Cool start leads to latest harvest since 1991 with high potential

The 2013 harvest in Champagne began on 24 September in four villages in the Côte des Bar, the latest start for picking since 1991. It’s late because of the wet cold start to the season which delayed flowering until late June or early July. Vineyards in the former camp, that include much of the Côte des Blancs and other important villages like Aÿ and Ambonnay, had a problematic, elongated flowering with cool, wet weather and as a result have lower yields, caused partly by millerandange, they also lost further grapes through hail in some Côte des Blancs crus, notably in Cramant.

Those vineyards which flowered in early July did so in near perfect conditions and as a consequence the crop is potentially large, however as these vineyards will be picked later, some not starting until the second week in October, there are fears about ripening such a large harvest as the temperature cools. Botrytis may also become a major issue if there’s any more rain, after 50mm fell in the second week of September.

However if the current late September/early October weather holds — dry clear days and cold nights keeping botrytis at bay — there could be some high quality material and winemakers have already reported excellent Chardonnay and top notch Pinot Noir with good levels of ripeness and acidity.

In early October (2/10/2013) Dominique Demarville winemaker at Veuve Clicquot said: “The harvest started in our vineyard last Saturday (28th) in the heart of the terroir of Mesnil and Oger where we have great parcels. These Chardonnays are beautiful with 10.5 to 11% alcohol by volume natural and 9 gm/l of acidity. The taste of the grapes is nice, fruity and balanced. We started picking in Aÿ on Monday. In both these two regions the yield is low due to difficult flowering which resulted in millerandage and yields are between 9,000 to 10,000 kg/ha. In Bouzy, Verzy and Verzenay flowering was better and the yield higher, 13,000 to 14,000 kg/ha.

“We’ve picked 10% of the harvest so far and we are very confident. The weather conditions are extremely good with a northern wind, cool night and dry days. Due to the rain in early September, some grapes are damaged by botrytis, especially in the earliest parcels and we lost 10 to 20% of the crop here. I’m very confident at the moment for an overall very good year.

“The first fermentations have started and it smells nice, with aromas of fresh fruits, flowers and all the grapes are at a nice ripeness level. We will have beautiful wines for Yellow Label and our rosé. For the Vintage, it is another thing and I will wait for the tasting in November and December to decide. After the exceptional 2012, the challenge is high for 2013,” says Demarville. “But it [the late harvest] shows the great ripening conditions we can have in autumn and the potential for beautiful wines like other late harvests in the past: ‘79, ’83 and ‘85.”

Philippe Brun of Roger Brun in grand cru of Aÿ where flowering took place at different times reported a large range of ripeness levels as picking opened in the village (30 September): “I have some vineyards at 12° degrees (potential alcohol) and others at only 7° within 500 metres of each other.” Later on in the harvest he commented: “I will start picking my Pinot Noir in Mareuil for my pink next. It is over 12° with 9g/l acidity and should be nice. The problem with 2013 is it is said in Bordeaux it will not be a good vintage, so it won’t be good anywhere else, even in Cloudy Bay (he’s referring to the tendency in the wine world to think that if it isn’t a good year in Bordeaux no-one believes it can be anywhere else).

“In the Côte des Blancs it hailed and they have millerandage issues, but you know they cry as soon as their yield in under 20,000 kg/ha, we say. Once again the quality will depend on pickers making a strict selection and [only be achieved by] growers who walk in their vineyards. I have had to change my traditional order of picking, some vineyards I usually pick in second week have to be picked first this year and vice versa. I went yesterday with Eric Lebel (Krug’s head winemaker) into the vineyards checking the grapes, and he was happy with what we saw and said “we will make something nice with Aÿ”.

Benoît Marguet of Marguet Père & Fils in Ambonnay reports they too were hit by millerandage, but at the outset of picking said: “So far from what I have seen as a whole, it is really interesting and balanced. It’s too early to talk of a general vintage, but some vines are looking exceptional. Being patient is important this year. Lots of observation is necessary to organize the circuits de cueillette (the order parcels are picked in).”

Moët’s head winemaker Benoît Gouëz agrees: “This [picking order] will be the key to success. So far it [quality] looks pretty variable across the regions, very promising in Chardonnay and potentially for Marne Pinot Noir too, more fragile in Meunier and in Aube Pinot Noir. Botrytis is here, but not developing so far thanks to dry cool weather. The challenge is not to harvest the ripest grapes too late and the less ripe too early, but there is [good] potential.”

Charles Philipponnat reported potential alcohol had already reached 11.5 deg, even 12 deg in Clos des Goisses, Philipponnat’s steep, south-facing vineyard in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, days before picking was due to start there on 30 September. There are some very nice grapes, especially Pinot Noir but we had around 50mm of rain earlier in September while they had 100mm in the Aube, so there may be rot issues if there is fog in the morning or it’s humid, as we wait for the grapes to ripen.”

At Perrier-Jouët winemaker Hervé Deschamps reports early alcohol potential from a small sample at between 9.6 and 10.4 % with acidity 8.1 to 9.1gm/l. He expects yields to be around 9,000kgs/ha in Avize and Cramant due to a mix of coulure, millerandage and hail. “We lost 30% of the crop in the Côte des Blancs from hail.” Yields are expected to be higher “around 12,000kgs/ha in Mailly, 13,000 in Aÿ and Dizy, potentially”.

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon’s winemaker at Louis Roederer said the 2013 harvest had the very same balance and harvest dates as 1988. While Rodolph Péters (Champagne Pierre Peters) commented: “It sounds like a very great vintage for Chardonnay” having earlier reported his first pressing had a potential alcohol of 10.8 with other parcels from their vineyards in Oger, Avize and southern (hail free) Cramant, at 10.5% potential alcohol and 9gm/l acidity.