So, how is champagne actually made? We heard you ask and we will be bringing you in on all the secrets of how our favourite beverage came to be in a multi-part series. First up, we’re looking at how the grapes are taken in from the vineyards and into the first stage of wine production.
In Champagne selecting exactly when to harvest can mean a world of difference for the outcome of grape ripeness, alcohol levels, sugar levels and natural acidity – so picking the right moment is essential.
This process usually starts when the grapes begin to change colour, right at the very end of the growth cycle. Officials in Champagne will check twice a week across 602 control plots throughout the region to determine when they will declare the official start of harvest. Grapes are evaluated based on rate of colour change, average weight, estimated sugar and total acidity content - also for any evidence of grey rot.
Hold up, officials are testing? What about the growers?
Champagne is a highly regulated world. Each year the harvest start, end and yield amounts are dictated by a central body; Comité Champagne. This may sound a bit ‘Big Brother’ but having these guardrails allows quality and quantity control and preservation of the ‘Champagne Image’.
When the grapes are deemed ready it is officially announced that the harvest can begin and that’s when the fun really starts.
Champagne grapes are picked by hand and have been since the 18th century, predominantly this is to ensure that the grapes remain whole and undamaged. In order for all grapes to be picked by hand in such a short window, about 120,000 pickers converge on the region. Often these helpers will have been coming to the growers for years - and sometimes generations. Champagne is a community in every respect.
The harvest start timing is not the only regulated aspect, to control supply and quality of the final wine, there are strict rules about how many kilos can be picked per hectare. For example; in 2020 growers were limited to 8000kg/hectare - down from 10,200kg/hectare in 2019. Unsurprisingly this sharp drop was due to COVID and the decrease in champagne being consumed (sob).
Champagne is a delicate art - once the grapes are picked they should be pressed as soon as possible. In the majority of cases this means champagne grapes are picked and pressed all in the same day. Once the grapes arrive at the pressing facility they are weighed, tested and everything is recorded in a log book.
Again here we’ll see those regulations with limits on juice extraction – just 102 litres per 160 kg of grapes can be used – this is also a key part of this policy and brings the final yield to 66 hectolitres (*Sidenote 1 Hectolitre = 100 litres or 176 pints) per hectare.
As we know, ⅔ of core champagne grapes are black skinned (Pinot Noir and Meunier) but champagne is mostly enjoyed as a golden sparkling delight, not a red one. In the late 17th century champagne growers invented a series of grape presses and techniques to extract the juice without the colouring from the grape skins.
This method is based on 5 principles:
- Quick turnaround: Grapes must be pressed immediately after picking
- Keep it together: Grapes are only pressed as whole clusters
- Low & slow: Grapes are pressed slowly and gently
- Less is more: Volumes are limited to 2550L per 4000 kg pressed
- Divide and conquer: Juices are separated with the first 2050L making up the cuvée and the final 500L the tail.
Of all the monitored constraints, pressing is one of the most strictly regulated processes in champagne. Pressing centres have to meet more than 20 approval criteria. These cover pressing, racking equipment, daily press loads and the all important hygiene standards.
On top of all of that, Comité Champagne and the growers and producers are always finding ways to improve and build on Champagne’s high standards. Today, 100% of grape pomace, waste water and solid residues generated by pressing are treated and recycled - yet another step Champagne is taking to become sustainable.
All of the handpicking, limits, checks and balances are an integral part of what makes champagne a unique craft and produces the high quality, flavour-packed champagnes we know and love.
Go to the next blog post to find out what happens following....