The Champagne region had one of its earliest harvests on record and to add to the excitement, this is also looking like one of the highest quality harvests in many years. Champagne is scoring a trifecta, with the opportunity to harvest early (thereby avoiding any early autumn frosts or storms), harvest high-quality grapes and equally important, bringing in a large quantity of grapes. It will be several years before most of us consumers have the fruit of this bounty in our glasses, but it is good to know it’s coming.
When I began writing in earnest about Champagne more than 20 years ago, I had to go visit the region once or twice a year for several years to get a real handle on the elaborate process that converts sun, soil and rain into an effervescent liquid in one’s glass. Making sparkling wine by the traditional method is not only time consuming and labor intensive, it is complicated. That complexity could only be understood by watching the process step by step. I visited the Champagne region more than 20 times, tasted thousands of wines (I know, it’s a rough job) and spent hours talking with grape growers and winemakers.
Thanks to the internet and the Twitter-verse, you can tag along with a winemaker with your smartphone or laptop, and it’s a great adventure. One good friend in the region is Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, or JB as nearly everyone calls him. He is the chef de caves (the cellar master) of Champagne Louis Roederer and he is also a wonderfully voluble tweeter who provided a daily commentary on how the harvest was progressing and now that the grapes are pressed, he continues to share a day by day assessment of how the infant wines are doing (@louisroederer_ – don’t forget that final underscore).
JB began his parade of tweets much earlier in the growing season, celebrating the arrival of veraison, the crucial moment when the hard and green young grapes begin the essential process of ripening with the skin slowly changing color and the berry softening as it produces more sugar, sugar that will eventually be fermented into alcohol in our wine.
Following JB’s tweets was like taking a daily stroll through the vineyard with the grower at your side – checking the progress of the grapes, feeling his excitement as the extraordinary weather continued in early August and then, the joy of bringing in the first pinot noir grapes. Soon, these were pressed and the juice fermented into the base wine, the vins clairs that, after years of cellar alchemy, may become the top wine at Louis Roederer, the famous Cristal. “I’m delighted to announce the official beginning of pinot noir #harvest18 at #Louis Roederer,” JB tweeted. “Weather forecast – “Cristal” clear ahead!” What a tease!
Now, we get daily updates from the cellars where the wines are fermenting, and I expect shortly after the first of the year, we’ll be able to join in on the assemblage, the painstaking series of tastings in which the base wines are blended before a second fermentation takes place to give us those magical bubbles.
To fully appreciate what is in your glass, take a stroll with a winemaker. Most wineries post on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. Follow your favorites, as I’m doing now with some of my own favorites in Paso Robles, California, in Oregon and in the Rhône Valley. You will be surprised how your bond with favorite wines grows, and how much you feel a part of the winemaking family! There is no substitute for actually walking through a vineyard and then tasting the wine that a particular piece of earth gives us, but social media certainly narrows the gap between simple appreciation and deep understanding.