2014 harvest a mixed bag though some see quality as high

Despite warm dry spring weather, which had producers predicting a late August harvest, cool wet weather in July and August slowed the ripening process down and the Champagne harvest began in the Côte des Bar region and early ripening villages like Cumières in the second week of September around the 8th and 9th. Following a successful even flowering period in ideal conditions at the start of June all three main varieties ripened at much the same time producing a concentrated picking period of around ten days for most producers.

Opinion varies about the quality, but thanks to a warm, very dry period from late August right through until picking had finished, some producers see it as good to very good and vintage cuvées are likely to be made. In terms of quantity, the appellation limit of 10,500kgs/ ha will easily be met by most producers and many report they will also have the chance to build up their reserves, particularly depleted by the short harvest in 2012. Some expect to reach the maximum permitted extra 3,100kg/ha. As a result, given that sales of champagne in the main European markets are still fairly weak, especially in France, there should be little upward demand led pressure on prices. Grape prices are not however expected to fall.

Thanks to the late summer sunshine potential alcohol levels of 10.5deg or more were widely reached and there was little need for chaptalisation. Immediately prior to the harvest starting, acidity levels were very high, leading some to start drawing comparisons with the 1996 harvest, but in the very warm weather of early September when afternoon temperatures reached highs of 28-30degC, acidity levels dropped rapidly as the grapes ripened.

While there were some fears of rot, particularly in the Marne Valley which received close to twice the usual summer rainfall, bright clear days and north easterly winds kept botrytis at bay and those producers who decided to delay picking beyond the opening day announced for each individual cru benefitted from such a decision in many parts of the appellation.

Chardonnay seems to be the best performer generally with Pinot Noir also successful in the Montagne de Reims and in the most southerly part of the appellation, the Côte des Bar region to the south-east of Troyes. Pinot Meunier was more variable with the Marne Valley hit by rainfall, which was heavier the more westerly towards to Paris you go.

The free draining chalky soils of the Côte des Blancs were less adversely effected by the extra rainfall than the predominantly clay soils of the Marne Valley. However happily it remained almost completely dry throughout the concentrated period of harvesting during mid-September.

While high rainfall caused some problems, particularly in the Marne Valley as we have said, this area was also the worst hit by the pest drosophila suzukii, commonly known as the spotted wing drosophila. This is a type of fruit fly related to the common European vinegar fly, drosophila melanogaster which feeds on damaged berries, but far more worryingly one that attacks healthy fruit and has reportedly been an issue in parts of Bordeaux during the 2014 harvest too.

Any juice from grapes effected by this pest, which pieces the grape skin to lay its eggs, is turned to acetic acid and completely unusable. This may not be discovered during picking as the damage is not necessarily that obvious as the grapes looked relatively normal but the must is vinegar like and unusuable. It not only effected parts of the Marne Valley but also caused some problems in Montagne de Reims villages like Bouzy, Aÿ and Ambonnay. There was reportedly one very high profile casualty in Ambonnay and it is understood that Krug Clos d’Ambonnay will not be made in 2014.

To get a more in-depth report on the different conditions faced across the Champagne vineyards you can turn to my Detailed 2014 harvest report in the Trade Corner of the site in the next few days. This will have comments, mostly directly from the winemakers themselves, at a range of producers large and small spread across the appellation and gives some idea of the many regional variations.


Abundant harvest looks to be high in quality

The Champagne harvest began in warm sunny conditions with temperatures on the first day (8 September) of picking around 28degC, according to Laurent Gillet, Président du Directoire at Groupe Vinicole Champagne Devaux a major player in the Côte des Bar region.

Laurent Gillet
Laurent Gillet

Speaking at the Liberty Wines tasting in London on 9 September, Gillet said: “While the weather has been up and down over the summer, the past two weeks immediately before the harvest have been very favourable and we have both quantity and outstanding quality. There has been a long period of maturing since flowering was completed in early June which is best for concentrating all the elements we need to provide good aromas and flavour in the grapes. It’s my 30th vintage in Champagne and one of the best I’ve witnessed.”

