Every harvest is unique, but the harvest of grapes used in the production of méthode champenoise, or French-style Champagne is unparalleled. It begins early in the season—this year, July—and the grapes must be picked at their perfection. For méthode champenoise, the grapes must be low in sugar and high in acid, hence the ‘early’ in the harvest season.
What doesn’t change, are the early morning forays out into the vineyard. Well before sunrise, the winemaker is out in the Chardonnay, picking berries from various vines and sampling from multiple rows in an effort to get an accurate measure of both sugar and acidity. Each winemaker develops their own tried ‘n true method of vine sampling, but over the years, a seasoned winemaker “knows” when the berries are ready, and then the work begins.
Harvest is special and a year’s worth of work hinges on the outcome. It’s more than simply the yield, or tonnage, which is how a viticulturist often measures their success, well, that and price. But a successful harvest is a combination of factors: berry size, bunch size, acidity, aroma and, taste. Winemakers will tell you that they can fix minor flaws, but if it’s a good year, the grapes are liquid perfection and the taste, extraordinary. So, it all begins out in the vineyard, on those early morning berry hunts!
There is a chill in the morning air, and a comforting silence that greets you as you pull on boots, grab a plastic bag, and head out into the rows. Early morning smells fresh, and the coolness in the air soon retreats as the sun begins to rise, changing the colors of the sky from black to navy, then purple, pink to orange, and finally gold, then yellow. Sounds carry for miles, and you often hear a lone coyote, yipping; a calf calling out to its’ mother, and a tractor, roaring to life to begin its day out in the field.
Once the samples are taken, they are whisked off to the lab for testing. Our winemaker decides that although the tests indicate the grapes are ready, he will wait a day or two, because he tastes “green,” which he explains is herbaceous in character, and so the sampling will begin anew before sunrise tomorrow.
Harvest is a stressful time, and we hold our breathe until all the varieties are picked and crushed. There’s always something that can go wrong: insects, freak rainstorm [Yes, I said freak, but it happened one year.], summer heat, which can stress the vines, or a light crop, combined with a poor price. [This can mean the difference between breaking even or losing money.] Until the grapes are harvested, we watch the weather, walk the rows, and sample the grapes.
Folks often think that farmers control the land, they don’t, and it is the wise farmer who understands that they must work with nature, not attempt to control her. Farmers know that it is incumbent upon them to be ‘good’ stewards of the land. They must be able to balance the farm’s productivity with the social and ecological impact to the land. This takes practical experience, determination, persistence, and courage.
We picked this year’s Chardonnay crop on July 28, which means that in three to four years, our Serendipity label will grace the outside of a bottle, holding the fruits of this year’s labor. The vineyard came alive that night, as lights illuminated the vines, and workers tread up ‘n down the rows. It was an exciting moment for us, as this is the first year that all our Chardonnay grapes will be used for our own label. We crossed our fingers and took the plunge. Based upon what our winemaker tasted out in the field, the 2021 vintage will be exceptional, and now, we wait.
Winemaker Robert Indelicato samples the 2021 Chardonnay cuvée, which will ultimately be released in 2025 as the Serendipity Blanc de Blanc.