Daniel was only half an hour late picking us up and his driving was not nearly as erratic as I’d feared. However, Bear insisted on sitting in the back to reduce his stress levels (he hates being driven).
Our driver pointed out interesting landmarks en route and when we arrived in the champagne villages he took us on a tour of the vineyards. First he showed us the newly planted vines which wouldn’t produce grapes for three years. He explained that his wife and her brother owned ‘parcelles’ in various places. The best were on the higher ground as they were less likely to be affected by frost. Picking had started last week (the 16th) and was due to finish next Wednesday.
Most of their pickers were students from the dental school at Reims. A few were provided with beds but all 10 of them were fed three meals a day. We found them in another vinyard , beavering away. It was surprising to find white (unripe grapes) above the red ones but Daniel said this was a sign of a good harvest next year. If there was no frost they could pick these grapes before Christmas. The vines are cut back every year leaving just the main branch with 7 or 8 shoots and a secondary branch, also with 7 or 8 shoots. Each plant produces about 3kilos of grapes – enough to make two bottles of champagne.
About 70 growers send their grapes to be pressed here. Some producers still press their own but , despite first appearances, it seems that working together is the best option. Everyone benefits from the best grapes and a state of the art pressing procedure, but the resulting champagnes are not identical because each producer blends his share of the juice (from three grape varieties) in his own way.
They are poured into one of the ‘pressoirs’ for three pressings.
The first produces the ‘cru’ or best juice and then the grapes are squashed again and a third time to produce T1 and T2 qualities. It was interesting to learn that the producers used the ‘cru’ themselves and sold the other two pressings to make poorer quality champagne (the sort you buy for 25 euros in supermarkets), or white wine. The remains of the grapeskins are not thrown away, they go to produce chemical alcohol, animal feed – or Marc de Champagne!
The resulting juice is filtered twice and stored in huge tanks in a wonderfully clean underground room until it is redistributed to the producers. We were given a taste of the ‘finished juice’ and although Daniel warned us it wasn’t very nice I found it quite refreshing.