Thursday, September 30, 2010

Debate a Bubble - Champagne survey

Debate a Bubble - Champagne survey

Link to Debate a Bubble - Champagne News and Reviews

Champagne survey

Posted: 29 Sep 2010 11:07 AM PDT

Hello to every who enjoys champagne.

Here's a chance to have your say about what you do, or don't, find helpful in understanding more about this wonderful wine.

I'd love to hear you views about which brand gives you the most useful information about what's in the bottle and how it will taste.

I have to say openly that I am biased: I don't think that the big brands ( most of them anyway) give you any information that is of real value.

The first, most obvious, and often the only, place that you can find useful information is on the back label and if you look at the back label of most big brands all you'll find are a few very general lines about making champagne with passion, respecting tradition, using the three classic grapes, long ageing and more  wooly stuff that on the surface sounds appealing, but in fact tells you nothing about the champagne in the bottle and doesn't differentiate it from any other champagne.

My own experience is that many ( not all ) of the smaller producers are far more open and far better at telling you what' s in the bottle, and after all, that's a little window into the beliefs and the life of the champagne maker.

Pierre de la Justice back label Take a look at these two back labels  from Laherte Frères. They're a mine of information. Yes I know they're in French but you don't really need to speak the language to get the gist of what they are saying.

So my challenge is this: do you know any champagnes that give you so much infomation?

Which, in your view, are the most useLESS labels that tell you nothing except a load of 'marketing speak'?

Please share your own likes and dislikes about which champagne gives you the most complete and useful information on its labels and which are the most useless.

Please, if you can, send in pictures.

I'm sure you all have your own opinions and I'd love to hear them

Les Clos Back Label

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Debate a Bubble - 2010 Champagne Harvest - Diluted Champagne?

Debate a Bubble - 2010 Champagne Harvest - Diluted Champagne?

Link to Debate a Bubble - Champagne News and Reviews

2010 Champagne Harvest - Diluted Champagne?

Posted: 29 Sep 2010 01:11 AM PDT

Do you remember that in my last blog post I was talking about picking grapes in the rain? Well, a very astute guy in Australia sent me a great question on that subject. (Thanks Dale)

It was something that I had never thought about and I certainly didn't know the answer, but the riddle was quickly solved by talking to one of my champagne-making neighbours.

And what was the question...?

" If the grapes are picked in the rain doesn't that extra water on the grapes dilute the juice?"

The answer is Yes it does, but if it's only light rain the amount of water that finds its way into the press and into the juice is so small as to be unimportant.

On the other hand, if there's a real downpour, the pickers will stop harvesting and not just because they don't like being out in the rain - there would be  noticeable impact on the concentration of the pressed juice.

Once I got chatting to my neighbour about this though, the conversation revealed something more...

Diluting the juice is not always something to be avoided.

Occasionally the sugar level in the grapes at harvest time is higher than the champagne makers would ideally like. Somewhere between 9% -10% potential alcohol is what they are looking for, but once in a while the natural sugar level can get up to about 11% or more.

If you were to start the champagne making process with that much sugar in the juice, by the time  the various fermentations had been carried out, the resulting wine would have more alcohol in it than the 12.5% permitted for champagne.

So what do they do if there's too high a sugar level in the grapes? Well, they dilute the pressed juice with water.

So as you can see, harvesting in the rain is not always bad.

If you have  question or comment please just post it here on the blog or e-mail me at

Friday, September 24, 2010

Debate a Bubble - 2010 Champagne Harvest - Day 12

Debate a Bubble - 2010 Champagne Harvest - Day 12

Link to Debate a Bubble - Champagne News and Reviews

2010 Champagne Harvest - Day 12

Posted: 24 Sep 2010 04:45 AM PDT

Harvesting in the wet Well it had to happen sometime.

We've had gloriously warm, sunny weather for a week or more -

fabulous weather for picking grapes -

and now this morning the rain is back and it's still coming down hard at 13.00 hr as I write this blog.

