Earliest ever harvest, certainly good, possibly sublime

The 2018 harvest in Champagne had the earliest start on record after a blistering summer with temperatures well above the average and more than 750 hours of sunshine between April and June, compared with the seasonal average of 630 hours. It was the fifth vintage in the last 15 to start in August, with the secateurs out in the Grand Cru of Ambonnay, not renown as an early ripening cru, on 17 August, at which point some grapes there had already reached 12deg° potential alcohol.

We have now seen five harvests since the Millennium begin in August. Previously the earliest picking began on 18 August 2003, in the Côte des Bars village of Bligny. Prior to that you have to go back nearly two centuries to find the next earliest start and that was in 1822 when grape picking began on August 20. The other three harvests that began in August were 2007, 2011 and 2015.

To say it was another unusual growing season is something of an understatement and it was preceded by a very wet winter that saw a record-breaking rainfall of 345 mm from November 2017-January 2018, surpassing the previous record of 338 mm recorded in 1965. This was significant, particularly for the vineyards on the chalky soils at the heart of the appellation, given the almost drought like conditions for much of the summer.

Charles Philipponnat CEO of the eponymous house

“The summer of 2018 has been the driest on record, with hardly any efficient rain from mid-June all the way through the harvest and as late as the end of October,” says Charles Philipponnat CEO of the eponymous house. “Our area [mostly in the Grande Vallée de la Marne around Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ where the house of Philipponnat is based] was particularly dry. The south of the Côte des Blancs, parts of the western Marne valley and parts of the Aube benefited from some more rainfall.”

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon chef de cave at Louis Roederer

“In terms of terroir, the clear winners [in 2018] are the chalky soils of the Grands Crus which held enough water [from the winter rainfall] to maintain water availability to the vines throughout the hot and dry summer,” says Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, Chef de Cave at Louis Roederer.

For Sébastien Moncuit, head winemaker at Mailly Grand Cru in the Montagne de Reims, “the cold, wet winter, allowed a substantial groundwater recharge, while the exceptional temperatures and sunlight hours from April onwards promoted a sustained growth period for the vines.

Sébastien Moncuit, head winemaker at Mailly Grand Cru

The lack of water during summer — 70% down on average — did not create any problems in Mailly due to the chalk subsoils while a little rainfall in mid-August avoided maturation issues [which can happen as a result of lack of water]. The mainly northern facing slopes at Mailly also limited radiation intensity.”

In Champagne’s most southerly region the Côte des Bars, Michel Drappier whose family business is based in Urville says: “We received almost one year’s rainfall between the start of January and the end of June, and then from July until the end of the harvest, virtually nothing. It is the first time I have experienced this. We had quite big problems with mildew on grapes before flowering and lost one third of the crop on the certified organic part of our estate. Fortunately, the potential crop was so high that the remaining harvest was [still] more than we needed. In fact, it was a “vendange en vert naturelle(natural ‘green’ harvest)! All diseases then dried out in summer. It was ideal.”

Michel Drappier whose family business is based in Urville

In terms of bud break and flowering, the former was rather late, but counter intuitively, the latter early, after the very warm early summer weather. “March, when we had two outbreaks of snow, was rather cold and this contributed to a relatively late bud-break between April 15 and 18,” says Michel Davesne, Chef de Cave at Deutz. “From May, the weather was hot and dry and the slight delay in budbreak is was quickly compensated and flowering began very fast, starting a dozen days ahead of the ten-year average, suggesting an early harvest.”

Hervé Deschamps, Chef de Cave at Perrier-Jouët

For Hervé Deschamps, Chef de Cave at Perrier-Jouët, “Flowering was quite early, around 1 June and took place in excellent conditions.” While Roederer’s Lécaillon describes it as “a classic late bud break with an amazing hot and sunny spring weather leading to massive and quick growth. The period between bud break and flowering was a never before seen 45 days! Flowering was very even, due to good weather conditions.”

Dominique Demarville, head winemaker at Veuve Clicquot, agrees. “The flowering went perfectly. Until mid-May, the weather was very wet and mildew was an issue, but it did not do much damage to the grapes. We had also hail in some areas which destroyed around 900 hectares of vineyard. But then the weather became exceptional: dry and hot with the dryness destroying the mildew and helping us avoid botrytis.”

