High quality ripe vintage with Pinot Noir to the fore

The 2009 Champagne harvest looks to be generally good in quality with some producers saying it’s excellent and comparing it with past top class vintages like ‘82 and ‘89. Among the 15 or so producers (both houses and growers) we’ve spoken to Pinot Noir is widely reported as variety that fared best in this harvest, particularly in some of the grands crus of the Montagne de Reims. On average the maximum permitted of 14,000kgs/ha will be reached across the appellation although agronomic yields vary wildly from below 8,000kgs/ha to above 18,000kgs/ha according to the winemakers we have contacted.

Nicolas Maillart a grower based in the premier cru of Ecueil south-west of Reims with vineyards also in Villers Allerand and Bouzy says:

“Pinot noir was exciting: especially in Bouzy where it was fantastic (11%vol, pH 3,01, acidity around 8). Grapes were very fruity and healthy… a dream. I really consider it as a great vintage for Pinot Noir.”

In the Côte de Bars region where Pinot Noir is widely planted Michel Drappier says Pinot Meunier reached an even higher average ripeness of 10°8 (compared to Pinot Noir’s 10°4) though both achieved highs of well over 11° on the best sites and he expects there to be almost no chaptalisation. He says: “The grapes were all fantastic and as healthy as 1990, may be even 1959!”

There were however problems earlier in the growing season with oidium and particularly mildew partly due to wet weather and storms in June and the first part of July. Cool and wet weather at the time of flowering in early June has also lead to some uneven ripening.

“While the 2008 harvest was saved by the weather in September, 2009 has been made by a beautiful summer from mid-July to the end of September [when picking was more 90% finished]. The spring has been challenging for the growers with high mildew pressure and an uneven blossoming. Some plots have suffered from millerandage and brown rot with some effect on quantity but none on quality. Overall the conditions for grape maturation and the harvest have been perfect. Grapes have been cleaner than ever, even better than 2008 with no botrytis at all,” says Benoît Gouez, Chef de Cave at Moët & Chandon.

Charles Philipponnat from the eponymous house in Mareuil-sur-Ay says:  “August and particularly September were unusually dry, without extreme heat, which created a small miracle. The harvest is the healthiest I’ve seen in my lifetime. Starting to taste after the alcoholic fermentation the wines are both balanced and already quite open. It’s difficult to compare to other recent vintages, but we might be in the league of the 82’s if things go right. It’s still a little early to tell though,” he cautions.

“Pinot Noir did not have very intense colour and the internal side of bunches sometimes looked a bit red, but it was ‘phenolically’ ripe, and the red wines for rosé have yielded quite a lot of colour, another good surprise this year.”

For Jean-Hervé Chiquet at Champagne Jacquesson the harvest was: “Excellent for the three cépages, but it’s too early to know which one is best. Average alcohol in our cellar is about 10.75° and PH between 3.05 and 3.10, almost perfect. And for the four single vineyards sites in Dizy and Ay all were over 11° with Dizy Corne Bautray at 11°6 at Dizy Terres Rouges at 11°95, so the numbers are fantastic and the average potential alcohol almost the highest ever for us and no chaptalisation needed.” As to the quality of the vintage: “A combination of our own progress and the quality of the 2008 vintage makes me think that we made our best wines ever last year. But even if 2009 is inferior, the choice is between a good and a great vintage.”

For Fabien Henry MD at Chanoine:

“The healthiness of the harvest was perfect and we were harvesting under the sun every day. Of course we will produce a vintage, but it is too soon to say if it will be better or not compared with 2008.”

Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon at Louis Roederer says: “It is far too early to make any reliable comparisons with previous years, particularly given the special nature of the 2009 vintage.” But given the conditions and the high ripeness levels of the fruit (10.9 degrés on average at Roederer) he believes: “we can look forward to some lovely vintage wines to come. We will do without malolactic fermentation this year, so as to preserve all the freshness and natural balance of a harvest characterized by ‘majestic’ maturity.”

At Bollinger MD Jerôme Philipon is also enthusiastic about the quality of the 2009 harvest.

“At Bollinger we had an average ripeness of 10.3deg which is higher than the average for the past 25 years of 9.5deg and we managed to achieve a very deep colour [in the black grapes].  We expect to make a vintage, our chef de cave Michael Koffman says it is closest analytically to ‘89 and ’99 so it has very strong potential even if the acidity was a little on the low side.”

“At Bollinger, we have put the maximum possible into oak barrels and if we decide to make less vintage wine it will produce fantastic quality reserve wine to be put in magnum [for future blending].”

At Champagne Ruinart Chef de Cave Frédéric Panaiotis says: “I’m always cautious when all the tanks haven’t all finished fermenting yet so it’s really too early, but given the summer we’ve had and the healthy conditions of the grapes there should be enough good wines for tuning part of the harvest into a vintage.”

This is an edited version of the harvest report that appeared on jancisrobinson.com in October 2009.