Another extraordinary harvest overshadowed by pandemic

Supply and demand have taken centre stage in the champagne market in 2020, thanks to the all- encompassing influence of the ongoing corona virus epidemic. While the weather patterns in 2020 were in many ways as dramatic as in many recent years and the harvest was the earliest on record (again), the Champenois were more concerned about deciding a level of yield that was appropriate for demand and physically managing to get the harvest picked, given all the Covid-19 enforced restrictions on the workforce. 

As the corona virus strengthened its grip in the Spring of 2020, demand for champagne shrunk dramatically. Shipments dropped by 29.4%, in the first half of 2020 — they fell 68% overall in April and 55.4% in May. The main négociant firms, already sitting on considerable stocks before Covid-19 hit (a shade over 4 years’ supply, assuming annual consumption of 300m bottles), saw their cash flow dry up and as the summer approached and a decision needed to be made on the maximum yield to set, something like open warfare started up between Champagne’s different factions.

Growers, who have seen the annual yield – and therefore their income from selling grapes to the négoce — come down steadily in the wake of gradually declining worldwide demand for champagne, were not happy about the proposed substantial cut in the maximum yield. The négociants, particularly those houses with the weakest brands, already finding profit margins tight, didn’t want to be forced to buy grapes to make wine they couldn’t sell. Positions became entrenched and neither side would budge.

The problem was perhaps exacerbated by the favourable climatic conditions of the early growing season, which led to the expectation of a large, healthy harvest. This was a time when if disease, frost and generally inclement weather had severely curtailed the size of the crop, many in Champagne would have been perfectly happy.

After a month-long delay – the two factions were so far from agreement at the first CIVC meeting at which the yield was supposed to be agreed, held on 22 July, it was disbanded with no decision made
— a yield level of 8,000kgs/ha was officially ‘agreed’ only on Tuesday 18 August. The Comité Champagne statement announcing this, didn’t draw attention to the many caveats that could have seen the actual level of usable yield capped at 7,000kgs/ha (the equivalent of about 200m bottles), with the extra 1,000kgs/ha only available to bottle from 1 February 2021, if champagne sales in 2020 sales are above 230m bottles, or kept back until January 2022 if not.

We learned at the end of January 2021, that overall some 244.8m bottles were shipped in 2020, which is only a volume drop of 18%, a much better performance than was expected. As a result, the Champagne Comité has confirmed that the full 8,000kgs/ha can be bottled in 2021, while there is a further 400kgs/ha release from the reserve which can also be bottled immediately.

This is worked out on the basis that a further 100kilos/ha can be released for every additional 3m bottles of champagne shipped, above the target figure of 230m bottles. Therefore, with an extra 14.8m bottles shipped, the Comité has announced a further 400kgs/ha release, equivalent to around 12m bottles.

Back in the long, hot, dry summer of 2020, by the time the set yield was announced, the picking of grapes had already started in some precocious crus. When the harvest dates were published on 15 August, officially the first crus to start picking were all in the Côte des Bars region in the Aube department, where around 30 villages out of 63 in this, the most southerly sub-region, could begin on Monday 17 August. Picking actually began four days earlier still.  

Earliest ever harvest start
Thanks to the process known as derogation, whereby producers can apply to start their harvest earlier than the official dates announced for the crus their vineyards are located in, if they have good reason, picking actually began on Thursday 13 August. This was in the Côte des Bars village of Buxeuil, which is one of the southernmost villages in the whole Champagne appellation, close to Les Riceys, Champagne’s largest single cru.

This is the sixth harvest since the Millennium that has started in August and beats the record for the earliest ever start – in 2018 the secateurs were out in the Grand Cru of Ambonnay on 17 August — by four whole days. The producer involved is Noël Leblond-Lenoir, a grower with 13 hectares of vineyard mainly planted with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, though they also have some Pinot Blanc.

Winter rainfall replenishes water table
In the winter prelude to the growing season, “from October to March, the Champagne region experienced much higher rainfall than usual for this period with around 500 mm, compared to 600mm in an average year in Champagne,” notes Michel Davesne, chef de cave at Deutz. February was the wettest ever on record. On a positive note, this meant that the “groundwater tables were well replenished, unlike the previous year. Temperatures remained mild and morning frosts were few and far between. The winter of 2020 was the warmest recorded by ‘Météo France’ in over a century.” 

“Just as humanity was coming to a standstill and going into lockdown on 17 March, as the pandemic first really hit, the vine began its growing cycle as if nothing had happened. It was helped no end by the wonderful weather,” says Jean Baptiste Lécaillon, Louis Roederer’s head winemaker. “Almost as if it were refusing to be beaten by COVID-19! The weather conditions in the spring and summer of 2020 were magnificent!”

