How To Organise A Champagne Harvest

Record books were consulted and people confidently pronounced that 2011 was going to be the earliest harvest ever; perhaps even starting as early as mid-August - that's a full month earlier than usual.

Global warming was the topic of conversation, summer holidays were brought forward or even cancelled and there was a distinct buzz of anticipation in the air, but still the actual date of the start of the harvest hadn't been announced by the CIVC.

This matters because you are not allowed to start picking before the official start date and you must finish picking before the official closing date, so there's only a limited window of opportunity.

If you're a really small champagne maker then you can perhaps just wait until the CIVC says " Go", but for anyone with a fair sized operation you can't just sit back without taking any decisions; you've got to get on and that' s exactly what they've done at Champagne Barnaut in Bouzy, where Philippe Secondé, the current owner and a direct descendant of the founder, Edmond Barnaut, decided over a month ago that he was going to start picking on 29th August. He had to because there's a lot of planning to do.

First off there's the team to organise: Barnaut has a core team of 8 people who come every year from the north of France to help out with the harvest. This is a throw back to the days, decades ago, when the majority of the grape pickers came from the coal mining towns in the North. The miners enjoyed getting away to some clean, healthy air and getting paid for it too.

These days most pickers are itinerant workers and to supplement the 8 regular workers Barnaut will need to hire about 50 or more casual workers for the harvest period. These pickers are paid ' à la tâche' which means according to how much they pick - we'd probably call it 'piece work' in English

As you can imagine, finding good pickers isn't something that happens all on its own; everyone wants to hire the good ones, so you need to think about this well in advance and you certainly can't wait until the CIVC makes its pronouncement before hiring your pickers.

This year has had an added complication at Barnaut. If you've seen our video, you'll know that Barnaut has had a brand new cellar and storage facility built. It will be an amazing building when it's done and it's on schedule to be completed before the harvest, but where's there's building, there's always lots of dirt and dust and dirt and dust just don't go with harvest and making wine, so before the picking and pressing can start the entire facility has to be cleaning from top to bottom.

This year it will be an extra mammoth task - ten days during which everything will be hosed down, cleaned, and re-arranged to ensure that all is spotless and hygenic before the first grapes arrive to be pressed.

So what will Barnaut do if the CIVC announces that the harvest can't start before early September?

Well, they would either have to ask for a special dispensation to start early, or just wait an extra day or two - not ideal when you still have the team of pickers to pay for sitting around doing nothing.

In fact however, Philippe and his wife Laurette are pretty relaxed about this and they are confident that the official start will be before the 29th August.

Why are they so confident?

Well, it's just a question of going back to basics and relying on Nature and thankfully She gives two pretty accurate hints about when the harvest will be ready.


The first of Nature's indicators is the date the flowers come out on the vines. Old wisdom says that you should count 100 days days from the flowering to the harvest and since this year the flowers in Bouzy came out in late May the 100 days will take us through till the end of August. In fact, over the past 10 years or so the 100 days has more often than not been about 95 days


Another piece of ancient wisdom says that you need to allow 40 days for the 'Véraison' or ripening of the grapes, from the time when they first start changing colour. Here again evidence from the vineyards suggests that the harvest will start around 25th August, so Barnaut's decision to go with the 29th should be fine


The weather in Champagne has turned warm and sunny again over the past few days which is great for ripening the grapes and raising the all important sugar levels, so whatever the official date, the quality looks as though it will be excitingly good and we'll be bringing you more news about the harvest as it unfolds in the next few weeks.