Late summer rescues harvest after tough growing season  

The 2016 growing season in Champagne was one of the most difficult in recent memory, particularly for growers in the most southerly Côte des Bars region, where frost struck on the night of April 27, wiping out at least 4,000ha, according to the CIVC. Frost in late April hit areas of the western Marne Valley badly too.

Olivier Krug

The first part of the growing season was awful right across the appellation, with double the average rainfall between April and May, severe mildew pressure, uneven flowering and a lack of sunshine. “We had almost everything we don’t like,” says Olivier Krug. “Very severe frost, the lowest sunshine hours for more than 20 years, record rainfall, mildew before the flowering, followed by poor weather during flowering. Mid- July, most were very pessimistic about both the level of yield and the quality.”

However, as has happened several times in recent years, the weather changed in the latter part of the summer and, almost miraculously, a very dry, sunny period through August until the harvest began in mid-September cleared up the mildew problem. It was so warm in August with temperatures above 35°C over four days (24-27), that there was a further slight crop loss due to ‘sunburn’.

Hervé-Dantan, head winemaker at Lanson

And, while potential yield was down by about a third as a result of the cumulative influence of frost, mildew and sunburn, some rain in mid-September, just before picking started, had a beneficial effect on yields, particularly on the later-ripening Chardonnay.

“What is incredible [about the growing season] is the way things changed from mid-July. After all the bad weather, we had an extremely dry and sunny period in August and September that changed definitively the face of 2016,” says Hervé Dantan, chef de cave at Lanson.

Deutz winemaker Michel Davesne agrees: “Once again, the vintage was saved by the four to six weeks before harvest. No Champenois predicted such a crop in terms of either quantity or quality in the month of July because of strong attacks of mildew and the first outbreaks of botrytis. As if by magic, everything dried in the month of August to completely disappear in the harvest.”

Michel Davesne, chef de cave at Deutz

“The growing season was marked by rainfall two to three times higher than average in May and June, provoking extreme mildew pressure and making weed control very difficult in many plots,” says Davesne. There were flash floods in villages such as Avenay and it was impossible to get a tractor into some vineyards because of saturated soils. “But in July and August the cumulative rainfall was about 50% below the 10-year average.”

According to Charles Philipponnat, chief executive of the eponymous house, it was “a miracle”. He adds: “Hardly 3mm of rain in August and the first fortnight of September, just 18mm the week before the harvest to gain weight and accelerate ripening. The results are a wonderful relief after a wet spring and humid July.”

Floriane Eznack, winemaker at Jacquart

Alice Paillard says you can’t talk about the growing season without mentioning “the continuous rain during the spring and beginning of summer. It particularly hit the Meunier flowering period and increased mildew pressure. The old vignerons say we haven’t had such a hard spring since 1956”.

Floriane Eznack, winemaker at Jacquart says flowering was generally late. “The average flowering date for 2016, irrespective of grape variety, was June 25, 10 days later than the 1o-year average.” But as Eznack also notes: “We had a very hot, dry August, nationwide. Mean temperatures in the month were almost 1°C above the norm, rainfall was almost 60% down and sunshine was up by more than 20%. We were wearing sunglasses and flip-flops while enjoying chilled Rosé Cube al fresco. The heatwave between August 23 and 28 was exceptional, albeit much shorter than the one in August 2003.”

Yields higher than expected
The picture in terms of yield var­ies widely across the vineyard. As Olivier Krug says: “Once again, there was a huge heterogeneity regarding the yield, even in the same area. In those villages sadly affected by the late April frost, I have walked from plots that hardly produced grapes to plots that matched the appellation level. Globally, the harvest was bigger than initially expected. Above all, it was much better.”

“The average yield for our supply is close to 8,700kg/ha,” says Dominique Demarville, chef de cave at Veuve Clicquot. “It is a little bit more than expected but 25% less than the average. Most of the Marne areas are more than 10,000kg/ha, especially for Chardonnay. The areas damaged by the frost (Côte des Bar and Vallée du Surmelin) are often below 6,000kg/ha, with the most impacted crus below 3,000kg/ha. Our own vineyard is close to 8,000kg/ha.”