As you can see from this picture, taken at about 08.30 in Verzenay, harvesting in the rain doesn't look quite as much fun as when the sun is shining and the pickers have just got their T shirts and shorts on.

That's just part of the deal when you sign on as a picker. You harvest come rain or come shine.

Still, there's the comforting thought that at the end of the day the champagne will be flowing as freely as the rain is right now.

I was speaking yesterday with two producers in the Côte des Blancs where the vineyards are predominantly planted with Chardonnay. Unlike the vignerons near where I live in Pinot Noir territory, both producers were fairly up-beat about the harvest. Good sugar levels and not too much rot, they said.

That's not to say they felt it was going to be a vintage year - they won't  come to any decision about that before they've had a chance to run tests on the still wines in the vats and then taste them again next Spring - but at least they didn't rule a vintage champagne out as a ridiculous suggestion.

Sometimes against all expectations, the most difficult years can turn out to produce good champagne. 2003 was a case in point. Very bad Spring frosts followed by a scorching summer that literally burned the grapes on the vine, and a very small harvest. Still, a few houses declared a vintage nevertheless, Moët & Chandon being the best known perhaps.

Then again, if the chardonnay in La Côte des Blancs is of better quality, that would favour houses who use a high proportion of that variety in their blends, even though champagne houses that major on Pinot Noir from La Montagne de Reims, or Pinot Meunier from La Vallée de La Marne may be struggling.

It's a bit like when Zhou Enlai, a former leader of China was asked, around 1950, what he thought the impact of the French Revolution had been on Western Society. He replied enigmatically, that it was too soon to tell.

Rain running through the vineyards So we'll wait and test and taste and then we'll see if the 2010 harvest has yielded anything of beauty.

Meanwhile watching the rain run through the vineyards paths can be beautiful too.

To watch a short, free video about champagne just click here  

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Debate a Bubble - 2010 Champagne Harvest - Into The Second Week

Debate a Bubble - 2010 Champagne Harvest - Into The Second Week

Link to Debate a Bubble - Champagne News and Reviews

2010 Champagne Harvest - Into The Second Week

Posted: 21 Sep 2010 05:42 AM PDT

Who knows whether it's good luck or Mother Nature balancing out that awfully wet month of August, but for the past few days the weather in Champagne has been just fabulous. Clear blue skies with lots of sunshine and temperatures into the mid - high 20sC ( that's 77 + Fahrenheit) - just perfect for harvesting and the hustle and bustle has continued apace.

In the last blog post we'd been following the harvest up until the time the grapes got back to the pressoir (or pressing hall), so let's see now what happens inside the pressoir.

La Pesée 4 First and foremost the grapes have to be weighed and their origin and variety logged. 

This is mandatory not just to monitor the amount of grapes that has been harvested, of which type and from which vineyard, but also because there are strict rules about how much juice you are allowed to press from a given weight of grapes.

Lots of people will want this information later on, especially the tax man - where there's alcohol involved there's always tax!

The standard unit used for pressing is called a 'marc' which is 4,000 kg (almost 9,000 lbs) and from each marc you're allowed to extract 2,550 litres of juice.

If you do the calculation you can see that, roughly speaking, it takes 1.2 kg of grapes to make one 75cl bottle of champagne.

Anyway, once the grapes are weighed they're loaded into the press in units of a marc at a time

Here's a traditional style pressReady to Press: a circular row of wooden staves bound by several steel bands. The grapes are loaded into the centre, raked over to level the surface and then down comes a flat circular lid forced down by a hydraulic screw.

As the grapes are crushed, very slowly, the juice flows into a gutter around the base of the press and down a plug hole into a holding container below called a belon.

From the belon the juice (or moût as it's now called) is pumped into resting vats where it spends at least 12 hours so as to allow the sediment to settle - all those bits of stalk and leaf, mud and dust that inevitably find their way into the press.

The results you get from a traditional press are fine, but these days more and more champagne makers are switching to  modern horizontal, cylindrical presses like this one which are more precise, easier to load and unload and easier to cleanModern Pressoir at Margaine.

