In challenging harvest widely hit by rot Chardonnay comes off best

It was another eventful growing season in Champagne in 2017 culminating in a harvest that was challenging to manage, with difficult decisions to be made about exactly when to pick. Unusually warm weather in March encouraged early growth and then late spring frost hit the vulnerable first shoots in the vineyards in mid-April. Thereafter is was unusually warm, dry and sunny, with the highest May temperatures recorded since 1947 and 50% more sunshine in June than the ten-year average, including 15 days over 30degC.

By mid-July with little need for vineyard treatments and barely any disease issues, there were predictions for a healthy, decent sized harvest, despite the sizeable potential yield losses to earlier frost. But from the last week of July when it started raining, climatic conditions changed radically. A warm, wet and often very humid August followed — perfect conditions for the widespread development of botrytis – which threatened to ruin the 2017 harvest.

Lanson’s winemaker Hervé Dantan

“Friday, 25 August was the turning point of the 2017 vintage,” says Lanson’s winemaker Hervé Dantan. “While in the Aube, the Sézannais, the Côte des Blancs and Vitryat a dry period begins, in the Aisne and a large part of the Marne, between 15 and 50mm of rain fell. The four days with temperatures around 30degC which followed, sealed the fate of the vintage in these regions [where it rained], because in these humid and hot conditions, botrytis was developing fast, particularly effecting Pinot Noir and Meunier.”

The growers’ pre-occupation became the health of the vines and preventing the rapid spread of botrytis. Many faced the difficult decision between picking clean, but possibly slightly under-ripe fruit, or waiting for phenolic maturity, but running an increasing risk of botrytis spreading and contaminating more of the crop. In the end it was a race against time to get in as much healthy fruit as possible. Once started, harvesting was widely completed at a frenetic pace in one concentrated burst of ten days or fewer, compared with over three weeks in 2016. Rigorous selection was an essential part of the process for those pursuing quality, especially for Pinot Noir and Meunier.

Olivier Krug

At Krug, for example, they picked “70% of the crop in just five days,” says Olivier Krug, “although we had three weeks between when we started picking in Clos du Mesnil (on 25 August, before the harvest opening dates had even been announced) and our last day of picking.” In fact, they completed all their picking in Mesnil-sur-Oger by the official opening date for the village of 1 September. And, says Krug, after the first round of vins clairs tasting in January, “we can clearly see it was one of the best decisions we have ever taken”.

Laurent Fresnet of Henriot

Because it was ahead of the black grapes, in terms of ripening, Chardonnay is the variety that has generally fared best in 2017, with good levels of ripeness, relatively high potential alcohol and few problems with rot. The quality of the Chardonnay was magnificent, stunningly ripe and in irreproachable condition,” according to Laurent Fresnet, winemaker at Henriot. “Yields are lower than in previous years, but entirely adequate for Maison Henriot.”

Hervé Deschamps head winemaker at Perrier-Jouët

“Chardonnays were beautifully mature,” says Perrier-Jouët chef de cave Hervé Deschamps, “but unfortunately yields were low”, as certain villages in the Côte des Blancs, like Avize and Oger, were hit by the April frosts. “The damage was estimated at 23% in terms of harvest potential lost,” says Deutz winemaker Michel Davesne, “but it is the areas of Chardonnays that are the most affected, villages like Oger, Villeneuve and Bisseuil [all crus exposed to the east], not to mention certain areas of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Aÿ”.

Taittinger managing director Damien Le Sueur, says the main damage they suffered in the April frosts was in “40 hectares mainly around Murigny, immediately south of Reims, where several of our best plots — mostly Meunier (45%) but also 30% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay — were badly damaged and more than 80% destroyed by frost, resulting in a rarely seen 3,500kg/ha harvest.  Our vines on the Côte des Bar, in the Aube region, also suffered from the icy temperatures, for the second year running, yielding a disappointing 6,900 kg/hectare.”

Michel Drappier

Côte des Bar based producer Michel Drappier says: “It was another difficult year. Global warming has an effect in Champagne, there is no doubt about that. In Urville we had frost again, like Chablis and Burgundy, but much less than in 2016. Last year, the frost was deep and all potential grapes were burnt. This year, frost was more superficial, allowing a second bud burst which has covered 50% of the loss.” But they didn’t have the rot problems of further north, “we lost only 5-10% of the crop through sorting, grapes were healthy,” so, “despite the frost, we have harvested 9,200 kgs/ha.”

Although it was again one of the Champagne areas worst hit by the April frosts, botrytis wasn’t an issue here and Pinot Noir in the Côte des Bar, Champagne’s most southerly vineyard, was generally good. “In the Côte des Bar, the situation was quite different from the Marne. The botrytis attack that we had in late July has been stopped by the sun and we were not under any pressure to start picking too early [because of rot anxieties], so we have waited a few more days and reached a good maturity without losing quality,” says Drappier.

“We picked Pinot Noir at an average of 10.2deg. Urville was quite lucky, botrytis had no effect on the quality of the must, it is a pity we had frost. It would have been a great year in both quality and quantity.”

