Harvesting in Champagne is a sacred process governed by strict rules and hundreds of years of tradition.
Every harvest is different in terms of natural acidity, ripeness and potential alcohol level, so choosing when to harvest is a precise and vital skill. Just as the grapes start to change in colour (a process called véraison) samples are taken twice a week to test for changes in colour, weight, acidity and sugar levels. This is when they also keep a careful eye out for any grey rot or disease in the fruit.
The delicacy and effervescence of champagne is reliant on one things: grape berry pulp. It is the organoleptic compounds in the grape that provide the necessary sugars and acidity, as well as that pale, clear juice.
Manual picking by hand is still a strict requirement for grape harvesting in Champagne, just as it was 200 years ago, because it is the only way to ensure that the grape crop is handled delicately and remains undamaged.
Pickers have roughly a three-week window in which to work – beyond that point the grapes will be past their best. Just to complicate matters, all Champagne grapes reach their peak of ripeness at about the same time.
Some 120,000 pickers work in teams (‘hordons’ in French) of four per hectare, of which nearly 100,000 are given bed and board by the Winegrowers and Champagne Houses. The pickers 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. The pickers average about 3,000 clusters a day.
As with most things concerning champagne, harvesting is an art form; one that has been delicately perfected over the centuries to ensure the highest quality produce and product.