Last month we reported that the harvest in Champagne was likely to be well down on the maximum yield set of 9,700 kilos per hectare, with some regions like the Côte des Bar, particularly badly hit. As picking begins in half a dozen crus today (12 September) – two villages one in the Aube and one in the Marne départements actually started picking black grapes on Saturday (10 September) — it seems that the average expected level of yield is no more than 7,000kgs/ha. And there are major differences between different areas of the appellation. In parts of the Aube/Haute-Marne, devastated by frosts, average yields are unlikely to be higher 4,000 kg/ha, whereas in somecrusof the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs yields could reach as high as 10,000 kg/ha.
The vineyards have been hit by a difficult mixture of frosts, hail storms, cold and very wet weather that has caused a major headache with mildew. But the latest problem has been the heat as Charles Philipponnat said on Friday “The strong sunshine and heat of the past five weeks has caused extensive damage ‘Grillure’ or scalding. There aren’t really any qualitative issues for vinification in white, but still a little bit more of the harvest has been lost.” He published two pictures of Pinot Noir in Mareuil-sur-Ay, where the eponymous house is based, showing healthy grapes on the north side of the row and shrivelled bunches on the south side.
Speaking in London last week (1st September, as he received a special award for the house’s newMCIII NV cuvée),Moët & Chandon chief winemaker Benoït Gouez said: “We have just taken 150 samples from all over the vineyard and there is a big variation in the relative maturity of grapes – from 2% to 9% potential alcohol – and a little damage from sun burning.” Because of the recent very warm, dry weather, “most of botrytis has dried, but it could return if there is more rain. We plan to start picking around the 19th[September].” Based on their analysis he predicts yields on the Moët estate will be on average around 7,800kgs/ha. The berries are larger than we expected at between 135-145gms. In terms of ripeness Chardonnay is some 2deg less ripe than the black varieties (Pinot Noir and Meunier) which is further behind than is usual at this stage.”
Speaking at the same CSWWC awards dinner at Vintners’ Hall, headwinemaker at Louis Roederer, Jean-Baptiste Lecallon, who picked up three trophies including Sparkling Wine Producer of the Year,said that on the Roederer Estate in Champagne, he expects the average yield to be around 8,000kgs/ha.
We should know more about how the harvest is panning out with picking due to start more widely towards the end of this week.
At the time of writing the lowest price for champagne in UK supermarkets continues to be at around the £10 a bottle level with ‘exclusive labels’ at Lidl, Aldi and ASDA to the fore. Sainsbury’s and Tesco tend to favour a six bottle discount of 25% running at the same time as other offers and the former grocer has started just such a deal today (16 August) while the latter is expected to follow suit in the run-up to the Bank Holiday weekend.
It’s no surprise to hear that the vast majority of champagne in the UK take home trade is sold at a discount. In the total champagne category in the year to date until mid-July, 60% of champagne sales by value were made on promotion. This is true even for the major international brands and the figures for the percentage each sells on and off promotion is quite revealing. Although it has the highest rrp of the six major brands listed here at around £40-£42 a bottle, a massive 67% of Bollinger’s sales in the first half of 2016 were made on promotion, compared with 64% of Taittinger’s, 58% of GH Mumm, 54% of Lanson’s, 48% of Moët’s and 34% of Veuve Clicquot’s.
If we look at the average selling price for each brand over that same period Veuve Clicquot, not Bollinger, tops the chart with the highest at £32.70 while Bollinger stands at £32.41. The average selling price for Moët is £28.46, that for Lanson is £22.61 and GH Mumm is at £22.19.
While this is going on each brand is facing the need to raise its prices, just to keep margins at the same level, because of the effective devaluation of sterling against the Euro since Brexit. The UK agents are hoping that something will happen soon on the financial markets to change all this before they commit to raising their prices, but they can’t put the decision off for long and a rise of as much as 10% could be looming.
Will this make the supermarkets in the UK change strategy and call an end to £10 champagne or discounting major brands to around £20 a bottle? Only time will tell, but current deals suggest not before the autumn at least. Currently Moët is at £20.25 in Sainsbury’s (with the six bottle discount), GH Mumm is priced at £20 in Morrisons and £22 in ASDA, while Lanson is at £22 in Tesco and may come down further soon. This looks a good time to stock up your cellar, although we suspect the grocers haven’t tired of slashing fizz prices yet.
The yield for the 2016 harvest, currently expected to begin around mid-September, has been set at 9,700 kilos per hectare with a further 1,100kgs/ha to be taken from the reserve at the start of February next year. This level of yield will potentially produce around 283m bottles with a further 32m bottles coming from the reserve next February, if appropriate, making a total production of 315m bottles. This compares with worldwide champagne shipments of 312.5m in 2015 and the news that the MAT total for shipments in the 12 months to the end of June 2016 were up just over 2%.
However, after a very difficult growing season in Champagne so far this year with frosts, disease and uneven flowering all reducing the actual potential yield from the 2016 harvest, it seems likely that in parts of champagne, particularly the southernmost Côte des Bar region, yields won’t even reach the 9,700kg/ha level. The Comité Champagne itself estimates that 14% of the total vineyard was destroyed by frost, rain and hail in the spring.
While they expect to be slightly over the 9,700kg/ha level in their own vineyards, Alice Paillard (Champagne Bruno Paillard) said last month (July) that many producers were not expecting to reach that level and some may be significantly below. Yves Couvreur, président des vignerons indépendants, also thinks [many] growers will struggle to reach this threshold [9,700kgs] even with the individual reserve, according to the l’Union newspaper.
However, as producers are allowed to make up any such shortfall from their reserves, and, prior to the 2015 harvest reserves stood at 8,700kgs/ha on average across the appellation, this won’t have a negative effect on the volume of champagne that could be made from the 2016 harvest.
Before last month’s historic tasting of old vintages of Bollinger dating back to 1830, the year after the house was founded, on our tour of the cellars we saw the restoration work the winemaking team does by hand, using ancient methods.
In this short video we can hear Bollinger assistant winemaker Denis Bunner describing how the winemaking team, working in the cellars, are restoring Jeroboams of Bollinger ‘RD’ 2000. Disgorging the wines by hand (à la volée), tasting them all and then topping them up, before giving them their final cork, all of which is done by hand, using traditional skills.
Who buys champagne at the ‘full’ price in a UK supermarket? If a supermarket lists something you want, you just need to wait until they slash the price before making your purchase. And if it is one of the big brands, you won’t have to wait for long. As the retail war between grocers continues apace, the only issue is trying to assess what’s a ‘good discount’ for any given brand. Each week there’s usually something with a least a £10 reduction, see the Latest Champagne Offers page.