After a cold winter, in late January it was below -10degC, the growing season kicked off with notably mild weather in March – the warmest in 20 years with temperatures +2degC above average. This resulted in an early bud break, around 4 April for Chardonnay, 6 April for Pinot Noir and 10 April for Meunier, ten days earlier than the ten-year average. This early start made the vines susceptible to late frost, that almost inevitably arrived, with temperatures falling below -5degC on the nights of 18-20 April, causing considerable damage to the young shoots and generally cutting overall potential yields by between 20-25%, according to the CIVC report. It said the heaviest damage was in the north and west of the Montagne de Reims, the Valle de l’Ardre, the Côte des Bar and the sector to the west of Château-Thierry.

Michel Davesne chef de cave at Deutz

At the time the Champagne Comité met in mid-July however, everything was looking set for a decent size, healthy harvest and they set the minimum potential alcohol level (PAL) at 9.5deg. But the weather tuned before the end of July and, as Davesne puts it: “the drought observed since the beginning of the year gave way to significant rainfall and a sometimes, tropical atmosphere between August 15 and 30. These conditions have slowed down the speed of ripening and were particularly favorable for the development of botrytis, particularly among the Pinot Noirs and Meuniers.” As conditions worsened towards the onset of the harvest, some questioned whether the Comité had set the minimum required PAL level too high at 9.5deg°.

Benoît Gouez

But Moët & Chandon chef de cave Benoît Gouez demurs. “As the final alcohol potential level is close to 10deg° we can definitely say that an average of 9.5deg° wasn’t too ambitious.” Cyril Brun, winemaker at Charles Heidsieck takes a slightly different view. “While we didn’t start picking anywhere more than two days before the official opening date, we managed to pick faster than in previous years to keep ahead of the spreading botrytis. But in many cases the maturity ambition [ie achieving 9.5deg° PAL] was too high compared with the size of the botrytis problem.”

Cyril Brun winemaker at Charles Heidsieck

Brun notes that it’s “always hard to say whether you prefer ripe fruit with some rot problems, or no rot issues, but unripe fruit. There isn’t an answer that fits all situations, it varies from one [grape] variety to another, from one terroir to another. We tried both options, but neither is perfect. Phenolic ripeness you don’t get naturally will hardly be compensated by chaptalisation, so I tend to favour harvesting ripe and then using severe sorting.”

Nicolas Uriel, winemaker at Thienot says: “As far as the minimum PAL is concerned, when the profession fixed it in mid-July, we thought it wouldn’t be a problem, everything looked right in the vineyard, with the weather conditions almost perfect for a good ripening. We have to be ambitious, but this decision may have been made too early.

Grapes are bought in for weighing at Taittinger in Pierry

“We started picking on 28 August in old plots of Meunier in Verneuil (Vallée de la Marne), three days before the fixed opening day, in spite of a PAL under 9.5deg° (about 9 to 9.2deg°). We did this because of the fast progression of botrytis damage and we didn’t regret this decision,” says Uriel.

Jean-François Preau at Mailly Champagne, where they started picking on 3 September, just one day before the village official opening date, regrets having chosen “too late a start, which at the end of the harvest resulted in very high ripeness levels”. On average they reached 11.29deg° for Chardonnay, which was very clean and where the evolution of maturity surprised them in its speed, and 10.32deg° for Pinot Noir, which had to be picked more selectively.

He says one of the problems was the wide heterogeneity in ripeness from village to village and plot to plot. And due to the botrytis caused by the rainy end to August, “our growers were obliged to be very selective and around 20% of the grapes had to be put on the ground,” Preau says. They finished picking by 13 September.

Floriane Enzack of Jacquart

Head winemaker at Jacquart, Floriane Eznack notes: “When the harvest dates [the official opening picking dates for each individual cru] were published on 26 August and the minimum average alcohol content (PAL) set at 9.5deg° there was a lot of debate. Some wine growers thought that the proposed dates were too late and that the PAL level was too ambitious, considering the health of the vines which worsened by the day, particularly in Pinot Noir and Meunier vineyards. Applications for special permission for villages to harvest earlier, began piling up on desks at INAO.

“Planning picking routes (l’ordre de cueillette) was more crucial than ever. Our wine growers sometimes had to make difficult decisions and compromises between quality and quantity. Sorting was a brave move when some growers only picked three or four thousand kilos of grapes per hectare,” says Eznack.

Bollinger winemaker Gilles Descôtes

At Bollinger, chef de cave Gilles Descôtes doesn’t think the Comité set the PAL too high. “No, as is well demonstrated by the simple fact that the average [potential] alcohol level in for 2017 will probably be over 10deg°. In some places, especially for Meunier it [9.5deg°] was difficult to reach, but for people who had problems with botrytis, they could ask for a derogation [to pick early].

“The Chardonnay could have started a little bit earlier, but for Bollinger Chardonnay, Cuis is a key cru and as this is a village which tends to ripen later, I think that 4 September [as the start date] was a good choice. For the Pinot Noir, I think that it was difficult to pick earlier, as the acidity was still very high, and the ripeness not completed,” says Descôtes.

