‘Great’ vintage champagne predicted from 2012 harvest

After a disastrous growing season with frost, poor flowering, hail and disease all hitting yields, good, dry and warm weather in the run-up to picking has produced a small but potentially great harvest. “The quality is outstanding,” says Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon chef de cave at Louis Roederer. “It is a great vintage. Probably better than 1996 and close to 1990 on average. But in some special location it could well be better than that, closer to a 1947? Full ripeness of Pinot Noir which is typical of a continental summer and a perfect final ripeness of Chardonnay and Meunier. Acidity is balanced and pH quite low for such a level of sugar.”

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon chef de cave at Louis Roederer

“All will be clearer in a few weeks when the still wines are tasted, but already, what we are seeing now is somewhere between 2002 and 1959, two of Champagne’s greatest vintages, if ever there were any,” says Charles Philipponnat of the eponymous house. “For us [it is], somewhere between 1959, 1990 and 2002. Yields were only 6 to 7000 kilos/hectare, but quality was very satisfactory, especially the Pinot Noir, whose exceptional sugar content –11.5° to more than 12° — was higher than in 1976, 2000 or 2003, and was combined with an excellent acidity, that was even better than in 1996.”

“Everything is here, quality-wise, to craft some top vintage champagne. Considering just numbers, 2012 looks like a cross between 2002, 1990 and 1952 all excellent years,” says Frédéric Panaiotis, chef de cave at Ruinart. “All grapes came in super- healthy, we’ve recorded extremely high levels of glycerol and gluconic acid.”

Frédéric Panaiotis, chef de cave at Ruinart

“The overall quality of the grapes was very high,” says Hervé Deschamps, chef de cave at Perrier-Jouët. It was “a very good healthy harvest with no botrytis and a very good ripeness for all grapes varieties.”

“Considering the health of the grapes, the level of maturity and the balance with acidity I am very confident in the vintage potential of this harvest,” says Benoît Gouez, chef de cave at Moët & Chandon.

“It looks like 1996, but less homogeneous,” says Michel Drappier of the eponymous house in the Côte des Bar. “It was a year of ‘extremes’, minus 20°c in February, a very warm and dry end of winter, the rainiest spring for years, the most devastating hail storm of the past 200 years, a heat wave in August with plus 38°c ‘cooking’ some berries and this resulted in the smallest crop for Drappier since 1957, with a yield of only 4,300Kg/ha.”

Charles Philipponnat President of the eponymous house

Yields were considerably down elsewhere as well. “With most of our old vineyards being traditionally ploughed, little usage of chemicals and some of our vineyards farmed organically and bio-dynamically, we have been very exposed to the bad weather conditions in 2012,” says Lécaillon, “especially in the early ripening grands crus.  Our final yield in our vineyard was 7,500 kg/ha. Well below the appellation.”

At Philipponnat yields “were only 6 to 7,000 kgs/ha” while at Moët in the Appellation’s largest estate “The average yield is 8.5 tons/ha,” says Gouez. Of those we have spoken to so far since the harvest ended only Perrier-Jouët has reached the maximum yield set by the CIVC. “In our vineyards, we have by average 11,000kg/ha and near 200kg/ha for the Réserve individuelle, says Deschamps.

An unusual feature for the 2012 harvest at Philipponnat was: “that the Clos des Goisses grapes were a little less ripe than the Aÿ grapes (the basis of the 1522 cuvée), and the yield for the latter was slightly better, as this very hot terroir [steep slopes that face due south] flowered before the cold spell in June [and thus avoided the problems of uneven flowering], says Charles Philipponnat.

“The musts are clear, with little or no oxidization, and already present excellent aromatic qualities. The best are already fermenting in oak barrels which augurs well, suggesting purity and longevity. All will be clearer in a few weeks’ time when the still wines are tasted.”

Didier Mariotti, head winemaker at G.H. Mumm

Didier Mariotti, head winemaker at G.H. Mumm says: “Our vineyards had some frost problems in Cramant in the lower parcels, but the damage there was quite limited. The vineyards were well protected from mildew attacks of June and July and we had no rot at all when we picked the grapes. Thanks to this, we were able to reach very close to the maximum 11,000 kg/ha but we didn’t manage to put wines into the reserve.”

