded and weighed on delivery, before pressing.
With three pickers required per hectare of vineyard, the harvest creates seasonal work for some 90,000 people who must be fed and accommodated in respectable accomodation — quite an exercise in logistics.
From vine to wine: Grape varieties and the vine