This is the first year since I started in the wine industry that I am not harvesting at this time of year – I said “not harvesting”, not “not working”, I figured I should take advantage of it and take the time to go to Champagne to see how harvest is going.
Despite fears earlier during the growing season that quality might be compromised, with a lot of pressure from both oidium (powdery mildew) and mildiou (downy mildew), August turned out very nice and the vineyards in Champagne were able to catch up, with much improved quality.
Some plots will not yield much, by Champagne standards that is, with less than the authorised 11,000kg per hectare.
Unfortunately, it is predicted that the overall harvest will be about 30% less than last year.
Every year, pickers can be seen all around Epernay, but this year more than usual some are just sitting, waiting for a contractor to call them in. Sadly, for a lot of them it looks like it will just not happen.
That being said, the day I was driving down the Montagne de Reims heading to Epernay, vineyards looked crowded with pickers.
A friend of mine told me, as I was walking through his vineyard: “Look, last year, this block cropped over 10,000kg, this year I think I’ll get 5,000 to 6,000kg at best. I do not need many pickers, really”.
I was also lucky to attend the testing of a new piece of equipment at a cooperative, a robotized crate dumper. The picking crates are transferred from a pallet to a conveyor (this is also robotized), and the crates are conveyed to the opening of the press where they are automatically tipped / emptied, before being conveyed to a crate washer.
At another cooperative, it takes 2 workers about half an hour, to load an 8ton capacity press by hand. The bins are quite heavy, each is about 40kg, and so it is a very physical job.
I sometimes wonder to what extent the industry in France will automatize and try to rely less on human labour.
Some tasks will always be done by humans, because it requires the experience and anticipation that a machine does not have, but some tasks will surely be done by machines, because machines are fast, efficient and do not get tired, or grumpy, or go on strike.
Could one conceive that one-day Champagne might just even think about mechanized harvest?
Jonathan Médard – Winemaker at Rathfinny Wine Estate