In April, the mild winter led to a relatively early budburst, three to four days earlier than the average for this decade. The Chardonnays came first on 4 April, followed by the Pinots Noirs and Meuniers on 8 and 9 April, respectively. The warm temperatures in mid-April, combined with soils, well-hydrated from the winter rain, helped to speed up the vine’s growth. “The vine grew almost one new leaf every five days up until 21 April, which meant that we were already 10-12 days ahead of the usual schedule at that point. Temperatures cooled at the end of the month which slightly slowed the growth,” says Lécaillon.

While May got off to a cool start, “It turned out to be [mostly] a warm and dry month which subsequently sped up flowering. It was a ‘May Bloom’ this year for our vines, around 17 days earlier than the average for the decade: 26 May for the Chardonnays, 28 May for the Pinots Noirs and 2 June for the Meuniers. The spring growing cycle was very fast with just 52 days between bud burst and full flowering (which was also the case in 2018, 2008 and 2007),” says Lécaillon.

“Particularly hot and dry conditions in April and May led to a rapid development of vegetation. The advance observed at the bud break [in early April] had accelerated by late May, so that the harvest was as much as 16 days ahead of the ten-year average, Hervé Dantan chef de cave at Lanson notes. “Flowering started on 26 May for Chardonnay, 28 May for Pinot Noir and 2 June for Meunier.”   

One very good thing about this dry and hot weather was almost complete lack of any disease issues. Davesne says: “All the plots were in perfect health throughout the whole season, both in our Deutz and our partner vineyards. There was virtually no risk of mildew, owing to the dry, sunny weather. There was a higher risk of powdery mildew developing in these weather conditions but fortunately our Chardonnay plots (the most at risk) remained in good health.”

Dantan concurs. “With the absence of mildew and botrytis, powdery mildew was the most virulent, taking advantage of successive heat waves, and particularly affecting some plots of Pinot Noir and Meunier. Yields have been affected by the heat waves and powdery mildew with a 10% decrease in volume.” Alexander Cattier CEO and head winemaker of the eponymous house says that “we have to be careful next year because this was the first time we saw traces of powdery mildew on Meunier and Pinot Noir, which is a new development.”

Loss of yield due to heatwave and lack of rain 
The lack of rain and the hot summer weather that led to some échaudage – heatwave scorching of the grapes – did however have some adverse effect on the level of yields. Davesne notes, “The two heatwaves in late July and early August caused some scalding of the grapes, in particular on the black varietals. Around 30% of the crop was affected which led to a [volume] loss of around 10-15%.

“The lack of rainfall in July and August triggered visible hydric stress visible which individual vine stocks, sections of plots and even some whole plots, displayed symptoms of — yellowing leaves which gradually dry out from the bottom to the top of the vine. Such effects are very rare in chalky soils, a clear demonstration of just how dry the 2020 vintage was.”

Cattier says: “We had a week of echaudage, which was a pity as the conditions were perfect so far. With this week, we think we lost around 15% of the crop. Then back warm weather during the day with cool nights.” While Pommery’s head winemaker Clément Pierlot notes: “We suffered from the lack of rain in some plots, especially in the Côte des Bars, in our vineyard of Baroville. It did impact on the yield, but I wouldn’t say it had negatively impacted the quality.

Asked if they were well above the appellation maximum of 8,000kgs/ha, Charles Philipponnat, CEO of the eponymous house says: “We did reach a little more than 8,000kgs on average, but the south facing slope of Mareuil, including Clos des Goisses (Philipponnat’s unique, steep sloping, south facing vineyard) yielded less: around 6000 kgs/ha. We couldn’t have harvested 10,200 kgs, [the permitted maximum yield in 2019] by any means.”   

Cattier says: “The pre-harvest conditions were really good: warm days, cool nights. However, I think we were suffering more than usual from lack of water and the vines couldn’t take enough nitrogen from the soil. The appellation was set low and the actual crop available was low. In our vineyards in the Montagne de Reims, we reached 7,000kgs/ha for Meunier, 10,800kgs/ha for Pinot Noir and 14,500kgs/ha for Chardonnay.”

Denis Bunner from Bollinger’s winemaking team says: “Our agronomic yield was 9,000kgs/ha but Verzenay was close to 8,000 kgs/ha and Aÿ 8,500 kg/ha. Chardonnay was around 10,000 kgs/ha on average.” For Alice Tétienne, head winemaker at Henriot who took over when Laurent Fresnet left to go to GH Mumm, “generally the yields of Pinots Noirs were low, especially in the North of Montagne de Reims. They were average on Meuniers and higher on Chardonnays.”

