Although it has been widely reported as the ‘earliest’ harvest since 1822 when grape picking began on August 20, in reality it looks like that honour is still retained by 2003 when after the heat wave summer – we certainly didn’t have that this year — growers in the Côte des Bar village of Bligny began cutting grapes on August 18. It wasn’t a tiny, very ripe harvest either. In 2003 over 12 degrees potential alcohol was common place where as in 2011 some pickers were sent home after they had started when it was realised grapes were not as mature as expected.
For the 2011 harvest the earliest official date for picking was on August 20 for black grapes (both Pinots) in Neuville-sur-Seine and Buxeuil in the southernmost Côte des Bar region, but also for Pinot Meunier in Damery and Cumières, two premier cru villages on the north side of the Marne Valley.
There are even a few people who suggest the very early dates fixed by the CIVC were set too early in some instances and that this decision was partly influenced by the worry that as stocks in the old and new resérve individuelle could in theory build up to as high as 10,000kgs/ha, too much of this material would be based on the relatively ripe recent vintages and lack freshness.
This was certainly an unusual year with a number of firsts. Although the season started exceptionally early with flowering three weeks ahead of usual in the last week of May, after cool weather through June and July, ripeness levels were not near the heights of 2003, when spring frosts had also massively reduced the size of the crop further concentrating the juice.
In mid-August just before harvesting was due to start the speed of ripening did not take place at the expected pace and in a number of instances picking was actually halted. As Moët & Chandon chef de cave Benoît Gouez reports: “We stopped the harvest for a few days in the Côte des Blancs and sent 650 pickers home, something that has never happened in Champagne before in my experience.”
Unusually too Pinot Meunier was picked first by many producers, partly because of fears that if there was further rain this variety, already in a fragile state, would be ruined by botrytis. In general changeable weather conditions just before and during the harvest, plus varying ripeness levels even within the same vineyard made it a difficult harvest to manage. However most producers we spoke to are pleased with the quality they have finished with and nearly all see it as significantly superior to 2010. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are generally the best varieties with some making the comparison with the classic balance of the 1995 vintage.
For a detailed 2011 harvest report with comments from over 20 winemakers and CEOs from across the region see Trade Corner where you will also find past reports for the previous decade.