Bollinger winemaker Gilles Descôtes checks the 1973 jeroboam served at lunch

Bollinger winemaker Gilles Descôtes says: “Our average was 9,039kg/ha, with a range from just 2,259kg/ha in Champvoisy [on the northern side of the Marne Valley] where 80% of the buds were destroyed by the frost in April, up to 11,388kg/ ha in Avenay. In July, we only expected to reach about 8,000kg/ha, so it’s a good surprise.”

Paillard says: “Yields were widely differing with the Meuniers of the Marne Vallée approximately 20%-30% down; much less in Les Riceys due to frost, but then slightly higher yields than anticipated in the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs.”

According to Davesne: “Initially the CIVC announced an average yield of Champagne between 8,000 and 8,500kg/ ha, due to 4,000ha being 100% destroyed by frost in the Aube. In the Marne, the estimated yield was about 9,000 kg/ha, but the rains of mid-September have advanced average weight by about 10% for black grapes and 15 to 20% for Chardonnay.”

Hervé Deschamps head winemaker at Perrier-Jouët

“It proved very difficult to have a good yield prediction this year with irregular size of grapes in the same plot, and the rains which occurred just at the beginning of the harvest rapidly increased the weight of the grapes,” says Perrier-Jouët’s winemaker Hervé Deschamps.

For Didier Mariotti, winemaker at GH Mumm: “Rain in mid-September was our salvation, particularly in the Marne Valley. It stimulated vine growth again, pushing the grapes to full maturity, which was just what was needed.” Olivier Krug agrees: “Two days of rain a few days before harvest contributed to fine tune the maturation and [helped] lower the excess of temperature. The latter part of summer was outstanding.”

Harvest quality and vintage potential
“Weather conditions were per­fect during the ripening season and also the harvest,” says Veuve Clicquot’s Demarville. “Good temperatures during the day – 20°C-25°C – and low during the night – 5°C-8°C. This helps a lot in preserving acidity and also some of the fruitiness we need.

Dominique Demarville, chef de cave at Veuve Clicquot

“These conditions are also per­fect for the pressing as the temper­ature of the grapes is not too high. In the winery, we received the first juice from Pouillon (Massif de Saint Thierry) on September 13 and the last juices came from Grauves on October 7. The har­vest lasted 25 days, which is one of the longest [I have experienced] despite the yield being one of the lowest of the past decade,” says Demarville.

Unusually, the 2016 harvest began with Pinot Noir and Meunier, which were generally harvested before the Chardonnay. “For Meunier and Pinot Noir, maturation activity has been incredibly fast, with 83-85 days between flower and harvest,” says Lanson’s Dantan. “Such a short period was known for the hot vintages in 1976 and 2003. Chardonnay was not so fast, with around 94 days between flowering and picking. That’s why Meunier and Pinot Noir ripened before Chardonnay, what is exceptionally rare.”

As Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, winemaker at Louis Roederer, says: “2016 is a year of two distinct harvests in Champagne – first the Pinots, then you had to wait for the Chardonnays. This is rare to have such a gap in the ripeness. There will be great heterogeneity in between the terroir, the growers and the ripeness achieved at the end. It’s another year when good and careful viticulture is very important.”

For Descôtes: “Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay were very healthy with almost no botrytis. At Bollinger we picked our Chardonnay later, but unfortunately not many people took the time to wait for the perfect ripeness of this variety in 2016.” Thierry Gasco, chef de cave at Pommery, says: “The potential alcohol levels of the Chardonnay are lower, but at the end of the harvest sugar levels were not increasing. It was pointless to wait any longer [to pick].”

Didier Mariotti, winemaker at GH Mumm

Mariotti notes: “The fickle weather across the whole year has resulted in an unprecedented level of diversity in terms of quality and volume across the region from cru to cru, variety to variety and even from parcel to parcel.”

Vintage quality or good non-vintage blending material?
Quite rightly, given that most winemakers had little chance to taste the still wines in any depth before they commented, few would be drawn on whether vin­tage wines are likely to be made. Michel Davesne at Deutz says: “It is still too early to say if we will make vintage cuvées. Only when tasting the vins clairs in the spring will we decide. Nevertheless, I am sure we will have some great vats of Pinot Noir, especially from the vineyards of Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Bouzy, Verzenay and Ambonnay, where we had power, finesse and structure. It is difficult to compare 2016 to any previous years because of the significant delay of the Chardonnays from the start of veraison to harvest.”