Lécaillon notes that the first half of August, “saw a long heat wave that accelerated ripening and resulted in the fastest development of sugars ever recorded by Roederer. Due to this very fast pace, we were considering harvesting the grapes very soon. Certain producers did indeed begin too early.”

“As of 22 August, the daytime temperatures fortunately cooled and the nights turned rather cold. Ripening slowed down and we had to push back the harvesting of our Chardonnays to give them the time they needed to ripen. The ripening cycle of our first Pinots noirs was completed with 88 days between flowering and harvesting, which has been the average timeframe since 2008. The first Chardonnays were a little slower, likely indicating a more classic style to come, with 93 days between flowering and harvesting (the average timeframe since 1996).

Philipponnat says they started picking on 24 August, “which was the relatively belated official start date for Mareuil, later than initially planned (on the 19th), but ripening had slowed down because of the severe drought. Chardonnay had even more trouble ripening and we had to stop picking twice, for the first time ever, to let the ripeness rise to ideal levels.” 

Yields were often naturally low (Subhead)
Davesne of Deutz: “In terms of yield, lack of rainfall prevented the grapes from plumping up as much as they should and yields are therefore lower than anticipated. The ripening dynamic was also quite unusual. It got off to a quick start in the first two weeks of August (with more than a 2 degree increase in a single week!) before slowing down in the third week of August and picking up again afterwards. The ripening of the Chardonnays lagged significantly behind the Pinot Noirs and Meuniers, which is quite unusual. In these conditions, choosing the optimum date for harvesting is not an easy task.”

“The last decade in Champagne has shown us a few memorable records in terms of weather, and 2020 was no exception,” says Julie Cavil the new chef de cave at Krug. Because of the harvest’s extreme heterogeneity, we were forced to rethink things completely. The quasi-summer conditions of spring drastically accelerated the growth of the vines, by about two weeks. Capricious weather in June caused flowering to elongate, thus generating this heterogeneity. But the summer drought brought the situation to another level, causing the vines to suffer. All the differences between the plots – depth of rooting, age of the vines, and so on – expressed themselves and in terms of maturity, we saw wide variations between grape varieties, crus, plots of land, and even within a single vine stock.”

For Laurent Fresnet, newly installed as the chef de cave at GH Mumm in January 2020 after 14 years with Henriot, “This harvest is completely atypical. It is heterogeneous even within the same sector. Our picking began with Meunier in Bouzy on 19 August, followed by a plot of old vines in Cramant on 20 August, the lieux dits le Buron du Midi. Then picking had to stop altogether to wait for the for the right maturity. You had to be present in the vineyards so as not to miss the right moment to pick, to keep freshness and fruitiness.”

Alice Tétienne at Henriot : “Because of heterogeneity between villages, grape varieties, localities and even within the same plot, we had to review our model of berry sampling and tasting. The 2020 grapes required a presence ‘in the field’ to use every clue provided by the vine in making the choice of harvest date. The three main parameters — sugar, acidity and aromatics – frequently did not suggest the same optimum date.”

“This year more than ever, tasting of grape berries and reaching phenolic maturity were absolutely key as there was a great heterogeneity in maturity between sectors, cultivation methods and grape varieties. And unusually Chardonnay was picked last in many areas, » says
Emilien Boutillat, Piper-Heidsieck’s winemaker. Further underlining the heterogeneity Caroline Latrive chef de cave at Ayala notes they cut one Chouilly parcel on the 27 August, and another in the same Côte des Blancs cru on 5 September.

For Florent Nys, chef de cave at Billecart-Salmon, “Quality didn’t suffer because of a lack of rain, but some vines just blocked their maturity for part of August. With some light rain just before the harvest everything worked out well, with the maturation cycle restarting, without any dilution of the juice. With the average natural degree around 10.5deg° potential chaptalisation was not necessary at all for us, especially with some reserve wine at more than 11deg° natural due to the rich harvests of 2018 and 2019. Meuniers and Pinots noirs were ripe early, but Chardonnays had to wait, we gained a 1.5deg° by waiting a week,” says Nye.

“The evolution of the potential degree in the first week of sampling (in early August) was 2.2deg°, a record. The dynamic of Chardonnay was very strong, rising 2.6deg° in seven days. But while we thought harvest would happen very quickly, from the third week of August, the maturity slowed down,” says Dantan.

“Deciding on the harvest dates only by measuring a good alcoholic degree was not enough, berry tasting and plot observation were very important. That’s why we took the decision to delay harvest on our vineyard and with our vinegrower partners. It was often necessary to wait to pass the 10.5deg° sugar level of maturity to have a good balance between maturity in sugar and phenolic maturity.

