Harvesting grapes to make Cognac surely can’t be rocket science. You simply wait for the grapes to reach their optimum level, then get out there and pick them? Nothing could be further from the truth.
Ensuring that hundreds (or thousands) of hectares of vines are harvested at exactly the right time–let alone being able to check all the individual parcels of vineyards–is something that requires an expert eye, in-depth knowledge, and the odd prayer to the weather gods! Harvesting grapes is both a science and an art. And it’s a stressful time of year for the Cognac houses. If they get it right, then they’ve added valuable eaux-de-vie to their stocks. But if they get it wrong…
When to harvest?
The whole aim is to harvest the grapes when they’re at their optimal maturity. In layman’s terms this means that the grapes will yield the highest quantity of liquid, that they’re at their best, that no mold or rot has begun to set in, and that the grapes have not gone past their best with acidity dropping and pH levels rising.
And all of this is certainly not an exact science. The weather and temperature has a massive effect on the vines. For example, if the climate is favorable to the development of rot, then it’ll be necessary to harvest fast. But only in the affected areas. Gray mold is a further worry for the farmers. Add to this that certain types of grapes will be more susceptible to rot and mold than others, and you can begin to see that choosing exactly when to harvest is certainly not an easy choice.
Small houses versus the Giants
One factor that’s extremely interesting is the different approaches taken depending on the size of the Cognac house. It all comes down to the size of the vineyards that you need to harvest. Smaller houses with just a few hectares can be more precise–waiting until all of their produce is at the perfect time–and then harvesting over a small number of days.
Sophie went to visit André Petit & Fils, a small Cognac producer based in Berneuil in the Fins Bois growth area to witness grape harvest by hand. It was wonderful to observe this age old tradition. Coincidentally, she met famed author, Brian McCulloch, who has published “Cognac in 10,000 words” among other books. He was helping pick Jacques Petit’s grapes by hand and showed Sophie how it’s done.
But if you’re a large Cognac house with hundreds of hectares, then this becomes somewhat problematic. Because if you’ve only got a few days in which to gather in your grapes at their optimal maturity, the more you have to harvest, the more difficult this is.
So, to get around this, the larger operator has to begin the process slightly earlier, and finish slightly later. In essence, this means they end up with eaux-de-vie of different qualities–some being slightly pre-optimal, some perfect, and some slightly post-optimal. This way they achieve the best average quality possible.
Thankfully, there is help available for the vineyard owners. The BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac) provides an extremely valuable Weather Service–the Holy Grail for farmers at this time of the year. Published as often as is necessary (daily or even more so when the situation is called for), this information includes how many plots have already been harvested, their average yield, the weather that has been and the weather to come (temperatures, rainfall, etc.), rates of rot, and advice on whether the vineyard owners need to up the ante and get a move on with their harvesting, or if they can wait a few days.
The 2017 challenges?
Well, 2017 is certainly not going to go down as a rich harvest. In fact, it’s hovering on the cusp of being–if not a disaster–then a year that’s giving the Cognac houses somewhat of a headache. That is putting it lightly. Many houses have seen a 80% to 100% loss in harvest this year, which is devastating, especially for small and medium sized producers.
And the reasons for this? Frosts earlier in the year, hail just a week later, and a particularly wet and gloomy summer (July 2017 in the Cognac region was the least sunny it’s been since 1956!). A couple of heat waves followed by significant storms that destroyed nearly 400 hectares of vines didn’t help… This has led to the expectation that this year’s harvest will have a yield that is significantly lower than usual.
In addition, there’s also the extra threat of rot, because this year the grape clusters are very compact. This, combined with the humidity and temperatures being experienced right now, has increased the chance for rot to set in. This means any plots likely to be affected need to be harvested fast–yet another headache for the vineyard owners.
Let’s put this in perspective. The 10-year average has been 107 hectoliters per hectare (hl/ha). This year the average yield region wide is expected to be 80-90 hl/ha. This is because the vines affected by frost (and there were a lot), will only yield around 40-50 hl/ha. Our heart goes out to those smaller houses who had a large amount of their vines with frost damage.
Harvesting the grapes–a time honored tradition
Of course, we live in the 21st century. And while the art of creating Cognac still has its roots in tradition, it makes perfect sense that the houses have embraced technology–while still doing their utmost to bow to the knowledge of their ancestors.
Gone are the days (for most, not quite all, yet) when the grapes were picked by hand. Today machinery allows the farmer to ride high above the vines, while the clusters of grapes are carefully picked and then gently cascade through whirring extractors to be placed within trailers. Tractors then transport the tons of grapes to the winery, where the magic process of pressing, fermenting, distilling, and finally, aging continues.
To sum up
So, harvest is over for 2017. You’ve got to feel for the farmers, battling against the forces of nature. It’ll be a few weeks before the full figures from this year’s harvest are in, and they’ll certainly be interesting.
However, that’s the beauty of Cognac. It’s not a product that can simply be ‘made’ to order. The weather has a massive effect on the eaux-de-vie produced. And, of course, the skill of the Cellar Masters to know exactly how to best age it, and then which others to blend in to create the wonderfully diverse Cognacs that are on offer today.
2017 might not go down as a vintage year. Or perhaps it will, and the vintage will become super valuable because there’s so little of it. In any case, it’ll certainly be remembered–if only by those who battled the elements…
Sources: bnic.fr, image courtesy: Cognac Pasquet