While waiting eagerly for the magnificent reds, yellows, and oranges of autumn leaves, I content myself with watching the grapes change hue as they mature, building color, flavor, and tannin in their skins.
Referred to as veraison in French, the Pinot Noir turns nearly black with a blue cast (see photo below), while other grapes turn various shades of purple or dusky rose. The “white” grapes? They turn from green to…green. Like a secret-handshake, swanky nightclub, there’s not much excitement on the outside, but major partying going on inside.
The weather in Champagne this year has been lousy, with a wet, cold winter which lasted from October through May. I was quite aware of the extended winter, as I had just moved to a small town in the Aube, the southern region of Champagne, in January. I couldn’t believe it when I found myself wearing cashmere sweaters well into May, my birthday month. I was excited to spend my first spring in Champagne, but I had to settle for glimpses of blue sky between the storms.
Now that the grapes are maturing, we have the added thrill of millerandage, or “hen and chicken” as it’s called in English. I take umbrage with that English phrase, however, because if you look at the photo below, it’s more like “chicken and egg” or even “gorillas and chickens.” That last one gets my vote.
Regardless of what you choose to call it, this condition occurs when there are storms during floraison, as the grapes are flowering in the spring. The rain and/or hail cause damage to the flowering clusters, leading to grossly uneven grape size. Why does this matter? Because the different size grapes mature at different times, leaving many unripe grapes at harvest time. Unless each bunch is carefully handled, and the unripe grapes are culled on the sorting table, you will wind up with “green” unripe, bitter flavors in the wine. Yuck! Not even fans of the Italian vino verde wines want that!
In contrast to what we’re seeing in southern Champagne, last weekend I ventured to Alsace. Protected by the often misty Vosges mountain range, Alsace has a more moderate climate, even though it is almost directly to the East of me.
There I found very healthy-looking grape bunches, and veraison progressing well. To check the maturity, I stole a single Pinot Noir berry (those in the wine world refer to them as berries, not grapes), and found it sweet and nearly ripe. It looks like harvest in Alsace will start very soon for their Crémant (sparkling wine), and probably late September for still wines. We certainly won’t start picking until October.
There are governing bodies in France which set the harvest commencement date each year, which can vary by village, not just region. If a winemaker wants to pick their fruit earlier, they must apply for special permission. Imagine that! Needing permission to harvest your own grapes when you want! However, the general rule of thumb is to start the harvest 100 days after floraison, give or take a few days. Another, very imprecise, method for determining harvest is to plan for the 40th day after veraison starts. Obviously, each winemaker wants to harvest mature grapes, with a balance of acidity and sugar (called brix).
Adding to the fun and stress, more and more winemakers are using organic and sometimes biodynamic methods in the vineyards. As the latter prohibits chaptalization (adding sugar to the wine to tame the acidity), the grapes must be at optimum maturity. Therefore, these winemakers often delay harvest by one to two weeks, balancing the need for mature grapes with the risks of autumn storms. These storms can wreak havoc not just by knocking the socks off the grapes, and the grapes off the vines, but also by deluges of water, which plumps up the berries and can make the wine thin and watery.
So this weekend, invite your friends over, open up your favorite bottle of wine or champagne, and drink a toast to those winemakers all over the world who turn the “party in the grape” into a party at your house!