First impressions of the 2020 harvest in Champagne

The CIVC has released its own, short report about the 2020 harvest just completed in Champagne. It describes it as a “splendid harvest” beginning on 17 August in the most forward vineyards, the earliest official start ever (though in fact some producers started picking even earlier in the Côte des Bar on 13 August, as we have already reported here).

Thibault le Mailloux, director of communication at the CIVC

Thibault le Mailloux, director of communication at the CIVC, in what may be his last task in that role (he is moving to Champagne Gosset as director of communication and marketing), also notes that 2020: “completes an exceptional trilogy (’18, ‘19 and ‘20),” perhaps reminiscent of 1988, ‘89 and ’90, “with the favourable weather conditions giving the Champenois the first essential element needed to make a great wine”.

As we shall see from wider comments from winemakers across the vineyard, it was another growing season of extremes. “After a very humid February, the heat and drought from mid-March saw the vine growth begin 16 days ahead of the ten-year average,” the Comité Champagne says. It remained advanced, with the rate of maturation particularly rapid the week before the harvest dates were announced in mid-August, following the driest July on record.

“From October (2019) to March we experienced much higher rainfall than usual, 500mm compared with an average of 600mm for the whole year,” says Michel Davesne, chef de cave at Deutz. “On a positive note this meant the water table was well replenished [fortunately, given the near drought conditions that followed]. The winter of 2020 was the warmest recorded by ‘Météo France’ in over a century.” After high temperatures in March, “bud burst took place ten days earlier than the ten-year average, on April 7, 9 and 12 in our vineyards for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, respectively.

Michel Davesne, chef de cave at Deutz

Late May flowering suggested a late August harvest, but more warm weather accelerated ripening. “The two heatwaves in late July and early August caused some scalding of the grapes, in particular on the black varietals. Around 30% of the crops were affected which led to a loss of around 10-15%,” says Davesne.

“The lack of rainfall in July and August triggered visible hydric stress visible in parts of the vineyard, with some whole plots displaying symptoms — yellowing leaves – something very rare on chalky soils, and a clear demonstration of just how dry the 2020 vintage was.”

Lack of rainfall kept yields lower than expected while the speed of ripening was again unusual. “It got off to a quick start in the first two weeks of August — with an increase of more than 2 degrees in a single week — before slowing down in the third week of August and picking up again afterwards. The ripening of the Chardonnays lagged significantly behind the Pinot Noirs and Meuniers, which is quite unusual. Choosing the optimum date for harvesting was not an easy task.”

The first grapes were harvested on our Aÿ and Pierry plots on 22 August which is the earliest ever date at Deutz. With just 86 days between flowering and harvesting, 2020 was had one of the shortest ripening periods ever. The health of the grapes turned out to be outstanding, as did their ripeness levels: two hallmarks of an exceptional vintage,” says Davesne.

Everything is pointing towards an exceptional vintage with high hopes that we will be able to produce our vintage cuvées, maybe even our ‘prestige trio’ — William Deutz, Amour de Deutz and Amour de Deutz Rosé – and possibly our Homage à William Deutz single-vineyard cuvées.”

Alice Tetienne, the new chef de cave at Henriot

In her first harvest at Henriot, having moved over from Krug last year to take over the position of chef de cave from Laurent Fresnet, who has joined GH Mumm, Alice Tetienne kept a diary of the growing season. Like Davesne, she notes, the rapid development of maturity seen in early August gave way to a kind of stagnation later in the month, that may well have been down to the near drought conditions, though there were no signs of this in the healthy foliage of the Henriot vines.

A notable feature of the year was the diversity in terms of ripeness and acidity levels between the different varieties, between different crus and even within the same plot in one location. The absence of continuity between acidity, sugar ripeness and aroma made defining ‘maturity’ more difficult than usual, Tetienne says.

The first picking began in Montgueux (an isolated cru due west of Troyes) with a partner grower on 21 August, while the harvest in the Henriot vineyard began in Aÿ on 23 August for the production of red wine, then moving to Chouilly, Epernay and Avenay. “The rules are a little reversed in this harvest with picking starting in the Montagne de Reims before the Côte des Blancs as the Chardonnays ripened more slowly than Pinot Noir and early ripening Meunier further upsetting the usual picking order.”

Sanitary conditions were perfect as was the weather during picking, with the harvest progressing smoothly and a good flow of material to the presses, helped by the lower yields, particularly with Pinot Noir, that was effected by some heat scalding (échaudage).

In Chigny-les-Roses, Alexandre Cattier, CEO and winemaker at the eponymous house, describes the harvest as “surprising, bizarre, complicated and very precocious. It was two days ahead of 2001 [one of the five previous August harvests in Champagne the other four being 2003, 2007, 2015 and 2018]. After the rapid ripening in early August we expected to start even earlier. We are used to all three varieties ripening at around the same time but that was not the case this year, with Meunier ripening well ahead of Pinot Noir which is ahead of the Chardonnay. It was not easy to devise the right picking circuit.

“We finished the Meunier earlier than expected and as the Pinot Noirs were not fully ripe, the pickers were sent it to cut green bunches – which wouldn’t be ripe until November – to ease the burden on the vines, making ripening the remainder easier.” The health of all varieties was very good, but tasting the Meunier musts he finds them slightly disappointing compared to the last two exceptional years for this variety (2018 and ’19) but for Cattier, Chardonnay is magnificent and he thinks it will be the king of 2020.

I will as usual be producing a more in-depth report in due course, featuring comments from winemakers spread across the appellation. For a detailed commentary on previous harvests, you can look at the Trade Corner page on my Champagneguru website where there are reports of the past 13 harvests from 2019 going back to 2007.

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