2017 Champagne harvest gets into full flow

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.

The last pressing of Mesnil grapes at Krug

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.”

First parcel of Pinot Noir picked by Louis Roederer at Les Chalmonts in Cumières on 3 September

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.

Whose champagne is Majestic enough?

Which champagne should you be opening to toast The Queen’s 91st birthday? It seems only certain, particular fizzes get past the palace gates. In order to supply HM The Queen, you have to be a Royal Warrant Holder and currently there are nine houses that have that privilege. But there may be different corks popping at Highgrove and Clarence House, as out of the nine, only one — Laurent-Perrier — is officially ‘by appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales’.

What they are drinking over at Kensington Palace is Continue reading “Whose champagne is Majestic enough?”

In praise of half bottles’ faster maturing

Too few restaurants offer a decent selection of half bottles on their wine lists, though the trend towards listing a number of wines served in 25 and 50cl carafes, now seen in many more casual dining establishments, is to be applauded. Half bottles of champagne are particularly handy, especially if there’s two of you and you plan to have some wine too. Just a glass of good fizz is rarely enough.

While quite a few champagne houses now seem reluctant to produce half bottles, citing quality issues and the fact that they mature more quickly, I see that (speed of development) as an advantage in certain instances. A half bottle of Krug is a welcome Continue reading “In praise of half bottles’ faster maturing”

Fifteen prestige cuvées from 2002

The prospect of tasting 15 prestige cuvée champagnes in one sitting later this week is a mouth-watering one.  Especially as they are all from the celebrated 2002 vintage, which will probably, with a little competition from 2008 & ’09, go down as the finest vintage of the past decade. But it’s interesting to speculate — before I have seen the actual list — who will be included in the line-up?

I imagine Dom Pérignon, Cristal and Krug will be there, the last named only released to a rapturous welcome early this year, while Cristal will potentially boast considerable bottle age, given it was first made available over seven years ago. I guess Dom Ruinart, fabulously rich and powerful in 2002 and Clicquot’s La Grande Dame will complete the Moët-Hennessy quartet in the line-up.

Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill and Salon are two further acclaimed ‘02 releases, and I’m pretty sure Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne will feature (see my piece on the recent Finest Bubble vertical tasting of Comte 1996-2006 which included the 2002). To these eight we can probably add Continue reading “Fifteen prestige cuvées from 2002”

Comte de Champagne vertical tasting 2006-1996

Comte line up 4 VerticalHistorically Champagne has not been seen as a wine appropriate for investment purposes, certainly not in the same way as say red Bordeaux. The three most commonly traded prestige cuvées have in the past been Dom Pérignon, Krug and Louis Roederer’s Cristal. Vintage Krug and Cristal, both produced in far smaller volumes than Dom Pérignon, tend to have the higher values, though which comes out on top depends on the Continue reading “Comte de Champagne vertical tasting 2006-1996”

Krug launches 2002 vintage & changes Grand Cuvée label (slightly)

Bjoern Weissgerber, group executive chef at Zuma restaurants was kind enough to take this picture of Eric Lebel with me at the 2002 launch

Yesterday I had the chance to try the newly released Krug 2002 vintage, along with a group of top sommeliers and chefs, many of whom are Krug ambassadors. One of the last, if not the last, major house to put its ’02 offering on the market, the expectations were high. The wine isn’t a disappointment. Subtle, gentle, harmonious, it has that indefinable quality, that extra dimension, lift and intensity that only the top vintages in Champagne offer with a silky texture and long finish. To put the new wine in context after a mandatory glass of Grande Cuvée, the current release based Continue reading “Krug launches 2002 vintage & changes Grand Cuvée label (slightly)”

2014 harvest a mixed bag though some see quality as high

Despite warm dry spring weather, which had producers predicting a late August harvest, cool wet weather in July and August slowed the ripening process down and the Champagne harvest began in the Côte des Bar region and early ripening villages like Cumières in the second week of September around the 8th and 9th. Following a successful even flowering period in ideal conditions at the start of June all three main varieties ripened at much the same time producing a concentrated picking period of around ten days for most producers.

Opinion varies about the quality, but thanks to a warm, very dry period from late August right through until picking had finished, some producers see it as good to very good and vintage cuvées are likely to be made. In terms of quantity, the appellation limit of 10,500kgs/ ha will easily be met by most producers and many report they will also have the chance to build up their reserves, particularly depleted by the short harvest in 2012. Some expect to reach the maximum permitted extra 3,100kg/ha. As a result, given that sales of champagne in the main European markets are still fairly weak, especially in France, there should be little upward demand led pressure on prices. Grape prices are not however expected to fall.

Thanks to the late summer sunshine potential alcohol levels of 10.5deg or more were widely reached and there was little need for chaptalisation. Immediately prior to the harvest starting, acidity levels were very high, leading some to start drawing comparisons with the 1996 harvest, but in the very warm weather of early September when afternoon temperatures reached highs of 28-30degC, acidity levels dropped rapidly as the grapes ripened.

While there were some fears of rot, particularly in the Marne Valley which received close to twice the usual summer rainfall, bright clear days and north easterly winds kept botrytis at bay and those producers who decided to delay picking beyond the opening day announced for each individual cru benefitted from such a decision in many parts of the appellation.

Chardonnay seems to be the best performer generally with Pinot Noir also successful in the Montagne de Reims and in the most southerly part of the appellation, the Côte des Bar region to the south-east of Troyes. Pinot Meunier was more variable with the Marne Valley hit by rainfall, which was heavier the more westerly towards to Paris you go.

The free draining chalky soils of the Côte des Blancs were less adversely effected by the extra rainfall than the predominantly clay soils of the Marne Valley. However happily it remained almost completely dry throughout the concentrated period of harvesting during mid-September.

While high rainfall caused some problems, particularly in the Marne Valley as we have said, this area was also the worst hit by the pest drosophila suzukii, commonly known as the spotted wing drosophila. This is a type of fruit fly related to the common European vinegar fly, drosophila melanogaster which feeds on damaged berries, but far more worryingly one that attacks healthy fruit and has reportedly been an issue in parts of Bordeaux during the 2014 harvest too.

Any juice from grapes effected by this pest, which pieces the grape skin to lay its eggs, is turned to acetic acid and completely unusable. This may not be discovered during picking as the damage is not necessarily that obvious as the grapes looked relatively normal but the must is vinegar like and unusuable. It not only effected parts of the Marne Valley but also caused some problems in Montagne de Reims villages like Bouzy, Aÿ and Ambonnay. There was reportedly one very high profile casualty in Ambonnay and it is understood that Krug Clos d’Ambonnay will not be made in 2014.

To get a more in-depth report on the different conditions faced across the Champagne vineyards you can turn to my Detailed 2014 harvest report in the Trade Corner of the site in the next few days. This will have comments, mostly directly from the winemakers themselves, at a range of producers large and small spread across the appellation and gives some idea of the many regional variations.