Lanson’s Dantan says: “Tasting has now started and wines are offering a very nice potential. I must confess I am impressed by the quality of wines when I think about the weather we had between April and July. They have nice fresh fruit notes, with a vibrant freshness. I hope the next round of tastings in a few weeks after racking the wines, will confirm the potential of this vintage.”

Stanislas Thiénot

Stanislas Thiénot says: “All the grapes, regardless the variety, were very healthy – no botrytis, no oidium. In terms of maturity, there were big differences between the varieties and, depending on location, as a result the organisation of the harvest was very hard to pick all the grapes at the appropriate time. The weather [during the harvest] helped us and finally all the grapes were picked between 9% and 11.5% (potential alcohol), with slight differences between the varieties. On average Chardonnay (9.5%), Meunier (10%) and Pinot Noir (10.1%). It’s of course too early to know if the 2016 wines will be suitable to make a vintage. All we can say at this stage is that everything goes in the right way.”

Bollinger’s Descôtes says: “I believe the potential of 2016 will be high for the red grapes [which is good for Bollinger]. We had ripe grapes, no botrytis, and a very easy picking (no issues with rain or mud). The growing season rain and the analysis could make us try to compare 2016 to 1988. We picked La Côte aux Enfants on September 27 and 28 with a very high level of sugar, more than 12.5% potential alcohol. As in 2015, we decided to make a tank with whole bunches. We took the wine out of the tank October 18 and we are very proud of the result.”

Charles Philipponnat says: “Total acidities are relatively high, with rather high malic acid, but not very low pH (nothing under 3.0). The musts were fruity and pleasantly crisp, without tartness, which bodes well for future development in the finished wines, but it’s still much too early to tell. However, we’re confident they should be quite good.

Charles Philipponnat

“The acid balance is quite good, thanks partly to the late ripening, but mostly because of uneven ripening in the plots, single vines and even bunches. This is quite a specific feature of 2016, with both very ripe and less ripe berries together, and not a problem at all provided it was high enough in each batch.”

Veuve Cicquot’s Demarville’s analysis is: “The Meunier this year looks good and balanced (9.9%vol, 7,5g/l of acidity and pH3.07). It was healthy with a very fruity taste. The Pinot Noir is very close with a little bit more heterogeneity (10% vol, 7.5g/l acidity and pH3.06). The Chardonnay has less sugar and is more acidic (9.6 % vol, 7.6g/l acidity and pH3.01). This low pH is interesting for the lightness of the Chardonnay we love.

“It is too early to talk about vintage and/or La Grande Dame. I will focus on Yellow Label and keep enough reserve wines from 2016 for future years. I believe the Meunier will be the success of the year. However, I will have more precision after the blending tastings in November and December. The tasting before malolactic fermentations showed very clear flavours of flowers, fruits and citrus. The wines are elegant and fresh. It is a good start,” says Demarville

The Côte des Bar
After the ravages of spring frost in the region, Michel Drappier reports: “Generally in 2016 we had a good balance between acids and sugar. Chaptalisation had to be used only sparingly, 2016 is much better than we expected and our low yield will be totally compensated with our large volume of fresh and elegant wines from 2015 and 2014.”

Despite the severe damage caused by the late April frost which affected all the Côte des Bar region, Drappier reports, “a good surprise,” for his four-way white grape blend, Cuvée Quattoir, with Arbanne and Petit Meslier being late varieties.

Michel Drappier

“Although the first buds were frozen, second buds were safe. Two weeks after the frost [on April 27], young and healthy buds appeared. Thanks to the hot and dry month of August maturation has caught up.

“In the last days of September, we have been able to harvest what could be one of the best Quattuor blends ever,” says Drappier. “We had enough Chardonnay and Blanc Vrai [the other two varieties used in the blend] to produce this Blanc de Quatre Blancs, but only 3,000 bottles. Healthy Pinot Noir grapes were in sufficient supply for our Brut Nature but, unfortunately, there’s no Grande Sendrée this year [this vineyard was particularly badly hit by the frost], but we have good stocks of recent great vintages.”