The Champagne harvest has begun in earnest with the official dates for many of the major Côte des Blancs crus opening last Friday (1 September) and in the Montagne de Reims, crus like Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Bouzy and Verzenay starting today for black grapes. The first official day for picking was on 26 August for the cru of Montgueux, the isolated vineyard set on a hill due west of Troyes in the Côte des Bar that produces some of Champagne’s richest Chardonnay. As is fairly normal, other villages in this, the most southerly part of Champagne, were also among the earliest villages to start picking with Buxeuil, Bar-sur-Seine and Balnot-sur-Laignes all beginning on 28 August.
Through the process of derogation, producers are allowed to apply to start picking earlier than the scheduled date for their particular cru – the Comité Champagne draws up official start dates for all three main varieties of grape in all 320 crus in the appellation – if they feel they need to because on their particular site, ripeness levels are more forward.
This happened at Krug in its tiny walled vineyard right in the centre of the village of Le Mesnil, a Côte des Blancs cru officially schedule to open last Friday (1 September). As Olivier Krug announced on twitter, they began in Clos du Mesnil on 25 August and had finished the 1.87 hectare plot by 30 August, two days before the official start date. And when the final Clos du Mesnil grapes reached the press centre Olivier Krug said: “Beautiful last grapes from Krug’s Mesnil vineyard. The choice to start one week ahead of official dates was probably very wise.” As Jancis Robinson reports from her quick tour of major houses at the end of August: “he’s [Olivier Krug that is] hoping it will be the first ever vintage ending in a 7 in his career.”
At Louis Roederer, where picking started on their estate last Friday (1 September) head winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon reports Chardonnay from Vertus at 11.4% natural alcohol with good acidity”. Yesterday (3 September) they started picking Pinot Noir for rosé in Les Chalmonts in Cumières. But Lécaillon also reports the Chardonnay in Avize, Chouilly and Mesnil still needs a couple of days longer “before they become really tasty”. This 2017 harvest is the first where 100% of the Roederer vineyards have been farmed organically, he confirms.
It’s very hard for a champagne brand to get rid of a negative image. Years of ownership by the Rémy-Cointreau drinks group (they also used to have Krug in their grasp), which better understands the spirits market, did a good deal of harm to Piper-Heidsieck’s reputation, something which in Champagne essentially rests on the quality of your mainstream non-vintage cuvée, likely to account for more than 80% of your sales.
Earlier this week I ran a Champagne masterclass tasting at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and promised the participants, many of them WSET diploma students, to publish some of the detailed information about the wines, plus up-to-date statistics on the grape varieties planted in different areas of the appellation.
Laurent-Perrier has changed the style and blend of its core mainstream non-vintage champagne renaming it La Cuvée. The new wine, which will initially be based on the high quality 2012 harvest, will have more Chardonnay in it, and according to UK managing direct David Hesketh MW has a different flavour profile. Tasted side by side with the old Brut NV “there’s a clear difference between the two” he says.
Champagne shipments to the UK in 2016 were down 8.68% in volume, falling from 34.2m to 31.2m bottles and 14.03% in value, dropping from €512.2m to €440.4m, the detailed figures just released by the Comité Champagne reveal. This was the largest percentage drop in value among all the top ten export markets, only five of which showed any volume growth in 2016, with shipments to the USA rising the most, up 6.33%, although the value of the 21.8m bottles shipped to the USA only rose by 4.9%.
Champagne shipments in 2016 were down 2.1% at 306,036,369 bottles, a little over 6.5m bottles below the level reached in 2015, according to the statistics released by the CIVC. This is just above the 304,994,000 bottles shipped in 2013, the poorest recent year, although immediately after the financial market meltdown only 293,331,000 bottles were shipped in 2009.
The yield for the 2016 harvest, currently expected to begin around mid-September, has been set at 9,700 kilos per hectare with a further 1,100kgs/ha to be taken from the reserve at the start of February next year. This level of yield will potentially produce around 283m bottles with a further 32m bottles coming from the reserve next February, if appropriate, making a total production of 315m bottles. This compares with worldwide champagne shipments of 312.5m in 2015 and the news that the MAT total for shipments in the 12 months to the end of June 2016 were up just over 2%.