Lack of frost damage and the excellent conditions prevalent at flowering already set expectations for a large harvest. Now all that was needed was plenty of sunlight and sunshine to ripen the large crop.  As Lécaillon puts it: “The following summer was awesome: hot, dry and bright with a significant heat wave between end of July and early August. Pre-harvest weather conditions were perfect and warm until August 25 when we had a bit of rain and more importantly, a nice cooling of temperatures which was perfect for harvest.”

With such a large crop sitting on the vines selecting the ‘right’ harvest dates to ensure a good level of maturity was always going to be crucial. Not everyone took advantage of the prolonged fine weather, however. “I think that the dates were generally set too early, considering the dry weather and the absence of sanitary risks, as well as a large yield needing time to ripen. One had to be responsible and take one’s own ambitious decisions, but not everyone took this path,” says Philipponnat.

It is also true that, as in the example of the earliest harvesting in Ambonnay on 17 August, some Pinot Noir was in danger of getting over ripe. Davesne at Deutz notes that while they generally started picking on 25 August in Aÿ, finishing on 12 September, a few parcels of Pinot Noir needed bringing in even earlier.

Drappier says: “We started to pick on 28 August, eight days after the [official] opening date in the Côte des Bar and we finished on 22 September. I decided to wait because grapes were not ripe according to the Pinot fruit that we want to find in our wines. Grapes were in perfect conditions when harvested.”

Demarville concurs. “The harvesting took longer in each village than in previous years. The pickers were in the vines 12 to 13 days this year compared with eight to nine on average. The weather conditions were excellent, so there was no rush to pick. The yield was high and we needed to take more time to harvest.”

“I think that the dates were very good for all the Pinot Noir and perhaps a little too early for most of the Chardonnay, possibly because we didn’t expect such a yield for Chardonnay, however it is all relative,” says Bollinger’s Chef de Caves Gilles Descôtes. “In our vineyards, as we waited to pick the Chardonnay, everything is between good to exceptional. For some Chardonnay from the growers, it was a little bit too early to pick.”

For Florent Nys who has taken over from François Domi as head winemaker at Billecart-Salmon, picking started on 22 August with Pinot Meunier from Damery. “Everything was ready in the cellar and we liked to pick the grapes with a good level of acidity. During our maturity checks we look every three days at the acidity levels and amount of sugar by tasting the berries. We finished picking on 11 September.”

Magalie Marechal, the new head winemaker at G.H. Mumm who took over last year from Didier Mariotti notes that: “Unusually this year, Pinot Noir – the signature grape for Mumm – was harvested before the Côte des Blancs Chardonnay.”

High yields
As expected yields were almost universally high, especially in Chardonnay, which consequently had the biggest ripening issue. While several producers we spoke to mention agronomic yields over 18,000kgs/ha, we’ve certainly heard examples of yields considerably in excess of 20,000kgs/ha being fairly commonplace. But the quality minded producers now mainly adopt viticultural practices that make such high levels unlikely.

“In our vineyard, yields varied from 10,000 to 18,000 kgs/ha depending on the parcels,” says Philipponnat. “Quite a high yield for us, but not excessive or unmanageable considering the favourable conditions — dry and sunny throughout. And we filled up our reserve. Quality is generally good everywhere.

At Billecart-Salmon, Nys says: “Working the soil, cultivating the parcels through sustainable viticulture allows us to naturally control the yields. The old vines had a classic yield around 10,000kgs per hectare and this material will give us some exceptional wines. At Deutz, Davesne says “For many years now we have exploited our vineyard in sustainable viticulture and we have been certified for two years. This has a direct influence on yields and ours have been lower than the average in Champagne for a while. In 2018, the average yield on our vineyard is 15,000kgs/ha which will allow us to replenish our reserve to the maximum 8,000 kg/ha level.”

Demarville adds: The yield reached 14,000 kgs/ha in our own vineyard on average. While some blocks dedicated to the red wines production were as low as 8,000 kg/ha, some other, younger vines reached 17,000 to 18,000 kg/ha. We were lucky because the perfect weather meant the ripening reached a very good level. And we managed to build our reserve back to 8,000 kg/ha, which is very good news for our reserve wines collection.”

As Drappier succinctly puts it: “We reached a comfortable 14,500 kg/ha allowing us to rebuild our whole reserve and get rid of all our unwanted tailles [second pressing].” For Michael Parisot head winemaker at Devaux, also based in the Côte des Bars, “The average of yield is nearly 15,000 kg per hectare. It’s good because we will keep a part of 2018 wines as reserve wines, building them back to maximum permitted level.”

