Difficult 2021 harvest in Champagne begins

Looking from The vineyard in Chouilly towards Epernay earlier this afternoon the weather looked threatening. And it has rained sporadically this afternoon which is the last thing producers need as picking is soon to start in this cru.

As I’m travelling out to Champagne, just a few days since picking began in some parts of the appellation, I’m reviewing what different people have been saying so far about prospects for the 2021 harvest. Tomorrow, I will see for myself with visits to a press house in Verzenay in the Montagne de Reims and a producer in Chouilly, in the Côte des Blancs, planned for my first day back in Champagne since March 2019.

What do we know about the 2021 harvest already? It’s been hit by a triple whammy of severe frost, torrential rain and disease, with mildew and powdery mildew causing widespread problems and fears that those delaying in an effort to obtain a high level of ripeness may be hit by botrytis. Areas reported to have suffered the most damage include much of the Marne Valley, Bar-sur-Aube and part of the Montagne de Reims. 

It’s all gone wrong since vegetative growth began in late March, the result of a damp warm early spring, and as the first leaves started to appear there followed 12 days of frost between 6 April and 3 May, with the lowest temperatures and most damage recorded 6-7 April and 3 May. In total some 30% of the harvest potential was lost  with Barséquanais (63%), Bar-sur-Aubois (51%) and the Massif de Saint Thierry (45%) the regions most affected.

Philippe Brun of Roger Brun in Ay with some Pinot Noir destined for Charles Heidsieck

In terms of yields, the original verdict of the Champagne Comité on 21 July was 10,000kgs/ha, the equivalent of around 300m bottles. This was adjusted in line with a powerful continuation of the recovery in demand in the first half of 2012 (up 47.9%, which equates to 36,915,180 more bottles than the 113,965,546 bottles shipped in the admittedly terrible first half of 2020), to give producers the chance to pick an extra 3,100kgs/ha to put into their reserve, providing that reserve does not exceed 8,000kgs/ha. In fact because the average already held in reserve by producers across the appellation is already 7,440kgs/ha, on average the most that can be put away is 560kgs/ha.

Except in some areas on the Côte des Blancs not too adversely effected by all the difficult weather conditions that have hit over the growing season, managing to pick over 10,000kgs/ha seemed rather unlikely, according to recent reports from the Comité and some journalistic sources. Arriving in Champagne, it doesn’t appear to be the case in some parts of the Montagne de Reims with one independent producer in Aÿ, Philippe Brun talking about reaching 12,000kgs/ha, but we will find out more today on the ground.

Champagne sales may go back 30 years

 

Pol Roger CEO Laurent d’Harcourt

Champagne sales in 2020 “may go back to where they were 30 years ago,” says Pol Roger CEO Laurent d’Harcourt. He made his comments on the current state of the champagne market during last weeks’ zoom tasting for the launch of Pol Roger 2013. A launch which, according to Pol’s UK MD James Simpson MW, represents “a return to proper, old fashioned vintage Pol with a proper backbone”. (To be reviewed on the What I’ve Been Tasting page shortly).  

“The crisis we find today is worse for those brands involved in nightclubs, in bars, on airlines or duty-free and we are not exposed much in these sectors,” says d’Harcourt. “Generally, we are likely to see a decline of between 20-25%, perhaps 30% for some, but at Pol we expect to be around 10% down on a very good 2019. We aren’t too involved in restaurants and by-the-glass sales either, where you have to be very aggressive on price.”

While champagne sales generally may go back to 1990 levels – when shipments were at 232.4m bottles as the market headed into a slump for five years following the oil crisis, before restarting a long and steady period of growth in the mid-1990s – “at Pol Roger we’re only going back a few years, to the level in 2018,” d’Harcourt added. “We are befitting from the decision not to grow too much or too rapidly over the past few years and we are very happy about that today.”

The July and August figures for worldwide Champagne shipments continue to show a very slight improvement on the poor results in April and May 2020, as the sales decline softened in some markets with the summer easing of restrictions. While the monthly figure for July was down 11.8% on July 2019 in France, in August domestic shipments rose 15.3%. In the first 8 months of 2020 shipments to France are down 21% and while the decline is slowing – it was -25.8% January-July and -29.2% in the first six  months – this already represents a loss of some 14.5m bottles. And champagne sales are heavily weighted towards the final quarter of the year.

