Sugar poor guide of when to pick for fizz

9th July, 2014 by Patrick Schmitt

Champagne producers who harvest grapes according to sugar levels alone are in danger of picking grapes that are under- or overripe.

Chardonnay_grapes_close_upSuch views were expressed during a discussion on ripeness levels in Champagne with Ruinart chef de caves Frédéric Panaiotis in London yesterday, and also last month with Dom Périgon winemaker Vincent Chaperon.

Panaiotis, who came to the capital to launch Dom Ruinart 2004 blanc de blancs, said that it was necessary to consider phenolic and aromatic ripeness in the berries, along with the traditional measure of sugar levels, when deciding on the right moment to pick grapes for Champagne.

By way of example he said that producers harvested grapes for the 1988 vintage with a potential alcohol of 9.2%, “but the grapes were ripe”, whereas in 1996 “they were picked at 10.5% and we are now all agreed that the grapes were probably unripe”.

Consequently he added, “The number means nothing if you don’t have a relationship with the other elements… the grape can be ripe at 9.5%, but unripe at 10.5% or 11%.”

To assess “the other elements” Panaiotis is using a team to taste-test the berries, but he is also looking at the rate of change in grape sugar accumulation to help inform him when might be an ideal point to pick – both methods employed by Moet & Chandon at the LVMH group, of which Ruinart (and Dom Pérignon) is part.

Frédéric-Panaiotis-Ruinart

Frédéric Panaiotis (Photo: Colin Hampden-White)

Although assessing the change in sugar levels is “complicated”, Ruinart has for the last four years trialled such specialist measurement using grapes from the 20 hectares the house owns in the region, which are used for its Dom Ruinart prestige cuvée.

Panaiotis said he was looking to harvest grapes within 3-7 days of grape sugar accumulation beginning to slow or stop accelerating altogether.

In terms of aromatic and phenolic ripeness, he said that Ruinart began using a team of 10 tasters three years ago to write down their impressions of berry flavours, textures, and bitterness levels.

He recorded a green phase in berry development, followed by a green-citrus character, then a ripe-citrus and finally a tropical fruit phase.

Such developments to harvest date decision-making was also discussed during a tasting in London with Dom Pérignon winemaker Vincent Chaperon last month for the launch the brand’s P2-1998.

Chaperon said that Dom Pérignon were the first in Champagne to start assessing aromatic and phenolic maturity in the berries by observing the colour of the grape skins and pips as well as tasting the fruit, but also stressed the difficult nature of such a method in the region due to its cool climate.

“We assess phenolic maturity through tasting and other parameters in the grapes that help us to understand if we are reaching phenolic maturity,” he said.

“In Bordeaux you can taste the pips, but in Champagne you can’t do that as 50% of the time they are still green, and there’s no interest because in Champagne there is no extraction from the pips,” he continued.

Nevertheless, he said that “the colour of the pips, and the skin is a way to estimate which stage of phenolic maturation you are.”

RuinartLooking back he said that “historically all Champagne was harvested according to sugar, acidity and botrytis, but at Dom Pérignon we were one of the first 15 years ago to try to harvest according other measures, such as through tasting.”

Both Panaiotis and Chaperon pointed out that a reduction in botrytis coupled with warmer climatic conditions were allowing producers to harvest later, but that this was not always positive.

“Some are looking for more maturity and I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” said Panaiotis.

Similarly, Chaperon implied that there is danger of Champagne becoming too ripe and losing its characteristic citrus fruit and freshness. He commented, “There is less botrytis and better maturation, so you can go further in ripeness and can pick at different times, but having more freedom is the not best thing for all people… sometimes it is better to have constraints.”

He then asked, “Until what point can we preserve the typicity?”

One Response to “Sugar poor guide of when to pick for fizz”

  1. With all due respect to Vincent Chaperon, whom I know and used to work with, I am a bit surprised at his claim that Dom Pérignon was the first champagne to use observation of the colour of the grapes and their taste to asses maturity. If we were to go back 50 years or so – perhaps even less – those would have been the only methods available, so everyone would have used them. wouldn’t they?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our newsletters

Job vacancies

Brand Ambassador – Santa Rita Estates

Santa Rita Estates
London or Hertfordshire but with flexibility to travel, UK

Sales Executive - Wine and Spirits Awards

The Drinks Business
Central London, UK

On-Trade Channel Manager

Delegat Europe Limited (UK)
London / Midlands, GB

Trade Marketing Analyst

Delegat Europe (UK)
London, GB

Key Account Executive

Delegat Europe Limited (UK)
London / Midlands, GB

Senior National Account Manager

Conviviality
London, UK

ON-TRADE Sales Executive

Roberson Wine
London, UK

OFF-TRADE Sales Executive

Roberson Wine
London, UK

Judging Week Runners

Decanter World Wine Awards
ExCel Centre, London E16, UK

Sales Administrator

Les Caves de Pyrène
Guildford, UK

Retail Commercial Executive

Laithwaite's Wine
Theale, Berkshire

Wine Buyer

Conviviality Plc
Crewe, UK

Sales Account Manager - On-Trade

Berkmann Wine Cellars
Liverpool

Sales Account Manager - On-Trade

Berkmann Wine Cellars
M3/M4 corridor

Media Sales Manager - Hong Kong

The Drinks Business Hong Kong
Hong Kong

The Global Merlot Masters 2017

Deadline : 31st March 2017

The Prosecco Masters 2017

Deadline : 10th March 2017

db Awards 2017

Deadline : 28th April 2017

The Global Organic Masters 2017

Deadline : 3rd March 2017

Click to view more

The Global Sparkling Masters

the drinks business is thrilled to announce the launch of The Global Sparkling Masters

The Global Rosé Masters 2016

the drinks business is proud to announce the launch of the Global Rosé Masters 2016.

The Prosecco Masters 2016

Now in its third year, the competition will reflect the growth in popularity of this fresh and exciting sparkling wine from the picturesque regions of Veneto and Friuli.

The Global Pinot Noir Masters 2016

After the success of last year’s competition that judged over 250 wines from no less than 16 countries, the drinks business is proud to announce the third year of the Global Pinot Noir Masters

Click to view more