Gillet had seen the first part of the harvest, Pinot Noir from the villages of Buxeuil and Neuville arrive in the winery at Bar-sur-Seine the previous day. “The grapes were very large weighing close to 150 grams with potential alcohol up over 10° degrees and acidity very high at 10-11gm/l, a bit like in 1996. So in some areas we are waiting to get better ripeness and this level of acidity will fall very quickly in the current extremely warm conditions which are expected to continue over the next few days.”

Gillet says growers can wait “four of five days beyond the official starting date for their village if they want to achieve better ripeness levels as there is no pressure from disease (botrytis)”. In terms of volume he expects the maximum permitted yield of 13,200kgs/ha (10,500kgs/ha less 400kgs/ha from the current reserve plus a maximum of 3,100kgs/ha that may be put into individual producers’ reserves) will easily be reached.

In nearby Les Riceys, the largest single cru in all Champagne and an important source of good Pinot Noir for many of the larger negociants (houses) where picking will start towards the end of the week (11-12 September), there is a big range in maturity on the differently exposed slopes with some already up between 10-11° degrees and other still under 9° degrees, says Gillet.

Champagne harvest begins

The Champagne harvest officially began today with the secateurs out in villages like the top premier cru of Cumières and other sites known for their early ripening. Among the early starters are Vitry-en-Perthos and several villages in the Côte des Bar region including Bligny, Urville, Ville-sur-Arce, Polisy, and Polisot.

Every village has a separate date on which producers can start picking each individual variety but many will hold off until optimum ripeness is achieved.  The yield is expected to be considerable and the maximum yield agreed of 10,500 kilos per hectare plus 3,100kgs/ha for the reserve should easily be achieved in most parts of the appellation.

Champagne sets 2014 yield to meet predicted demand

The basic yield in for the 2014 harvest was set at 10,500kilos per hectare by Champagne’s governing body the Comité interprofessionel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) which regulates champagne production at its meeting just before the August holiday break. This level of yield will to produce around 305.7m bottles of champagne. This is the volume of champagne the CIVC committee charged with analysing the market believes will be needed given the relatively high levels of stocks held by producers that amounts to nearly four years supply.

It is not a particularly optimistic assessment of the current situation which is partly based on the shipment figures for the first half of 2014 that show a very slight rise of 1.4% on the first half of 2013 to 110m bottles. But of course the majority of champagne sales are made in the second half of the year — particularly the last quarter — and predicting the level of demand in the run-up to the year end is always problematic. The MAT figure for the 12 months to the end of June 2014 helps a little, that is up 0.3% to 306.5m bottles on the same 12 months to the end of June 2013. But it is a still a difficult market to read.

The calculation about what a certain yield will produce is easy enough, you just need to know the current area of productive vineyard and that is 33,600 hectares. Because predicting consumption accurately is so difficult, the Champenois have devised a system by which they can make later adjustments to allow for fluctuations in demand by releasing more of the wine held in the Réserve to boost production.

This is quite a complicated system to explain. For 2014, in fact 400kgs/ha of the 10,500kgs/ha allowed will come out of the current reserves held and not the 2014 harvest. And if shipments look like rising above 307m bottles, the CIVC will raise this to 500kgs/ha. In addition vineyard owners can also put up to 3,100 kg/ha into their own reserve stocks, providing that reserve does not exceed the limit prescribed by regulations.

Great vintage champagne predicted from 2012 harvest

After a disastrous growing season with frost, poor flowering, hail and disease all hitting yields, good, dry and warm weather in the run-up to picking has produced a small but potentially great harvest. “The quality is outstanding,” says Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon chef de cave at Louis Roederer. “It is a great vintage. Probably better than 1996 and close to 1990 on average. But in some special location it could well better than that, closer to a 1947? Full ripeness of Pinot Noir which is typical of a continental summer and a perfect final ripeness of Chardonnay and Meunier. Acidity is balanced and pH quite low for such a level of sugar.”