France still accounts for around 49% of shipments by volume, if rather less by value, although its share of the overall market has been declining steadily since 2010. The Champenois will be more concerned about the drop in exports, with those shipped within the wider European market down 27.8% in the first eight months of 2020, a loss of 10.5m bottles and shipments to further flung destinations, the USA, Japan and Australia being the three most significant, dropping 28.3% January to August, a further loss of just over 14m bottles.

At the moment the MAT figure in the 12 months to the end of August records a drop of 40.54m bottles but in fact the market is down 39.02m bottles in the first eight months of 2020, and the last four months of the year typically accounts for around half the annual shipments. So, if the market doesn’t decline beyond 1990 levels, there will be some relief in Champagne.

Early conversations with the major brands in the UK (a detailed report on this will follow soon on the site), suggests those who have kept faith in the UK consumers’ predilection for this singular French fizz will be vindicated, and Pol is of course among them. It remains their number one export market.

“We are very happy to have a strong presence and a strong team in the UK, most of our markets are quite solid,” says d’Harcourt. “The wines are on allocation, including in the UK. This year because of the decrease in sales in France, we can be more positive in response to requests [for more stock] from some of these smaller, solid markets.”    

Winemaker Richard Geoffroy on Dom Perignon rosé

When Dom Pérignon launches a new vintage, winemaker Richard Geoffroy likes to bring along some other bottles so you can compare and contrast. When I met up with him last month, as well as the soon to be released 2005 vintage, we tried again the so called ‘P2’ 1998 Dom Pérignon, the second release of DP that comes onto the market after further lees ageing (typically another 8 to 10 years) and now really showing its considerable class. We also looked at the latest Rosé release, the 2004, comparing that with the ‘P2’ pink from 1995, fast becoming my favourite vintage of that decade and these days regularly outclassing most ‘96s.

This was a great chance to look at how pink DP develops and evolves and in this short video I ask Richard to talk about the two rosés and their differences.

Champagne and wines for Easter weekend

If you are after an inexpensive champagne then ASDA’s £10 deal on Louvel Fontaine Brut is hard to beat, though the same producer’s pink (Gruet not GH Martel) at £14 is a step up in quality. For well known houses in an apertif style I’d go for Piper Heidsieck Brut at £18 (also at ASDA) now a consistently well made wine or for only £2 more the Chardonnay-led Taittinger Brut Réserve at Sainsbury’s. I’d be tempted by Louis Roederer Brut Premier at Majestic for £27.99 if you buy two bottles.

If you want something pink Lanson’s rose is crisp and clean and on offer in ASDA and Morrisons at about the same price. Veuve Clicquot’s rose is not sadly on any very attractive deal but it is drinking really well currently if you want to splash out. There are other better value buys in my top ten and growers’ pink articles.

There are plenty of worthwhile discounts on red and white wines at the supermarkets too and we’ve selected a few at different price levels for the weekend. White Burgundy with some palate intensity comes in Blason de Bourgogne’s 2010 Montagny (down £3.99 to £8 at Sainsbury’s until 29 April). Decent inexpensive Pinot Noir from Burgundy seems harder to find, but New Zealand is often a better alternative under £15 and ASDA’s 2012 Matua is a very enjoyable, sweet raspberry fruited Pinot at just £7.98 which won a IWSC trophy.

If you are having roast lamb two classic options at Sainsbury’s until 29 April are Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Reserva 2008, down £3 to £15.99, which has just the right amount of acidity to cut through lamb’s fattiness. Or try a delicious mature claret from the hottest vintage on record (but unlike in Champagne some very good wines were made in Bordeaux) in the shape of Grand Cru Classe Chateau Olivier 2003 reduced by £2 a bottle to £27.99, a property that I note featured in Tim Atkin’s article last August entitled ’10 most underrated Bordeaux Chateaux’. Graves is meant to have fared less well in 2003 than some northern communes but this wine is one of the exceptions.

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Champagne risks frost damage after early start to vineyard growth

Warm Spring weather in Champagne following a very mild winter during which the temperature rarely dropped below freezing has resulted in an early start to growth in the vineyard and the danger of frost damage. “This winter in Ay we had only one morning at minus 3degC and by midday it was 12degC, we’ve had almost no frost,” says Philippe Brun of Champagne Roger Brun. “Not enough to damage the grass or the bad herbs, the soil stayed green all winter. Since the start of March we’ve had no rain and the soil is very hard partly because of no frost to break it up, making it very hard to work.

