Our sourcing trip to the Champagne region was timed perfectly with the start of the harvest, which began on Saturday 25 August 2018. Really lucky, as usually the Champagne harvest starts later in September!
How they go about deciding the start of the harvest: The official representatives have to give the all clear to vineyards across the region to start picking. The all clear is never a blanket authorisation to start picking everything though, it’s a phased approach. So the official representatives will indicate which variety to start picking and when.
The harvest period lasts for about three weeks, and during this time population swells by about 100,000, as seasonal workers arrive from anywhere and everywhere to take on the role of ‘picker’.
Our experience in and around Épernay during the harvest: We based ourselves in Ay, neighbouring the famous town of Épernay and it’s Avenue de Champagne. The tempo in and around town changed dramatically when we were there. It started off pretty laid back and sleepy, then all of a sudden, almost out of nowhere, the roads filled with mini buses and lorries for the harvest.
The idyllic hillsides dotted with vineyards saw a influx of large plastic crates stacked on roadsides, mini buses parked up all over the place and clusters of pickers in assorted t-shirts, who bobbed up and down by the vines as they began to pick the grapes.
Hard at work, we saw the pickers move along the rows of vines plot-by-plot, carefully hand picking the designated varieties as ordered by the official representatives.
Getting from grape-to-juice in a matter of hours: The pickers get paid by weight, so there is motivation to work hard and fast to fill the crates. Apart from the odd machine that cuts back some of the leaves to better display the grapes for picking, the whole picking process is carried out by hand, from sunrise to sunset.
Each crate when full weighs between 40-50kg. When the plot has been harvested, the lorries are stacked tall with the heavy crates of grapes. They make their way along the winding roads to their designated press and pressing begins straight away to extract the juice.
To cut down on travel, and make sure the grape-to-juice step happens quickly, the vineyards opt to use either a press on the estate they are on, or a designated pressing facility nearby.
The cuvée is the best juice and this comes off first. At Le Gallais, we were able to try this firsthand. The juice was so super sweet and delicious. But we were warned, that due to the acidity, it’s best not to drink this fresh juice too often!
Aside from exploring the hill sides and vineyards to witness the harvest in full swing, we spent a lot of time at the champagne houses, talking with wine makers about their champagne varieties - and of course tasting.
In subsequent posts, we’ll share more about our sourcing trip, covering our experience visiting the champagne houses and vineyards...
Sharing is caring, so if you’re interested in visiting for the harvest next season, please feel free to drop us a line and we would be happy to pass on some tips!