Veuve Clicquot’s
new winemaker, Didier Mariotti: “The rapid speed of ripening [in August] has become a more frequent phenomenon in Champagne. In August [as opposed to September in the past] it’s warmer, the days are longer and the sun is higher in the sky. While consequences could include acidity loss and higher frequency of powdery mildew, having more maturity in our grapes can also be an advantage, offering more diverse aromatic expressions, reducing [the need for] chaptalization and optimizing red wine production. What is more damaging about climate change, is the late frosts we have run into over the past few years and there is no real solution to that.”

Quality and vintage potential (subhead)
“What strikes us most about the 2020 vintage is the perfect health of the grapes, which is reminiscent of 2019 and 2018. This is the key to producing wines with excellent ageing potential,” says Lécaillon. Fresnet sees 2020 as “close to 2018 in style, but with more freshness”. For Pierlot, “The quality is pretty good but not as homogenous as 2018 and 2019. You had to wait and delay picking to reach a higher level of ripeness, but the health of fruit was perfect, as in 2018, thanks to very cold nights, so there was no risk involved in waiting for a better ripeness.”

Nys is very happy with the quality of all three grapes varieties, “very healthy, levels of acidity (6-6.1gms) and pH (3.15) are very close and potential of alcohol too; Chardonnays at 10.4deg°  with Pinot Noir and Meunier both at 10.5deg°. To have this level of maturity plus freshness is a dream level to work with for a winemaker. I hope to make some vintages this year. The wines of 2020 have a complete elegance and for me some similarities with 1990. Chardonnays are stunning overall, Pinots Noirs have a great amplitude, very complex and long and the Meuniers are fruity and fresh.

Based in the Côte des Bars village of Urville, Michel Drappier sums up their experience. “The 2020 was the earliest harvest ever at Drappier. When we started on August 21, we broke the 1822 record by one day! Despite a hot and dry summer, we had enough water from the wettest February month ever on the estate, and beautiful cool nights during the ripening period to produce well balanced juices. “We are enthusiastic about our Pinot Noir although the colour of the base wine will have copper reflects due to a burning sun. But that will not alter the quality, on the contrary. Chardonnay will be not special but is well balanced, and rare varieties such as Arbanne and Petit Meslier have reached a rare and perfect maturity to produce probably our best Quattuor for 20 years.”

“The health of the grapes turned out to be outstanding, as did their ripeness levels: two hallmarks of an exceptional vintage,” says Davesne. “In the press, there’s an excellent balance in the musts and our best Aÿ plots reached 10.6deg° on average with the highest degree recorded in Mareuil with 12.1deg°.

For Dantan, “Chardonnays are revealing very delicate and expressive fruity notes keeping a very nice vitality. Chardonnay of Trépail, Villers Marmery, Le Mesnil, Vertus, Montgueux and Vitryat deserve today a special mention. Pinot Noirs are very fruity, rich, complex without any heaviness despite high level of maturity. Pinot Noir of Loches sur Ource, Verzenay, Mailly and Mareuil sur Ay are remarkable. Meuniers are fruity with a nice freshness. Despite the precocity and the high level of maturity, the wines are complex, concentrated with a lot of finesse.”

For Ayala, Latrive says: The year 2020 perfectly fits the pre-requisites of the Ayala profile, so I will certainly make a vintage. We have some gems with great potential. In my view, 2020 can be compared with 2002 for its generosity of fruit.

Lécaillon says: “In 2020 we recorded sugar levels (natural degrees) that were slightly lower than in 2019 and 2018 although the acidity level this year falls just between these two vintages. This difference will likely result in wines that are less powerful but with greater balance and finesse. If we look solely at the Roederer’s vines, the 2020 vintage most resembles the 1976 which had the same alcohol and same acidity levels. As a reminder, the 1976 was a year of drought that resulted in outstanding wines.”

On quality Mariotti says “Chardonnay was unusually late with a very small picking window of great maturity. It was grassy at the beginning and then quickly shifting to heavy, over-ripe aromas. Meunier was full-bodied and generous. Pinot Noir was precise, aromatically intense and with great pH and acidity – especially in the northern part of the Montagne de Reims. It was definitely a Pinot Noir year,” says Mariotti.

“The Pinot Noir result is perfectly bright. Intense, upright and complex, showcasing the high potential of the year and ending up with an excellent balance between aromatic maturity, acidity and sugar,” says Mariotti. “Among the trilogy 2018/2019/2020, this year corresponds the most to the [classic] Champagne style, despite a fear in August of excessive maturity and heaviness.

For Pommery’s Pierlot, “The quality is at a high level in 2020, and we’re very happy with our picking decisions, especially on some challenging Chardonnay. We have a lot of ripeness in the wines, but no lack of tension. The blends will probably be more difficult than in 2019, as the quality is more variable, but I’m certain we’ll blend nice vintages, that will last in the future and stay as a memory of this special, crazy and difficult year.