Champagne harvest

PUBLISHED: 11:40 15 June 2009 | UPDATED: 15:20 20 February 2013

Vine yards

Vine yards

Good year for the grape brings a sparkle to family faces

Good year for the grape brings a sparkle to family faces

The young man stands among his vines in the early morning August sunlight. He picks a grape at random and squashes it into a sliver pen-like device he is holding in his hand. This is his refractometer; an instrument that tells him the ripeness of the fruit. He points it towards the sun, softly smiles to himself and shows it to the old man by his side. The reading is fantastic, showing the best potential alcohol for the past seven years.

The old man takes out a pair of well-worn secateurs from his pocket, blows his nose and begins the back-breaking work of harvesting. He is well-practiced, he has been doing it for the past 69 summers, ever since that fateful August in 1939 when he was seven and his father went off to fight yet another war, and never returned. In time it was his son-in-law and now his grandson, who is running the business. This young man, the first member of the family to have been to university and learnt about vineyard management and winemaking, was in charge. He now has all the responsibility for looking after the 13 hectares of black Pinot Noir and white Chardonnay vines they own at the eastern extremity of the Montagne de Reims, on some of the best slopes of the adjoining communes of Ambonnay and Bouzy,

Soon all the family and friends are hard at work filling the trugs, shallow, wooden fruit baskets, whose bases have holes drilled in them so that any water or juice that would otherwise rot the freshly picked fruit runs out. But the grandson is nowhere to be seen. He has driven back to the winery waiting for the first trailer of grapes to arrive at his press house. Here bunches will be checked and fed into a strange device, looking for all accounts like some instrument of medieval torture. This is a de-stemmer that strips the stems off the bunches and feeds the grapes into a pneumatic press.

Over a four hour period the press will very gently crush a 6,000 Kg. load that will then be pumped into a holding tank and held, chilled, for 24 hours. During this time all the solids will fall to the bottom and the next day the clear juice will be taken off for fermenting in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks. During each day the press will be filled, run through its fur hour cycle and washed out three times. The young man will spend many nights sleeping, when he can, among his tanks.

Only this year the grandson has a secret plan. Over the past spring he bought twelve, used, 225 litre oak barrels, six from a leading organic producer in Mersault, where they make some of the finest Chardonnays in the world, and six from a household name in the Côte-de-Beaune, famed for its perfumed red wines. This year he is going to create a thousand bottles of barrel fermented Blanc de Noirs, a white champagne made exclusively from black Pinot Noir grapes, and another thousand Blanc-de-Blanc, made from his robust Chardonnay grapes from a particular site on their Ambonnay holdings.

Theses very special wines will be named after his son, Cuve Vincent, for the Pinot Noir, and Cuve Valentine for the Chardonnay named after his daughter. He only hopes that the old man will still be with them in seven years times when the champagnes, aged in their bottles for six years, will be ready for drinking. However, he knows that next March his grandfather will provide his all important experience and expertise when they begin tasting the young wines and selecting them for blending. These blends will then be put into bottles with some yeast and a little sugar to provoke their second fermentation. The bottles will be closed with crown corks to keep in all the CO2 that will eventually create those magical bubbles.

But that is all in the future. For the next two weeks he is in for back-breaking 18 to 20 hour days pressing the fruit and making the wine.


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