Despite the immediate pre-harvest weather at the end of August being bad, “with fog, warm nights with temperatures at more than 20degC, rain and hot afternoons, the perfect weather for botrytis,
we managed to reach a yield of 10.260 kg/ha,” he says. “We reached that level even after a careful selection. We estimate that the loss because of sorting was over 15% on average, but while is was nothing in Cuis, it was a lot more in Aÿ.”

Didier Mariotti G.H.Mumm winemaker in a Verzenay vineyard

For Didier Mariotti, head winemaker at G. H. Mumm, “It was crucial for us to harvest the grapes quickly, even with a lower level of ripeness, rather than to risk having rotten grapes. This was especially important with warm weather in early September increasing the chance of rot [spreading]. Selective picking was absolutely crucial throughout the harvest. We are lucky to work with highly trained pickers, who return to us each year, and this skill was particularly important in 2017.”  

With potential yields in large parts of the vineyard hit by the April frost and more material lost as a result of the rigorous sorting needed to eliminate rot, particularly with Pinot Noir and Meunier, meeting even the relatively low maximum permitted yield of 10,300kg/ha looked challenging. But perhaps surprisingly, the Champenois have got remarkably close to that level, with the provisional figure for the 2017 average yield of 10,057 kg/ha just released by the Comité.

Jean Hervé and Laurent Chiquet of Jacquesson

For Jean-Hervé Chiquet at Champagne Jacquesson, based in the village of Dizy, with the exception of some severe spring frosts, especially in Côte des Blancs, “the weather conditions were almost perfect for vine growing until mid-August, when temperatures and humidity started to increase. Storms followed by some semi-tropical conditions were perfect to develop botrytis. The accumulated quantities of rain were significant, about 70mm in two weeks in Dizy, and the effect of this was increased by the very high humidity.” As a result, “we were far from reaching the maximum permitted yield. We got around 5,900 kgs/ha in Dizy/Aÿ and 5,300 kgs/ha in Avize/Oiry. The losses in Aÿ/Dizy were half due to spring frosts and the other half to severe selection at picking. In Avize/Oiry, the problem was almost entirely due to spring frosts.

“It’s true that Chardonnay appears to have fared best, but difficult to explain,” says Chiquet. “The differences may have been due to the precise moment of the rainfall, related to the ripening stage of the fruits.” Average ripeness was higher on Chardonnay at 11.55deg° with “generally good-looking fruit”. Pinot Noir was more variable, averaging 11.05deg° and while “some fruit was superb, some was terrible”. Meuniers were generally OK (averaging 10.45deg°).

For Jacquesson, while their vineyard in Aÿ was a disaster, “Dizy [next door] fared much better with almost no botrytis in les Terres Rouges [single vineyard in Dizy], where we farm six hectares, but in the Aÿ vineyards of Vauzelle Terme and Le Léon, at least half the fruit was rotten. Potentially, two of our single vineyards could be considered for vintaging, the two Dizys, Terres Rouges and Corne Bautray, but it’s too early to say.”

Charles Philipponnat

Henriot’s Fresnet says: “We reached 10,300kg/ha with selection, in spite of rot problems for black grapes. This is partly because we have little Meunier, which was hit by frost and rot. Charles Philipponnat of the eponymous house in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ says they reached “about 9,000kgs/ha on average, more than we expected considering the heavy sorting we had to do”.

In terms of quality, “is 2017 a disastrous crop?” Eznack asks. “No, because not all grape varieties and areas were affected [by botrytis]. Chardonnay, for instance, produced beautifully ripe, healthy clusters and average alcohol content of 10.64deg° in the winery. It is without doubt the king of grape varieties this year.”

For Bollinger Descôtes says: “Chardonnay was perfectly healthy. Late Pinot Noir did well in crus like Verzenay, Louvois, Bouzy and Tauxières. It was more difficult in our vineyards in Aÿ. The most difficult was for Meunier and we had some problems with many of our suppliers of Meunier. We have started to taste the Chardonnay and they are very good, but the Pinot Noir are very heterogeneous, so I would say that 2017 will very likely not turn into a vintage for Bollinger.”

“The Pinots Noirs of the Côte des Bars and the Chardonnays will be the big winners of 2017. However, large qualitative variables are expected for Pinot Noir and Meunier,” says Lanson’s Dantan.

From his perspective in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ Philipponnat says: “The Chardonnays were perfectly healthy and very, perhaps too, ripe. Pinot Noir was variable, but generally good with proper sorting and attention, at least in our area.” Asked what the chances of vintage champagne were, he says: “Clos des Goisses certainly, and perhaps some Chardonnay. Pinot Noir based cuvées unlikely, except some select plots, possibly.”

On the harvest in general he says: “Certainly not a general catastrophe like 1984, although a large part of it is mediocre. But don’t let critics and journalists kill it. Some very good grapes have been taken in, and most producers have plenty of “Réserve Individuelle” to play with.

For Eznack and most other winemakers we spoke to, “It is too early to make definitive statements about the quality of the wines, but this harvest is reminiscent of 2010. Years ending in “7” do not tend to make great vintages in Champagne: 1987- 1997- 2007- 2017. But years ending in an 8 are outstanding! 1988- 1998- 2008. Roll on 2018!”