Bubbly Surprise

It’s been an icy couple weeks here in the foothills of the Jura, with a strong bise wind blowing down from the Alps, funneling down through the Lake Geneva basin and wearing itself out to points south of here. It’s dry, it’s cold, and it can be unrelenting for as long as it lasts, usually a few days.

A bise is the word used for the traditional French kiss-on-the-cheek greeting (three kisses in our region), but the bise wind feels more like a sharp slap.

In the heart of winter, a strong bise can whip the waters of Lake Geneva into a frenzy, leaving behind well-known images like the one below. We aren’t there yet, although we did get some snow and ice.

Lakeside at Evian-les-Bains, Lake Geneva, during a 2012 bise. Photo: thedarkpond

Lakeside at Evian-les-Bains, Lake Geneva, during a 2012 bise.
Photo: thedarkpond

Not only did the bise finally come to an end this weekend, but I found some other good news.

In spite of a cold winter, a wet spring, a hot summer punctuated by extreme storms and hail, and the latest grape harvest in years, the Champagne region managed to increase its harvest results over those of 2012, and had the best harvest of the past five years.

Not bad, all things considered.

Other wine-producing regions haven’t been as lucky, especially the Alsace and Bordeaux areas, which were badly affected by hailstorms.

This is unfortunate, but as a Champagne drinker, I stay focused on the positive:

Photo via DestinationsPerfected

Photo via DestinationsPerfected

According to the Confédération des coopératives vinicoles de France (CCVF), the French collective of wine-producer cooperatives, there are hopes that this vintage may turn out to be exceptional in quality, as well.

The first tastings of the vin clair, the still wine that precedes the production of champagne, will give some indication in early 2014. The first bottles of this year will be sold in 2016.

No more bise and a promising Champagne vintage after a challenging year? I feel my mood lifting already.

Now here’s some divine bubbly stuff that comes, appropriately, from a movie called Stormy Weather.

Late Harvest

Image via Decanter.com

If you’ve ever felt the need to get to know your champagne from the ground up, now is your chance – the Champagne region started the annual grape harvest this past week, the latest start in over a decade. A late and cold spring, hailstorms and rain led to vineyards problems like coulure, unpollinated flowers and falling berries, as well as millerandage, unevenly developed grape bunches. Not to mention outright destruction when it came to a couple of severe hailstorms in late July.

Still, in light of the excellent weather for most of July, the Comité Champagne (CIVC) is predicting a harvest decline of only 4.5% compared to 2012.

A late season and smaller harvest don’t mean the final result won’t be excellent, however. According to Dominique Moncomble, technical director of the CIVC, “Since 1950, the Champagne region has seen at least twenty harvests that started after September 25, and several of them were some of the very best quality”.

The general attitude seems to be one of cautious optimism. Or maybe cautious hope.

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

Around 120,000 seasonal workers are employed for the harvesting of 34,000 hectares (131 sq. miles) of vineyards in the region, starting with pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, and moving to the later-ripening chardonnay blanc.

The pay, from what I can tell on the French employment website, is €9.43/hour, with some vineyards offering a bonus for quick pickers, and others paying by basket harvested. The harvest contract lasts for between one and two weeks.

So, if you have the inclination see grapes up close and really get the feel of Champagne, put on your boots, grab your tent, and get picking.

For those who like the notion of harvesting but only for a day, and who don’t mind having to paying rather than being paid for their work, I found this harvest party site – I haven’t tried it, but it offers an hour or so of vineyard picking, a tour, and a large vineyard feast.

Charonnay grapes Photo: Gayle Keck

Chardonnay grapes
Photo: Gayle Keck


Check out Been There Ate That For a good post on the harvesting experience.

Sober Expectations

Spring vineyard, Napa Valley, California Photo: PK Read

Spring vineyard, Napa Valley, California
Photo: PK Read

I saw recently that Napa Valley wineries had already started their grape harvesting season as of August 1 this year, almost two weeks earlier than the average, due to a short winter combined with a long and mild spring.

So I wondered whether our long, wet, cold winter, combined with a long, wet, cold spring and a massive hailstorm, had affected harvest expectations in our wine region of western Switzerland.

The answer, in a word, is: Yes.

Expectations for the Swiss vendanges – the wine harvest – are not high this year. The June 20 hailstorm destroyed around 6% of the Swiss vineyard crop within five minutes, affecting a potential 6 millions liters (1.6 million gallons) of Swiss wine. Harvesting isn’t expected for the remaining vines until well into September.

Swiss vineyard after a hailstorm Photo: Les News

Swiss vineyard after a hailstorm
Photo: Les News

Over in the French Champagne region, about three hours north from where we live, violent hailstorms from July 26-27 destroyed large swathes of vineyards – some areas experiencing a 10% loss, others 100%, with an overall loss expected of around 30% of this year’s crop. The same holds true for the Burgundy region.

Hailstorms (and even a “mini-tornado”) destroyed vineyards, but to a lesser extent, in the Bordeaux region as well. The French and Swiss Ministries of Agriculture are looking into adjusting insurance strategies to allow for ‘climatic risks’ in the future, as the assumption is that extreme weather will only increase.

French language viticulture news stories make for grim reading these days. What’s left of the crop will be harvested late.

Photo: RTS Info

Photo: RTS Info

So I guess California’s Napa Valley was a winner this year in vineyard climatology.

As for my single, heroic muscadet grape vine, which usually produces around 20-30 kg (45-65 lbs) per year, I don’t expect we’ll get more than a few good bunches this season – the cold, the wet, the wind have all done their part and our vine is the barest it has been in almost twenty years.

I do have one good harvest story this year, though – the lavender I planted last year as a part of a bee and butterfly section has attracted a healthy colony of bumblebees, who come and harvest pollen every afternoon. Their loud communal buzz fills one side of the garden, an industrious song for the summer heat.

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year - most colonies only number 50 or less, so I'm assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby. Photo: PK Read

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year – most colonies only number 50 or less, so I’m assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby.
Photo: PK Read