At Roederer Lécaillon said they had in effect two harvests. “Firstly, the organic certified vineyards (120 hectares) in which we apply biodynamic practices which suffered from mildew with an average yield of 14,000 kg/ha thanks to the [higher yields of the] Chardonnays and secondly, the VDC/HVE certified vineyards (120 hectares) where we harvested 30% more. And yes, we managed to refill all our reserve to 8,000 kg/ha.”

Quality and ageing potential
The quality of the 2018 harvest meets with almost universal acclaim. With grapes coming in to the winery at Deutz with average potential alcohol in the range of 10.35deg° for Meunier, 10.8deg° for Pinot Noir and 10.9deg° for Chardonnay, Davesne is delighted with the results. “The sanitary condition is perfect and the level of maturity very high whatever the variety.”

“Wonderful quality, superb ripeness and well balanced. The three grape varieties were all very consistent., says Henriot winemaker Laurent Fresnet.

“The 2018 harvest is very homogeneous from plot to plot and cru to cru: no botrytis, a high level of sugar and low acidity,” says Demarville. “The juices we get at Veuve Clicquot are on average 10.5deg° vol, 6g/l in sulphuric acid and 3.13 for the pH. The Chardonnay were the ripest, followed by Pinot Noir and then the Meunier, which is a grape variety I prefer to pick with less potential alcohol level.”

“For the crus we work on — mainly located 20km around Mareuil-sur-Ay — the quality was at the top level across all villages and grape varieties,” says Nye at Billecart. “We have not seen this in a very long time. The potential alcohol was close to 11deg⁰ on average, as we harvested very precisely in selecting each village and parcel at the best moment.”

Lécaillon says: “It’s a Pinot Noir year like 2012, with super texture and freshness. There are some variations, linked sometimes to high yields where you have less texture. Our Pinots noirs were picked at average 11.7deg° alcohol, 6 g/l of acid and with a pH at 3.04 (the cuvée). Meunier are less ripe and sometimes slightly diluted due to high yields. With noticeably big berries, they were picked at 10.4 deg° alcohol, 6.7 g/l of acid and pH at 3.09. Chardonnays are more uneven due sometimes to high yields. You definitely had to pick late to get some extra maturity and concentration.”

At Drappier where old varieties are planted as well as the commonly used big three, “All seven grape varieties were ripe, which is very rare,” says Michel Drappier. “Arbanne was just under 10deg°, a first. Petit Meslier even higher despite a big crop. All Pinot were perfect, between just under 10 and 11deg°. Only Fromenteau was too high (above 12deg°) but the wine is showing very well in the tank. Chardonnay, which we have picked last this year, is alone in showing slightly diluted compared to its brothers due to high yields. Technically all is perfect with good tartaric acidity, not that low pH (3.10), and wonderful colours.”

At Castelnau, CEO Pascal Prudhomme says that head winemaker Elisabeth Sarcelet “is very happy with this exceptional harvest in term of both quantity and quality: With average ripeness levels in the range 10.22 to 10.36deg⁰ and pH between 3.08 and 3.11. The winemaking team is confident with the potential this harvest has produced for long term ageing on the lees.”

“Chardonnay and Pinot Noir show great ripeness. Pinot Meunier is a little below, but overall the grape health was exceptional,” says Mumm’s Marechal. Perrier-Jouët’s, Deschamps is similarly enthusiastic. “The quality of the harvest was so high that we didn’t need to select the grapes. Every cru has exceptional ripeness, averaging between 10.2 and 10.6deg⁰. The sunny weather has allowed the accumulation of sugar and while some winegrowers noticed a destruction of the malic acid, meaning they had a low acidity compared to the AOC average, this is not a worry for us.”

Descôtes says of the low acidity: “It’s not a problem. The tartaric acidity is one of the highest of the ten last years so we are very confident. We will make the malolactic fermentation as usual. And low acidity has never correlated to the ability to age well, look at 1976 vintage!”

Davesne says: “Admittedly, the acidities are quite low in 2018. But as you can see, the pH of musts (3.08-3.11) are at very good levels. In addition, the amount of malic acid was very low so that the total acidity increased very little during the malolactic fermentation. And it’s worth pointing out that many hot vintages like 1959, 1989, 1990, 2009 produced very big, impressive and age-worthy champagnes.

Drappier really doesn’t see any problem with the lower acidity levels either. “It’s all about balance. Acidity is useless when all other components are not balanced. Grapes were absolutely beautiful and really good to eat, especially the Pinot. That is the most important thing. When it is good at the start, it remains good. Today’s winemaking knowhow will help us to avoid mistakes and accompany the cuvées through the years to come.”

