High quality harvest may produce ‘top vintage’ wines
The 2015 harvest in Champagne looks to be of high quality. Some say exceptionally high quality, but the more cautious will sensibly not give a definitive view on this until weeks of tasting vins clairs are completed in the Spring and in terms of pure vintage, we probably won’t get the chance to taste the results in bottle until the next decade.
Prior to a visit to Champagne in December, I had only tasted three vins clairs in London with Frédérick Panaoïtis chef de cave at Ruinart. While these all looked very good, he was cautious about declaring it ‘the vintage of the century’ as some have already done. “The 2012 harvest looked perfect, but in fact the Chardonnay lacked vibrancy and we didn’t make 2012 Dom Ruinart.”
Bruno Paillard concurs: “It is always important not to get too carried away, but we have some beautiful material to work with in the cellar for the coming months and years ahead. How will it evolve? We will have to wait until April and the assemblages to ascertain the true potential.” However, despite these words of caution, more than one winemaker I have spoken to says that if they don’t make a vintage champagne this year (2015), they need to start looking for another job.
While many Côte des Bar crus opened on 2 or 3rd September, and even earlier in Montgueux to the west of Troyes, elsewhere the harvest generally began from the start of the second week in September in near perfect conditions, warm sunny days, cool nights. Ripe, healthy fruit picked at a relatively high level of maturity seems to have been pretty well the norm across the appellation.
For Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, head winemaker at Louis Roederer “Harvest 2015 is a dream year! Sunny, dry, no downy mildew, no rot, 98% of our vineyards could have been organic! Last, but not least, was the cool, autumnal weather which arrived first week of September allowing us to pick, press and work the juices at an ideal low temperature to protect the juices against oxidation and loss of aromas.” Because of the dry, sunny, summer, agronomic yields are generally on the low side with some not even reaching the maximum yield set of 11,000kgs/ha (10,500kgs/ha plus 500kgs/ha for the reserve), although most producers I have spoken to have achieved that.
From bud break to harvest it was the hottest vintage ever (since the CIVC started keeping records), exceeding even 2003 and 1976. It was also one of the driest. “The most significant element of the summer weather was the lack of rain, which was reminiscent of the summer of 1976,” says Hervé Deschamps head winemaker at Perrier-Jouët. As a consequence the growing season was one of the shortest, well under the nominal 100 days from flowering to picking (on average in Champagne this period has been barely more than 95 days over the past decade).
According to Michel Davesne, head winemaker at Champagne Deutz: “Ripeness came very rapidly, in 94 days (on average) from “fleur” to harvest for Chardonnay and only 85 days for Pinot Noir. Just before harvest, we had a few rainy days. On 27 August from 25mm to 40mm in the Marne and in the Aisne districts and on 30 and 31 August, 30mm to more than 50mm in the vineyards of the Aube department. We then had warm and sunny weather with cool nights until the harvest. Very good maturity and very healthy condition of all three varietals is the hallmark of 2015,” says Davesne.
Winemakers are pleased too with the typical pH levels reached and while acidity is lower than average, thanks to the heat, a lack of malic acid makes that less of an issue in any case, as chef de cave at Moët & Chandon Benoît Gouez explains. “We have chaptalised up to 11%. Acidity is slightly lower than average but close to 2002, 2004, 2005 or 2006, and not as low as 1999 or 2003. For us it is not a concern, especially as it is mainly made of tartaric acid, malic having been burnt off by the heat.”
In terms of ripeness levels, “everything was between good and exceptional this year,” says Bollinger’s chef de cave Gilles Descôtes. “The beginning of the harvest was incredible: average of 10.9% for the three first days! The end was a little bit under because of the rain we got during the second week, but we will have very little chaptalisation in 2015.”
Small scale producer Benoît Marguet, based in the grand cru of Ambonnay, says the growing season was “not excessively hot, but sunny and very dry, almost too dry during the spring and summer, which has given small berries and high concentration. But as an organic farmer, it has been a slightly easier season than usual for me.” As for the health of the harvest, while “powdery mildew was a threat for all producers this year, once the maturity happened it disappeared on the few grapes that had some. We had beautiful fruit, with no rot and great maturity,” says Marguet.
For grower producer Nicolas Maillart who is based in Ecueil, to the south-west of Reims, but also has vineyards in Bouzy, this year was unique, “because there was no rain from May to middle of August, except in Bouzy which had significant rain at the end of July. In Ecueil’s sandy soils we had very low yields, this area suffered a lot from this dry season. In general we have low yields, except in Bouzy. We have in average 10,700 kgs/ha but in Ecueil it’s down at 9,500 kgs/ha.”