At the moment it is like 2003 and we are ten to 12 days in advance of ‘normal’, compared to the average over the past 25 years. So now the vineyard will be very sensitive to frost. In 2003 we had minus 10degC on 11th April, which is why we had almost no crop. in 2012 we were frozen twice in the middle of April and on 2nd May when there was widespread damage.

Pinot Noir in the best sites in Ay is already quite advanced and frost damage is a real danger, says Philippe Brun
Pinot Noir in the best sites in Ay is already quite advanced and frost damage is a real danger, says Philippe Brun

In 2003, after we picked three times, I had only 4 tonnes per hectare, the first harvest was only 2 tonnes (Regrapage). We picked over two months, now we have to pick over three weeks in total; it is not permitted to go back and pick second generation grapes.

So at the moment we have crossed fingers with a danger of frost until mid May and in fact temperatures dropped to minus 1degC in Reims last night, though that is not expected to cause any damage as Reims is less advanced than the vineyard in Ay.”

This year Brun is to experiment with spraying Oligo Saccharin (apple extract) in his vineyards if there is a risk of being frozen. This works by encouraging a concentration of glucose in the leaves and that reduces their freezing point by a few degrees and gives some protection down to about minus 4 or 5 degC. “If I do it this may help me have 40-50% less damage. I think it’s the effect of global warming; we’ve had virtually no winter and this makes the vineyard much more susceptible to frost in the Spring.”

Changes make website more user friendly

We have made some improvements to the Champagne Guru site this past weekend. There is now a mobile version available for smart phones that is easier to use, you can sign up to receive an email whenever a new post is put up; there’s a contact form for you to get in touch plus a real time twitter feed and more regular blogs.

We have exciting plans to develop the site further over the coming months, meanwhile your feedback is much appreciated.

Chef de Cave Benoît Gouez talks about Moet’s vintage wines

In this video Benoît Gouez discusses the different effects of lees ageing and post-disgorgement ageing for Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage. He was talking at the recent preview of the 2006 Vintage which will be released in May of this year. He also bought along the superb 1999 wine from the Vintage Collection and the surprisingly fresh 1985 in magnum to illustrate his points.

See also the Q&A style interview with Gouez on Harpers website: http://www.harpers.co.uk/people/qa-with-mot-and-chandons-chief-winemaker-benot-gouez/354411.article

Champagne shipments fall to 304m bottles but value in line with 2012

Champagne shipments in 2013 fell back by 1.5% to 304m bottles, “a satisfactory result in a difficult economic environment in Champagne’s main European markets,” says the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) in a statement accompanying the estimated figures, which were released over a month earlier than usual this year. This volume is nearly 5m down on 2012 and nearly 19m below the 2011 figure of 322.95m bottles but while shipments to both the French domestic market and Europe outside France are down by 2.3 and 3.4% respectively, shipments to countries outside Europe reached a new record level of 63m bottles, up another 3.2% on the 2012 figure.

The markets outside Europe now account for only 11m fewer bottles than Europe, the closest the two have been and in value terms they are neck and neck. Countries outside Europe, a group still dominated by the USA and Japan, respectively the second and fourth ranked export markets for champagne in terms of volume, now account for over 25% of total shipments in value terms and just over 20% in volume. In fact while Japan was still 3.5m bottles smaller than Germany in volume terms in 2012 (12.5m vs 9m bottles), as a very high value market where average bottle price was €19.10 versus Germany’s €14.8 in 2012, in overall value terms Japan is now very close to Germany with shipments there in 2012 worth €173.64m against shipments to Germany of €186.22m.

In 2012 average shipment prices in the three areas were:
France: €12.44 a bottle
Europe: €14.96 a bottle
Outside Europe: €18.18 a bottle

The overall year-end shipment figures in 2013 are better than was expected after a difficult November when shipments were down 13.5% in Europe compared with November 2012 and the total figure looked like being under 300m bottles. A general recovery in December saw shipments increase to around 42m bottles, an 8% rise on December 2012. Total value of shipments for 2013 was only fractionally down on 2012 at around €4.3bn.