What makes champagne stand out above all other sparkling wines?

Champagne is just one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of types of sparkling wine made around the world, but  it is generally agreed that champagne is the most prestigious, the most glamourous and simply the best of them all. Why is this?

If there’s one word that sums up why champagne is special it’s probably ‘Complexity’, but what does that mean exactly and where does this complexity come from? In this blog I’ll explain one aspect of complexity that you may not have thought of.

There are of course many reasons that could be cited: the climate, the savoir-faire, the method of production and I’ll be telling you more about each of these in future blogs, but today as we approach the end of the harvest here at Champagne De Lozey  I wanted to tell you about one aspect of champagne that is often overlooked – it’s probably something that you have never considered before, but it’s a key factor in making top quality champagne and it’s something that we take very seriously indeed at Champagne De Lozey.

It’s the organisation of the harvest.

I’m sure you’ll probably be thinking that this is just a simple administrative job, but nothing could be further from the truth. You see, harvesting is not just a matter of sending a team of people out into the vineyards with secateurs and letting them cut the grapes as fast as they can. For one thing you cannot just start harvesting whenever you feel like it: the start date is fixed by the CIVC (Comité Interprofesionnel des Vins de Champagne) and each of the 320 villages in Champagne and each of the 3 main grapes varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, has its own start date.

The timing of the harvest is of the utmost importance. At Champagne De Lozey we want to pick the grapes on exactly the right day when the balance between the natural sugar and acidity in the grapes is perfectly balanced. Not one day too early or one day too late – No – on the exact day when the grapes are ready. If this sounds simple to you, wait a minute while I tell you more, but we have to go back in time a little to really understand things

Vines have been grown in Champagne for hundreds of years and vineyards have been passed down from father to son and to daughter for many, many generations. As each generation passes the vineyards are inherited by the children of the next generation so the vineyards have been divided into smaller and smaller plots.

Today the champagne appellation covers 34,000 hectares but within that area there are nearly 300,000 individual plots of vines. That means that the average size of each plot is just 0.09 hectares and many plots are even smaller.

In many other countries where sparkling wine is made they simply don’t have such a long history of tending vines and making wine. In the U.S.A. or Australia for example, most vineyards are planted in a way that is designed to make harvesting as efficient as possible with much larger plots. This certainly makes the work easier, but perhaps one loses some of the complexity that makes champagne so special

But it’s not just the size of the plots in Champagne that makes things complex.

At Champagne De Lozey we have about 15 hectares of vines in total but these are spread out across several different villages and many smaller plots. It would be convenient if the grapes ripened at a predictable time in each plot of vines, but they don’t.

Each village and each plot has a slightly different micro-climate, a different exposure to the sun not to mention the different grapes varieties so it becomes very difficult to judge the precise moment when the grapes will be perfect.

Then there’s the team to organise.

You have to book the pickers several weeks in advance because many of them need to take time off work or to arrange their family affairs in order to come and pick, so the date they arrive is decided well before the harvest. If the weather is good on the day they arrive I have a big smile on my face because they can start picking straightaway but where should they start and what is the perfect sequence to put in place so that the team of pickers moves from one plot to the next just at the right moment when the grapes are perfect?

The next thing to consider is the weather.

I look carefully at the weather forecast in the days running up to the expected harvest date. If good weather is forecast that’s perfect; I can decide to start the picking whenever I judge that the grapes are perfect, but if rain is forecast I may have a problem. If the grapes need one or two more days to reach perfect maturity I may prefer to wait before starting picking, but heavy rain will dilute the sugar in the grapes, disturb the sugar / acid balance and lower the potential alcohol content in the grapes. Besides, if I postpone picking until the sunshine comes back I still have to pay the pickers even though they are not picking grapes.

What if I wait too long and the rain continues to fall? The grapes may begin to rot and the sugar level may go even lower. There are lots of decisions to make and harvest time is one of the many moments in the year when once again I am reminded that Mother Nature is the one who is in charge and we must sometimes bend to her will.

Last but not least is the crucial decision about when the grapes have reached perfect maturity.

In the weeks and days before the harvest we take samples from the vineyards and analyse them scientifically to help us make this important decision. Modern technology is certainly a big help but as any vigneron will tell you, the final decision is made by the vigneron, not by a machine.

First I look at the grapes,

  • Do they have just the right colour?
  • Are they the right size?
  • Are they in good condition?

Above all, do they taste right?

Despite all the technology at Champagne De Lozey it’s still a human being who makes the final decision, even though I am sometimes helped by my dog 🙂

Only when all the grapes are gathered in and pressed can we finally relax at the end of the busiest and most complex 10 days of the year and enjoy a well-earned flute (or perhaps two) of Champagne De Lozey.

So many things that can affect the character and quality of the wine, yet I wouldn’t want it any other way. Without all these subtle nuances champagne would not be the same and I am sure it wouldn’t give you so much pleasure.

Complexity is one of the reasons why Champagne is rightly called the wine of kings and the king of wines and at Champagne De Lozey we are committed to living up to that name.


Philippe Cheurlin, September 2017

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