Dominique Demarville chef de cave at Veuve Clicquot sees the weather in the 2015 growing season as “unique, especially regarding the dryness. This will of course provide a special profile in the wines and it is part of the reason we can be confident in declaring a vintage this year. For us, the picking started in Montgueux [west of Troyes] on 27 August and the juice in the winery the day after had a potential alcohol level of 11%vol. Most of the other crus started on 7 September but some as late as 14 September. Overall picking lasted 28 days, which is probably one of the longest in my career.”
As for the quality: “Thank to the dryness, the grapes are perfect, healthy and ripe,” says Demarville. “The low yield means the pressing was done in perfect conditions too, we did not face to any rush in the ‘pressoirs’, there were no grapes waiting to be crushed. The low nighttime temperatures – under 10degC – meant the grapes kept their quality and after pressing, the juices are cold. This helped to obtain a perfect ‘débourbage’ [settling].
“The potential alcohol level is nice and while the acidity looks low on the paper, the tartaric acid is high and the malic acid low. The other good surprise is the low level of the pH: 3.03. The taste of the juice is well balanced, with a strong fruitiness and a delicate freshness. “We can compare this vintage in terms of weather conditions and sugar/acidity balance to 2012, 2002, 1989, 1976 and 1947. It seems 2015 will give us tremendous pleasure for the next 100 years!!
For Didier Mariotti, chef de cave at G.H.Mumm; “The actual picking period was serene – very easy to organise and manage day by day, with good weather throughout the period, apart from the last few days. By this stage we had virtually completed our harvest, so the late rains caused us no problems.”
Jean-Hervé Chiquet at Jacquesson describes the growing season as : “hot and dry (90mm of rain in four months) without the heat wave which ‘burned’ a part of 2003. We got a heat wave but much earlier in the cycle so it didn’t create any damage. No mildew either but obviously some oïdium, a sort of Mediterranean growing season.
“We started picking on the 9 September in Avize (official opening day 7 September) and the 10th in Dizy (official opening day) and we finished picking on the 22 September in Avize and on the 29th in Dizy. During that beautiful day, we picked Corne Bautray at 12.7° of potential alcohol, 6.10g of acidity and a pH of 3.10. Corne Bautray is all planted with Chardonnay. The 2015 harvest is my 38th at Jacquesson and I’m still unable to understand what ‘too ripe’ means when your vineyards are located on or north of the 49th parallel!”
In terms of yields, “we averaged around 10,800 kgs/ha between Dizy and Avize, which is pretty good for us because the Reserve Qualitative was an unknown luxury for us in the past. In fact we started to refill it in 2013.”
On vintage potential and quality
Davesne at Deutz concludes: “From the first “after-fermentation” tastings, the 2015 wines are rich, with good concentration, good body but not heavy, not flabby at all. To the contrary, they show a lot of finesse and a good balance. It is difficult to compare 2015 to another vintage. The CIVC was mentioning 1999, given the analytical characteristics of the ‘moûts’ .” [musts]
“I will not make a decision on the vintage until early 2016, but at this stage the harvest is most reminiscent of the 2006 harvest in terms of the chemical analysis of the grapes,” says Mariotti.
Gouez at Moët says: “It is a ripe and clean year and all these kind of years have been vintaged so far so I don’t see any reason not to be confident, even if we have to wait for the tastings to decide. The balance of sugar and acidity is close to years like 2002, 1961 or 1945, all great vintages.”
Cyril Brun, winemaker at Charles Heidsieck says: “The quality is very promising: both parameters and taste are witnessing a great potential, the old vignerons I have spoken to tell me it reminds them of 1947. The Meunier is a little behind, but both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are great.” As to what previous year it might be comparable with. “It’s still too early to know. My first intuition is something close to 2009 but with higher finesse. I was not born in 1947.”
“If I do not vintage such a year I would be a damned poor winemaker! This has all the criteria to be vintage: ripe, no rot, good balance and concentration. The wines have a real identity. As I said: analysis are close to 2002 but concentration and dry extract are more like one of a vintages of the late 40’s and 50’s,” says Lécaillon.
On quality, Chiquet at Jacquesson says: “Yes, we are all excited [about quality] even if we regret the abundant rain we got during the second week of picking. It was too late to damage the fruits, so we didn’t suffer from botrytis but it certainly slowed down the evolution of the growing season just a bit too early. But I’m not really being fair here because our expectations were so high. The results are nevertheless superb. We have Chardonnays from Grande Vallée de la Marne at 11.65deg, Chardonnays from Côte des Blancs at 11.3deg, Pinots Noirs and Meuniers from GVM at 11.45deg, for a global average of 11.45deg.
“If we have not the capacity to produce our four single vineyard champagnes this year, there is something wrong ! But I prefer to wait a couple of weeks when we have a first tasting approach to comment the character of the harvest. And for a similar year, this needs to be checked, 1976 may be? Certainly at least as impressive as 1976.”
*An abridged version of this harvest report appeared in the February 2016 Drinks International Champagne supplement.