Rules and more rules
As with so many things the answer is not all that clear-cut but before we get into the subtleties let’s see what the rules say…
According to Cédric Moussé at Champagne Moussé Fils, the text book says that you must:
« Remove a significant proportion of the harvest from the vines. “
«Débarasser, d’une manière significative, la vigne de sa récolte”
So it’s OK if you leave a few bunches of grapes on the vine and there may well be good reasons for this: the pickers are always looking for the best quality bunches, so if the grapes aren’t ripe enough to pick, if they’re too small, or if rot has set into the bunches, they won’t be picked.
What you can’t do, mind you, is just not bother to pick at all and leave the grapes untouched on the vines.
So the person who had cut the grapes I was looking at in my last post had stuck by the rules and done the correct thing, but having gone to the trouble of picking them, why leave them on the ground?
It’s here that we get into the intriguing part...
If you remember one of my posts before the harvest you’ll remember that you’re not allowed to pick as many grapes as you may wish in Champagne. The maximum amount you can pick is fixed by the CIVC and this year it was 10,000 kg per hectare.
So at the simplest level, this could explain why a vigneron might cut bunches and leave them on the ground: he had reached the maximum he was allowed to cut; he knew that the rules state that he can’t leave any rows completely un-picked, so the only thing to do is to cut the bunches and leave them on the ground.
Tricks of the trade
There’s more to it than that however and it’s here that we can start to explore some of the tricks of the trade that vignerons in Champagne use to ‘arrange’ things to their advantage whilst still staying within the rules.
In addition to the 10,000 kg per hectare there is almost always an extra amount that vignerons are allowed to pick, but which can’t be used immediately to make into champagne. These extra grapes, called the RI or Réserve Individuelle, must be pressed, turned into wine and the wine must be stored in vats until such time as the CIVC says it can be released and made into champagne.
Now there is also a limit on the amount of RI a vigneron can hold in stock. The rules state that the RI cannot exceed the equivalent of 10,000 kg per hectare at any time.
So a vigneron might say to herself: “I’ve picked the 10,000 kg per hectare of grapes that I can turn into champagne this year; I’ve already got the maximum I am allowed in reserve, so there’s no point in picking any more grapes, but seeing that I can’t just leave them on the vines, all I can do is pick them and leave them on the ground.
That then could be another explanation as to why bunches of good grapes are left on the ground to rot, but even if you’ve picked all you are allowed to for this year and you also have the maximum RI allowed in store, it still might not be a good idea to just leave grapes on the ground and here’s why...
Bobbing and Weaving
The objective for all champagne makers is to constantly improve the quality of the wine they make. The quality of the current year’s harvest obviously plays a big part in this, but the quality of the reserve wines is crucial too.
To ensure that the wines held in reserve are of the best possible quality an astute vigneron takes every opportunity he or she can. Sometimes that means a vigneron will keep on harvesting grapes even though he knows full well that by doing so he’ll exceed his allowed limit and still not break the rules.
How can that be? Well here’s how.
Canny vignerons realise that they can cut extra grapes, press them and turn the juice into wine because they know that even if that leaves them with ‘excess’ wine, they don’t have to discard that excess, by sending it to the distillery, until the end of the following year.
So they have over a year to make the excess wine, leave it to develop for several months, assess its quality and then, if it is better than what they already have in reserve, simply take the poorer quality stuff out of the reserve, send that to the distillery and replace it with the better wine.
That little bit of ‘bobbing and weaving’ allows the vignerons to keep the overall amount of RI within the limits and raise the average quality of their wines simply by postponing the point at which they make their decision.
So to go back to the beginning, just leaving grapes on the ground may be understandable, but it seems to me not just a waste of grapes, but also a missed opportunity to work the system to one’s advantage.
I hope that wasn’t too technical for you. It’s just that, as with so much in Champagne, there’s more to it than meets the eye, but if you really want to understand champagne then please come back soon to My Man In Champagne and you can discover even more.