Immediate pre-harvest the weather was: “very sunny and it remained hot and sunny in the first week of picking. We had some rain the second week of harvest, but this had only a limited [upward] impact on the yield.”

Mariottti continues: “With an average alcoholic degree of 10.43 we only need very limited chaptalisation to reach 11deg.” In terms of quality and potential: “I hope to be able to make a vintage but can’t really make any comment right now, I need to taste more wines (all the wines tasted were tasted in between alcoholic and malolactic).

In general, “it was a great harvest, we are just a little bit sad about the small quantity. But nature is still leading us, that is the beauty of this job. Overall it has been a very difficult vintage in the vineyards with frost and hail in the spring plus mildew attacks in June and July. The vines were exposed to a lot of potential disease problems, but the good [immediately before] pre-harvest weather did an excellent job in preserving the grapes from rot. It was really a vintage for the vignerons, because we had to be really close to the vines to defend and protect them.”

Veuve Clicquot, head winemaker Dominique Demarville

At Veuve Clicquot, head winemaker Dominique Demarville says: “We started picking on 17 September in the Côte des Blancs, in Bouzy (for the red wines) and in Aÿ. In these two areas, we started the harvest the day fixed by the CIVC, because the ripening was good. In the other areas – Verzy, Verzenay, Villers-Marmery, Trépail and Saint-Thierry), we started picking four to six days after the CIVC dates to reach higher ripening, especially for the Pinot Noir.

“This year, we didn’t have botrytis pressure, the weather conditions were excellent, so we could afford to wait for a better ripening. The harvest lasted longer than on average because the vinegrowers took time to make sure we reached a good balance, something between 10.5% and 11%vol (sometimes even more) with acidity at 7.5-8g/l (expressed in sulphuric acid.).

“Our vineyard was hit by frost in the Côte des Blancs and in Trépail and we lost grapes due to bad flowering, particularly in the Pinot Meunier. We also had some oïdium in the Chardonnay and some Pinot Noir parcels. Selection at the picking stage helped us avoid problems with this disease in the press centres. Because of these issues, we did not reach [a yield of] 11,000 kg/ha, we’re at around 9,500 kg/ha. The best area [in terms of yield] is the northern Montagne de Reims at an average of 10,400 kg/ha. The Côte des Blancs was affected by frost and reached 9,400 kg/ha, while Pinot Meunier was lower at 8,900 kg/ha. We didn’t have any surplus [over 11,000 kg/ha] for the 1,000 kg/ha potentially allowed for the individual reserve.

“I am very confident in the vintage potential of this harvest,” says Benoît Gouez, chef de cave at Moët & Chandon.

“The immediate pre-harvest weather was very good. It is true some people wanted more rain before the harvest, but I believe there was enough thanks to a very rainy spring and early summer (until the 15 July). I preferred this good weather even we lost some volume, we picked healthy grapes at a perfect level of ripeness. Rain just before picking can bring both botrytis and dilution.”

In terms of the quality of the grapes, the fruits was perfectly ripe, without botrytis, in terms of health close to 2008 and 2009; in other words very good! There’s little need for any chaptalization, we chaptalise only juices below 10.8%vol.

On the paper, this year looks very good, close to 1990, 1989 and 2002 for the level of sugar, with the acidity level not to far from 1998, 1990 and 1982. It could be a very nice vintage, but we must wait to taste the wines, which we start next week. During fermentation, the wines smelt very fruity, pure and fresh. I tasted some wines direct from vats and they seemed very fresh, with good acidity, depth and a strong fruitiness. I’m crossing my fingers!”

“It looks like 1996, but less homogeneous,” says Michel Drappier of the eponymous house in the Côte des Bar.

Another thing to note about this harvest is: “The pressing was done very soon after picking due to the low yield, the grapes didn’t hang arounnd in the press centres. Straightforward pressing conditions resulted in less cloudy juices too. And cool nights with temperatures just 2 to 4 degC, helped preserve freshness and the juices were cool enough to help result in a good ‘débourbage’.

