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my wine journey

Harvest 2018: Great wines only come from quality grapes

This is the English version of my wine column at Forbes Japan. The original article is found here.

The autumn harvest has arrived. Now is the time for grains and fruits to be harvested, which also signifies the time of grapes to be harvested for wine.

For grape growers and wine producers, it is the busiest time of year and it is also the time when the wine regions become very lively.

Harvest team for Champagne Pascal Doquet in Vertus

Harvest team for Champagne Pascal Doquet in Vertus

For wine grapes, not only is the sweetness important but it is also important to have the appropriate balance of sugar level, acidity, flavor and tannin, etc. At the harvesting stage, grape growers pass through the vineyards multiple times to pick grapes to sample and to analyze the figures such as sugar level and acidity in the lab.

What is imperative during this process is to actually “taste” or eat the grapes. In addition to the flavor, the texture of the skin and the maturity of the pips are checked before deciding on the perfect timing for harvesting. This accumulation of steady diligent work becomes the basis for delicious and quality wine.

Johann Merle tasting grapes, who is in charge of viticulture for Champagne Louis Roederer

Since grapes are an agricultural crop, the quality and quantity of the harvest is greatly impacted by the weather of that year. As a result, the wine has unique characteristics depending on the year, which makes wine both interesting and difficult at the same time.

In the case of wine, the word “Vintage” simply refers to the “harvest year” of the grapes. Each year, the wines of the year are reviewed by critics and the reviews such as “this is a great vintage” or “it is a difficult/poor year” spread out. Such evaluation of the vintage could affect the price of the wine in the end.

Unlike with other agricultural crops, the abundance of crops is not always a great thing. While it is necessary to ensure a certain amount of crops for economic reasons, if a yield is too high in a vineyard, the flavor of each grape could become diluted and the resulting wine could be lacking in concentration.

The growth period of grapes until harvest vary according to the grape variety. Also, even with the same grape variety, the aroma and flavor will change depending on the timing of the picking. Therefore the timing of the harvest is also determined by the style of wine that the winemaker aims for.

For example, Sauvignon Blanc is a white grape variety that ripens relatively early. If a winemaker wants to make a wine with fresh fruits, the grapes will be harvested earlier while the acidity is higher. On the other hand, Cabernet Sauvignon, a black variety requires time until ripening and is often harvested much later. In Napa, for instance, these two grape varieties can be harvested nearly two months apart.

Just like last year, I visited the Champagne region this year during the harvest time. The harvest started unusually early in mid-August, as sunny and hot days with high temperature in summer accelerated ripening of grapes. For French people the month of August is an important time to enjoy vacation, but some producers had to come back from their vacations early this year to prepare for the harvest work.

By regulations, grapes are all harvested by hand in Champagne and whole bunches are immediately pressed. Therefore, during the harvest time, seasonal workers of approximately 100,000 come to this region for harvesting, mainly from northern France and Eastern Europe.

I had the pleasure of picking grapes in the vineyards of a Champagne Maison, Louis Roederer. Louis Roederer owns vineyards as large as 240 hectares over the region, which are organically or biodynamically farmed. Their own vineyards cover over two-thirds of the total production, which is a very high ratio as a Champagne Maison. This is one of the key drivers for the consistent high quality of Louis Roederer's wines.

Last year, it rained during the harvest season so on some days harvesting took place in muddy vineyards. This year the weather had been good and the vineyard was full of healthy and beautiful grapes. I have heard some people say grapes for wine are not necessarily sweet and tasty, but this is not true. Grapes that have ripened fully spread sweetness in your mouth and the acidity keep grapes from getting cloying.

Picking grapes is hard work which requires being in a half-sitting posture for an extended period of time and could result in lower back pain. Once the hand-held basket is filled to the top with grapes, they are transferred to a 50kg box. This process is repeated over and over. Grapes are sometimes grown in steep-sloped vineyards.

As soon as the grapes arrive at a press house or a winery, they are pressed. The grapes of the 50kg boxes are put into the press machine one after another. Since this work requires power, it is often the case that strong men work on this. Local firefighters came to help and support one of the wineries during peak harvest season. Local people also often help picking grapes. Harvesting is a massive and important event for the community as well.

Leadership and teamwork is key to the success in winemaking, which can be realized greatly during the harvest period. This is especially true at the major Champagne Maisons where many people are involved in order to successfully accomplish the hard work from grape-picking in the vineyards over the entire region, to the detailed winemaking process.

At Louis Roederer, grapes are harvested by about 600 pickers from their own vineyards of 240 hectares and then are separately pressed and vinified plot by plot in as many as 450 stainless tanks or large casks. Furthermore, wines made from purchased grapes are vinified as well.

Decisions made during harvesting and winemaking process greatly affects the quality of wines into the future. Each year it requires customized and precise strategy and execution. There are unexpected issues and many human dramas that may occur. The accumulation of numerous, small decisions will decide the ultimate success in the end. For winemakers asked for leadership at every situation, it could be tough physically and mentally, but it is also the most exciting time.

I was impressed by the words of Pascal Doquet, a prominent grower Champagne producer: “Harvesting is a time when hard vineyard work over a year is rewarded. It is the most exciting and pleasurable time of the year.”

The harvest for vintage 2018 in Champagne was blessed with both quality and quantity of grapes. It is expected to become a wonderful vintage and producers completed the harvest with smiles.

Champagne requires at least 15 months of aging by regulations and takes over two years at a minimum until release even for the products to be released earlier. Champagne that goes through long aging period such as Prestige Cuvées would take nearly 10 years until release. For Champagne enthusiasts, waiting for this long period of time may also be part of enjoyment and fun.

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