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Crushing Facts: 10 Things to Know about Pressing Grapes in Champagne

"Le Pressurage" or the art of pressing Champagne grapes is a critical step in creating the world's most delicate wines. From the painstaking process of extracting white juice from red grapes to the use of traditional Coquard presses, no expense is spared to adhere to CIVC regulations. Looking deeper into the intricacies of this phase of the méthode champenoise can shed light on the delicacy of the wine as well as its costliness.


 

White juice from red grapes


Only around 30% of all Champagne grapes are white (Chardonnay). So why is champagne mostly a white wine? Simply because of the delicate pressing which extracts juice from the flesh of Pinot Noir and Meunier, without having any colour from the skins run into the must.

This method is also responsible for the delicacy of the wine, which rarely has any tannins and preserves great acidity.


Each grape variety and terroir is pressed seperately


Once the grapes have arrived at the "pressoir", each selection of grapes will be pressed and fermented seperately. Chardonnay, Pinot and Meunier are all kept in different presses and will seldom be co-fermented. Each vineyard plot will also be kept seperate and only blended after the first fermentation.


Grapes must be pressed within 8 hours of picking


There are around 1,900 pressing centres throughout the region. This is a high ration per hectare, and is a necessary to keep the elegance of Champagne wines. With minimal distances between vineyards to press, vignerons are sure that the grapes will not turn to jam whilst waiting to be loaded into the press. Grapes should be pressed at a maximum of eight hours after being picked, with many producers making sure their best grapes are sent through the express lane for optimal freshness.

Fruit is also transported in CIVC approved buckets, which keep the grapes from getting crushed on route and letting the potential juice run out through the punctured bottoms.


40 kg buckets lined up ready for harvest at Champagne Palmer



Bunches are pressed whole


Mechanical harvesting is not allowed in Champagne, and with manual harvesting whole-bunch is the norm. Each grape cluster must be placed whole and intact into the press.

Filling up the press with Grand Cru Chardonnay at Pertois-Lebrun


Traceability is paramount and a legal requirement


Stringent regulations govern the pressing process, ensuring the production of exceptional wines throughout the entire AOC region, and making sure no outside grapes are brought in. Pressing facilities undergo regular approval and inspections to guarantee adherence to these regulations and maintain the high standards set forth by the Comite Champagne and the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO). If paperwork for each press is not completed before starting the extraction, vignerons can be heavily fined and potentially have to discard grapes.




The juice per kilo of grapes is limited by law


As the juice flows out of the press it is fractioned: for 4 tonnes of grapes (2 "marcs" - a press cake consisting of some 2,000kg of grapes):

- The free-run juice, obtained from freshly picked grapes during loading into the press, typically amounts to about 100-150 liters but is discarded if impurities or any signs of oxidation are present.

- The cuvee, produced through three successive pressings with intermittent breaking up of the cake, yields 10.25hl, 6.15hl, and 4.1hl respectively, allowing a total authorized extraction of 20.5hl.

- Following cuvee extraction, additional pressings known as taille, restricted to 5hl of juice, are carried out by breaking up the press cake before each press.


Total of 25.5hL can be used for champagne.

Anything that is extracted after the taille is not considered high enough quality for champagne. It can be used for distillate or is discarded.



The cuvée is king: the best juice is the first 20hl extracted


There is much debate on the quality of the taille versus the cuvée. Many producers refuse to use the taille whereas some claim that the taille from certain vineyards are as good as or even superior to some cuvée. For prestige cuvées, it is not uncommon to divide the first 20.5hL, using only the "Cœur de Cuvée" (heart of the first press) which is generally the clearest juice.



This method has inspired our grape drop toi et moi rings, representing the gentle press of grapes.


Saignée method is a rare occurence for rose wine


Most rosé wines in Champagne are made with the assemblage method, during which a small proportion of still wine (coteaux champenois) is added to the blend. However, for more tannic wines, red grapes can be left in the press to macerate for a few days, letting the colour and the phenolics from the skins "bleed" into the must. The issue with this technique is that is requires intense supervision, as the juice colour and intensity needs to checked every 20 minutes by the person in charge. Very few cellarmasters can commit that kind of time to only 25hL of juice, so it is reserved for small batch pink champagnes.


Traditional Coquard presses are still used


18% of the region's presses are still manual. Although pneumatic presses were introduced in the 1980s, many vignerons have decided to keep their wooden presses as they enable very gentle pressing and better visibility of the bunches.

These presses require the bunches to be turned with a pitchfork (in French "retrousses") halway through the pressing to not miss out on any of the precious elixir.

There are five types of presses allowed in Champagne and each type is designed for whole-bunch pressing, gradual extraction using a slow increase in pressure to avoid bruising the fruit and oxidation of the musts.

Image of a Coquard press by photographer and champagne importer Victor Pugatschew




Press residue is used for distillation by law


With a conscious effort to reduce its environmental footprint, Champagne mandates that the press residues be sent for distillation. The leftover skins, stalks, and seeds known as "aignes" in French are fermented and distillated to create Marc de Champagne. Surprisingly, the removal of these leftovers is a service that is paid by the vignerons to the distillers.

 

And there you have it - a closer look at the fascinating world of pressing Champagne grapes! From the precise separation of grape varieties and terroirs to traditional presses, it's clear that crafting this bubbly elixir is no ordinary feat. So, next time you raise a glass of champagne, take a moment to appreciate the artistry, tradition, and legal requirements behind every sip.



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