“Nature has shown us again who is boss. After a difficult start to the season, fine weather in August and September helped quality thanks to hard work in the vineyard earlier in the year. Growers and producers with enough patience will make some outstanding wines,” he predicts.

In Courteron in the southernmost Côte des Bars region of Champagne, biodynamic producer Jean Sébastien Fleury began picking one day earlier than the official opening date on 11 September, finishing on 26 September. Their yields varied widely, but won’t reach the appelation limit with some parcels affected by frost and mildew, others by uneven flowering and rot, and some only by frost and rot. Mildew and rot were the biggest issues. Fleury also notes that lack of rain before the harvest combined with the high August temperatures slowed maturity.

Biodynamic producer Jean Sébastien Fleury

In terms of overall health and quality at picking he says: “Pinot Noir was between 10.5 and 11.5deg potential alcohol, 8gms/l in acidity with a pH of 2.9. Chardonnay was about 10.4deg, 8.5gms/l acidity and 2.9pH while the Pinot Blanc was 10.6deg, 7.9gms/l acidity and pH2.95. So the quality was amazing without any botrytis and a well-balanced sugar/acidity ratio which makes me think of a very good vintage like 1996 or 1988. We won’t chaptalize at all, which is quite rare.

“While I don’t have great experience of many previous harvests, the precision, quality and texture of the wine is all here and makes me think we have the potential for the level reached in 2002 or 2008. It could also age very well, so I expect to be making vintage cuvées.”

One note of caution he strikes: “From my point of view as an organic producer, using only copper and sulphur to protects the crop from disease, I’ll be afraid about the conventionally made wine after this difficult season. Some conventional producers using chemical products were spraying every 4-5 days in the belief that the total quantity produced must be very high. But what effect will this have?”

Philippe Brun of Roger Brun in the grand cru of Aÿ

For Philippe Brun of Roger Brun in the grand cru of Aÿ, who presses for quite a few smaller producers and several large négoce, the average yield on his press was 7,800kgs/ha “with some crashing to only 1,500kgs/ha and only five of the 80 growers [using his facility] reaching 11,000 kgs/ha and only two reaching 12,000kgs/ha.

“We had winter frost which affected young plants, spring frosts in April and May, a horrible spring with unsuccessful floraison [flowering] and very strong mildew attacks. Those who failed to make their first sprays [against mildew] lost up to 80% of their crop and had to continue spraying to save the vineyards.

“Immediately pre-harvest it was nice, dry, sunny, cold by night (good for preserving acidity) and warm by day (good for sugar levels), but it was rainy during the harvest. We [his vineyards are mainly in Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Avenay] picked at an average of alcohol potential of 10.8deg with 7.8 gms/l acidity and did not chaptalized at all,” says Brun.

“It’s too soon [to make judgements about the quality and potential]. Sugar and acidity were both there, with no botrytis at all. It looked fantastic, but what about aromas? For my pink, I had to stop maceration much sooner than normal, there was so much colour, but I was disappointed with the aromas. Around here we say ‘Aout fait le mout et juillet le bouquet’ [August makes the must, July the bouquet], but [it was so cold] I had to have the heating on in my b&b on Bastille Day [14 July]. It was like the summers of 1978, 1980 and 1981.”

One important thing to note is, “because of the low yield, most winemakers will have to use much more reserve wine than usual. It will not impact people like Bollinger and Charles Heidsieck [who already use large amounts of reserve wine], but for some it will change, improve in my opinion, their wines. Problem is how good are the reserve wines? Many overstocked the bad, botrytised 2010 harvest or unmatured 2011 and were waiting for an over-production yield [ie above the maximum of 11,000kgs/ha] to make quality substitution.”

As a result of the disease, especially mildew problems in 2012, Brun predicts that “pesticide sellers will have a few good years to come. Low dosage spraying time is over [for the moment] and preventive spraying will be back in favour. When mildew and oidium disease hit, it is already too late to do anything, we can only stop the contamination, we can’t cure it and what is affected is lost. We had some happy times in the 2000’s, but now nature reminds to get back to basics.”