Harvest saved by return of good weather in September

After a very hot and dry July in Champagne, it was wet and cool in August and only a miraculous return to warm dry weather at the start of September enabled final ripening and slowed the spread of rot caused by the August rain.

Chardonnay generally performed best, though some may be overripe. Pinot Noir did better than Pinot Meunier, with quite high potential alcohol. A season of extremes may produce some high-quality vintage wines in due course. Back then for Oz Clarke’s Pocket Wine Book (where I wrote the champagne entries) we gave the vintage a rating of 7 out of 10, which in retrospect might have been slightly generous.  

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, head winemaker at Louis Roederer.

At the end of a very wet, cool August, which saw the grapes swell considerably in size, the prospects for quality (if not volume) looked bleak with some worries about rot. However, the start of September saw “a miraculous return to warm, dry weather that favoured final ripening.  A constant breeze also helped to slow the spread of botrytis caused by the rain in late August,” says Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, head winemaker at Louis Roederer. 

The growing season got off to a slow start following a fairly wet cool spring with bud burst occurring a week later than the 25-year average: April 21 for the Chardonnay, 25th and 26th for Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, says Lécaillon. “Unusually cool weather in May slowed development further but June brought warm, sunny weather, with temperatures higher than average (18.5°C compared to 16.6°C) promoting excellent flowering. Warm sunny weather continued into July with some of the hottest weather in Champagne in living memory.  Mean temperatures of 23.8°C (5°C above the 30-year seasonal average) set a new record for the entire month.”

Michel Drappier of the eponymous house in the Côte des Bar.

For Michel Drappier, based in Urville in Champagne’s southernmost Côte des Bars vineyards, it was a season of extremes. “We had hail in early June, practically drought conditions then until the end of July, followed by a wet cool August. But picking started in early September (around the 12th) in near perfect conditions with Pinot Noir (the most widely planted variety in this area) in some vineyards with a south facing aspect reaching [a potential alcohol level] as high at 11deg.”

Generally, across the appellation the quality of Chardonnay is highest, although some may be overripe. It was the first variety to ripen with picking starting in Sezannais villages like Montgenost as early as September 6 and in the Côte des Blancs about eight days later. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier were more variable and average potential alcohol levels are generally lower for the black grapes, which ripened later.

Didier Mariotti in Mumm’s vineyard in Verzenay

“After the scorching heat in July, followed by rain and generally cloudy weather in August, we were saved by the sun in September without any rain during the harvest,” says Mumm’s new Chef de Cave Didier Mariotti. “Picking started around September 8 with the Chardonnay in the Sezanne region, but didn’t begin in Mailly until the 23rd, so the harvest was quite long for everybody. We only finished with the last musts from Mailly on October 2nd.”

At Roederer, the average sugar level at harvest was more than 10.3 degrees, with mean acidity of 6.9 g/l. “These levels were close to those recorded in 2002 and 1989, both outstandingly good years. Early tastings are highly promising, showing clean aroma, rich fruit and a finesse and balance rarely seen at this early stage. Even so, all three grape varieties retain their own, distinctive personalities,” says Lécaillon.