While the official Champagne harvest dates announced last Saturday gave this Monday (20 August) as the start date for picking, not Tuesday as has been widely reported, in fact picking began in the Grand Cru of Ambonnay last Friday, 17 August, making it the earliest harvest in Champagne on record.
By the process known as derogation, producers can apply to the local INAO office to start picking earlier than the official start date for any village, if the grapes are already ripe. And at Champagne Andre Beaufort in Ambonnay, where they started picking Pinot Noir last Friday, “we already had 12deg° [potential alcohol] in some plots,” says Réol Beaufort. Commenting on the early start, he also told the local paper l’Union, “we have never seen that before, except in 2003 when we started on 19 August”.
While 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.
In 2003 conditions were extreme with temperatures reaching 40degC in the day and remaining around 30degC at night over a three-week period. The heat and almost complete lack of rain also hit yields, already severely depleted by the ravages of frost in April 2003. As a result, the average yield per hectare in 2003 was only 8,256 kilos for the whole appellation, but much less in some places like the Côte des Bars region.
The situation in 2018 is very different. Helped by the record-breaking winter rainfall of 345mm between November 2017 and January 2018, the grapes are not raisin like and dehydrated, but healthy and the agronomic yield is well above maximum level set with recent reports suggesting it’s in the range between 16,000-19,000kgs/ha. Back in late July, the maximum yield the Comité set of 10,800kg/ha, was in line with their view that champagne consumption will remain stable in 2018 at around the current level of 307.25m bottles (total shipments in 2017, according to CIVC figures).
With the current area of productive vineyard at around 33,868 hectares (the provisional figure for the 2017 harvest) a yield of 10,800kg/ha will produce around 310m bottles. If we pushed this yield up to 15,000kgs/ha, that would add about another 120m bottles to the potential volume.
While the Champenois won’t be making this volume of champagne, given the apparently high quality of the 2018 crop what they will be doing is picking most of it, and replacing any poor quality juice currently held in the Réserve. This is great news for future quality and will be particularly welcome to those holding a lot of the 2017 harvest in reserve, given that harvest was adversely affected by botrytis.
Hervé Dantan, chef de cave at Lanson said earlier this week, “the level of sugar is high, over 10deg° and the acidity is moderate with a sugar acid balance very close to the 2002 harvest. We’ve had impeccable sanitary condition, a very beautiful evolution of maturity and good yields in most of Champagne.” While the summer has evoked memories of 2003, says Dantan, the very heavy winter rainfall replenished the moisture in the soil and although there was water stress in some parcels, all three varieties have good levels of maturity and the musts will be higher quality than in 2003 with a better level of phenolic ripeness.