These presses operate either with two plates that are screwed in from either side to compress the grapes or with an inflatable bag of air that crushes the grapes as it is inflated . Not so quaint to look at as the old-style presses, but technologically more advanced. Why doesn't everyone use them ? Because they cost a fortune. 

Then the empty cases the grapes came in are washed in a special 'case washing machine' ( yes such things do exist) to be sent back to the vineyards.

Caisse washing machine at Margaine

Keeping the floor clean 

The floor of the press house is washed down and swept and it's time to start the process all over again until all the grapes have been harvested and have been safely pressed.

This year quite a large proportion of the grapes are not fit to use because of the rot on the vines. In places I've heard that as much as 40% of the crop is being discarded because of this.

Other places report better fortune with only 10% or so wastage.

In theory the rotten grapes should be sorted either as they are picked, or in the press house before they are pressed. In practice though this is rarely carried out as carefully as it should be.

When asked what the overall quality of this year's harvest is like, a few vignerons are telling me that it's still too soon to tell - more analysis of the juice will be needed before getting a clear picture.

 Even more vignerons are telling me it's 'pas terrible'

You might think this means 'Not Bad' but in a strange twist of colloquial French this actually means  'Bloody Awful'

'Go figure' as we might say

More coming soon. Meanwhile if you're a real champagne lover and want to get the full low-down on the harvest and everything else about champagne then take a look at this new and unique on-line champagne course


Friday, September 17, 2010

Debate a Bubble - 2010 Champagne Harvest - Day 5

Debate a Bubble - 2010 Champagne Harvest - Day 5

Link to Debate a Bubble - Champagne News and Reviews

2010 Champagne Harvest - Day 5

Posted: 17 Sep 2010 04:59 AM PDT

Getting down to picking At last a lovely sunny morning and the harvest is gathering more momentum as more and more villages reach their appointed start date.

This morning I was at Mailly Champagne, a Grand Cru village in the Montagne de Reims and was chatting to some pickers who had the task of picking Pinot Noir to produce a rosé de saignée champagne*

In contrast to the method used to make most white champagne where the juice is run off from the skins as soon as as possible, to make  rosé de saignée requires the grape skins to be left in contact with the freshly-pressed grape juice for several hours so that the pigment from the skins can seep into the juice to produce the lovely rosé colour.

With the normal method it isn't a disaster if  some leaves and a few less-than-ripe, or even rotten, grapes, find their way into the rest of the batch to go in press; those grapes are not in contact with the juice long enough to taint the liquid.

But when picking for rosé de saignée you  need to pay  extra attention when picking to make sure you get rid of everything except heatlhy, ripe grapes.

Below is a series of pictures that takes you through part of the picking process and, I hope, gives you a feel of how lovely it is here in Champagne right now

We'll be looking at what happens inside the press house in future blog posts so do visit again soon and by the way, if  you want to know more about rosé de saignée* then the perfect way to find out and to discover lots more about champagne is to Meet MONICA on this link

Tractor loading the caisses

As soon as it's light the tractor will deliver the empty storage cases to the vineyard. Later, when they're full, the tractor will rush them back to the press house.

These cases are yellow, but they come in all colours, although they're all the same size.






Next the cases are put along the rows so they're ready to be filled. Caisses waiting to be filled












Into the bucket


You don't have to do this and often the grapes are first put into small baskets and then carried to the end of the rows to be emptied in to the cases .










Whichever method you use, you can't get around the fact that it's back-breaking workCuillieur close up 3

Stacked Caisses Once the cases are filled they're stacked at the side of the vines then loaded on to the tractor and away they go.

Getting the caisses back to the pressoir Usually they will be pressed within about an hour of arriving back at the press house, but if they are picked late at night they might not be pressed until morning.

They're not left any longer though because they will begin to be crushed under their own weight and all that precious juice will be lost.

That's it for this post. See you again soon