“The acidity level is low on the paper but clean, precise and fresh on the palate,” says Demarville. “The tartaric acid level is high this year with a small level of potassium. It makes the acidity perception on the palate very dry and fresh, I do not believe the acidity level is a problem in 2018. The base wine tastings show a delicate acidity, that’s both fresh enough and long. I think the ageing potential will be good, thanks to this tartaric acidity and a good phenolic ripening,” says Demarville

“Acidity levels and pHs are generally in line with the level of ripeness, and not worrisome at all, unless one prefers sour grapes,” says Philipponnat. “I never complain about good ripeness, how foolish. Champagne is not about acidity, rather simply good fruit.” Lécaillon confirms the consensus on acidity levels. “Is it a problem? Not at all. On the contrary. I’ve decided to not undergo malolactic fermentation on most of the wines to retain maximum freshness.”

A good or great vintage year?
Given the quality, high level of ripeness and almost total absence of health issues, most producers are excited, if cautious, about the prospects for making good, possibly great, vintage wine. Phillipponnat expects to make “all types of vintage cuvées in our range” and while it is too early to say what past year the wines may be similar too, he believes they “should resemble 1982”.

Davesne at Deutz also displays cautious optimism: “The 2018 harvest has produced warm, vinous wines because of the high level of maturity. It’s difficult to compare 2018 to other vintages because it’s the first year in which we have both significant maturity and such a high level of performance. All the grape varieties are straight, clean and very frank with a nice fruity expression. But the grape that gives the best wines at this stage is Pinot Noir, especially in Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and the Montagne de Reims crus of Bouzy, Ambonnay and Verzenay.”

Lécaillon says it’s “clearly a vintage year with the texture of 2012 and the low pH of 2008 [which he recently described as the greatest vintage of Cristal he had even made]. The closest sugar/acid balance being 1959. Not bad!” As to the vins clairs and whether they are too approachable, he says. “It is work in progress but my feeling is that they are absolutely delicious! They are open, but less so than 2002 at the same stage. So I am not worried.”

Moncuit at Mailly believes it’s: “too early to compare the wines from 2018 with previous vintages. Potential is very high with both finesse and concentration. This will probably allow us to elaborate our top cuvée ‘Les Echansons’. We harvest different ‘lieux-dits’ separately, to preserve their respective flavour profiles. These vary from elegant ones with acidulous notes to rich and mature wines with substance. Harvests with extreme climates tends to enhance the expression of these individual ‘terroirs’ and 2018 is the perfect example of this.”

“For Bollinger, we think that 2018 is so exceptional that it has to be compared to three vintages: 2002 for the analytic profile and taste of the vins clairs; 2003 for the early picking of August and the ripeness of the grapes and 2004 for the generous crop and the very healthy grapes. For the first time in the past ten years, Chardonnay is below the red grapes, but this plays well to the Bollinger style,” says Descôtes.

Drappier expects to vintage 2018 for sure. “But it is too early to know if it will be a good or a great vintage. The average level has rarely been so high. But give us a few months to know for sure.”

“Of course, we will create a vintage this harvest,” Prudhomme says. “As usual we’ll be prudent with aging in the cellar and we’ll monitor the quality year after year. Our policy is not to launch a vintage before it is ten years old, so time is with us in confirming the high level of quality potential. In contrast we did not make vintages wine in either in 2016 and 2017.”

“Pinot Noirs are very mature and show aromas of ripe fruit, while Chardonnay bring elegance and dynamism,” Marechal at G.H. Mumm says. “It is difficult to compare but 2018 shows similarities with 1976, which is a very good reference.” For Perrier-Jouët’s Deschamps too, “Every sign points in the direction of a great vintage, I see similarities with 2004 and 1999.”

“It could be a magnificent vintage as long as we scrupulously monitor the fruit at all times, balance is absolutely key, so we are taking time to make the most of nature’s impressive bounty,” says Henriot’s Fresnet.

Demarville says Clicquotwill declare both Vintage Réserve and La Grande Dame this year. I love the balance in the wines, the good freshness, even not too strong, and the length. Regarding the sugar and acidity level, we can compare 2018 to 2002, 1989 or why not 1959. Some other great vintages. It is too early to say this year will be good, very good, exceptional or sublime. But for sure it is certainly good, says Demarville.