Champagne shipments has risen very slightly compared to the 306.096 bottles reached in 2016, rising by 0.52% or around 1.6m bottles to 307.7m bottles in 2017. At the end of November 2017 shipments were in line to rise to around 311m bottles and even the Union des Maisons de Champagne (UMC) was predicting 310m bottles. But sales in December, usually the busiest month in the year, fell back generally by around 10%, on the same month in 2016.
The news follows a difficult harvest in 2017, when the general quality, particularly of the black grapes Pinot Noir and Meunier, was adversely affected by the warm, wet weather in August, immediately prior to picking, causing widespread problems with rot. While Chardonnay in general and Pinot Noir from the Côte des Bars, were the two success stories of the harvest, producing good quality fruit, Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims was more variable especially around villages like Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ hit by frost in April and then rot at harvest time. Meunier was worse effected by the rot issues, with the problem tending to be worse the further west in the Marne Valley towards Paris you go.
Given the spring frosts in mid-April reduced the harvest potential by around 20-25% on average and the need for rigorous sorting at the harvest cut the yield further, it quite a surprise to discover the Champagne Comité estimates average yields across the whole appellation at 10,057 kg/ha which is just above the maximum limit they set on 21 July at 9,300kgs/ha.
Despite this, driven by the ambition of the leading player and largest purchaser of grapes to increase its market share, grape prices and prices of vins clairs have risen by about 5%, which will put increasing pressure on some producers that don’t have the strongest brands and have to buy in the majority of the grapes they need to make their wines. While the Comite reports grape rpces on average in the region of €6 – €6.10 per kilo, for grand cru fruit considerably more is being paid. It looks like being a tricky year for some large and medium sized players, balancing paying significantly more for their raw material while under pressure not to increase prices for consumers.
This will no doubt cheer Giles Coren whose column in The Times this weekend was entitled: “Champagne is only good for cleaning drains”. In this piece he says things like: “champagne is nasty, acrid and belch-making. It gives you a headache almost immediately and a desperate hangover later”. Reporting that prosecco sales outstripped champagne by ten to one in the UK this Christmas, he says this is not just because “prosecco is cheaper and nicer. Sales have slumped because champagne is overpriced and rank and the people have finally realised.”
This may of course all be a tongue in cheek way of trying to restock his own cellar, with the champagne indignant producers PRs, send him in an effort to get him to change his view. But The Times wine correspondent Jane MacQuitty has also been critical of the Champenois, or at least two of the three largest brands worldwide, in her New Year’s Eve column, where she attacked the quality of Veuve Clicquot and Nicolas Feuillatte’s champagne. So perhaps, given the paper’s pro-Brexit stance, this is just a Murdoch inspired attempt to discredit the French.