“All will be clearer in a few weeks when the still wines are tasted, but already, what we are seeing now is somewhere between 2002 and 1959, two of Champagne’s greatest vintages, if ever there were any,” says Charles Philipponnat of the eponymous house. “For us [it is], somewhere between 1959, 1990 and 2002. Yields were only 6 to 7000 kilos/hectare, but quality was very satisfactory, especially the Pinot Noir, whose exceptional sugar content — 11.5° to more than 12° — was higher than in 1976, 2000 or 2003, and was combined with an excellent acidity, that was even better than in 1996.”

“Everything is here, quality-wise, to craft some top vintage champagne. Considering just numbers, 2012 looks like a cross between 2002, 1990 and 1952 all excellent years,” says Frédéric Panaiotis, chef de cave at Ruinart. “All grapes came in super- healthy, we’ve recorded extremely high levels of glycerol and gluconic acid.”

“The overall quality of the grapes was very high,” says Hervé Deschamps, chef de cave at Perrier-Jouët. It was “a very good healthy harvest with no botrytis and a very good ripeness for all grapes varieties.” “Considering the health of the grapes, the level of maturity and the balance with acidity I am very confident in the vintage potential of this harvest,” says Benoît Gouez, chef de cave at Moët & Chandon.

“It looks like 1996, but less homogeneous,” says Michel Drappier of the eponymous house in the Côte des Bar. “It was a year of ‘extremes’, minus 20°c in February, a very warm and dry end of winter, the rainiest spring for years, the most devastating hail storm of the past 200 years, a heat wave in August with plus 38°c ‘cooking’ some berries and this resulted in the smallest crop for Drappier since 1957, with a yield of only 4,300Kg/ha.”

Yields were considerably down elsewhere as well. “With most of our old vineyards being traditionally ploughed, little usage of chemicals and some of our vineyards farmed organically and bio-dynamically, we have been very exposed to the bad weather conditions in 2012,” says Lécaillon, “especially in the early ripening grands crus.  Our final yield in our vineyard was 7,500 kg/ha. Well below the appellation.” At Philipponnat yields “were only 6 to 7,000 kgs/ha” while at Moët in the Appellation’s largest estate “The average yield is 8.5 tons/ha,” says Gouez. Of those we have spoken to so far since the harvest ended only Perrier-Jouet has reached the maximum yield set by the CIVC. “In our vineyards we have by average 11,000kg/ha and near 200kg/ha for the Réserve individuelle,” says Deschamps.


Hailstorm decimates part of Côte des Bar vineyard

A powerful hailstorm hit the southern Côte des Bar region of Champagne last week (7 June) destroying this year’s grape crop and causing such severe damage to the vines it is estimated that a third of next year’s harvest will also be lost. The hail was concentrated in a band just to the south of Bar-sur-Aube and particularly hit the villages of Urville and neighbouring crus Bergères, Meurville, Baroville and Fontaine, an area comprising some 719 hectares of vineyard. The vast majority of these vineyards are planted with Pinot Noir (586 hectares) but there were also eight hectares of rare varieties like Arbanne and Petit Meslier affected.

In Urville, some 100 hectares of vineyard out of the 189 in the village were completely destroyed and will produce no grapes this year while there was around 50% damage in a further 50 hectares.  “One hundred hectares have been devastated just in Urville alone,” says Michel Drappier of the eponymous house, the largest in the region which is based in the village.

Michel Drappier in his vineyards in Urville

“The damage is estimated at 130% because at least 30% of the 2013 crop will also be affected,” says Drappier. “The rest of the coteaux has also suffered. According to the Services Techniques of the CIVC, who have visited our vineyards this morning (13th June), it is the third largest hail damage in the history of the Champagne region,” he says.

It all happened in the space of around 15 minutes and the villages of Meurville and Baroville had damage on a similar scale to Urville. The livelihoods of many growers are threatened, though fortunately most will have sufficient stock in their réserve individuelles to enable them to still produce around three quarters of the volume of champagne they made last year. However, using up all their reserve stock, as many will have to do, will leave them without any cover in the event of problems next year (in 2013). According to the CIVC the réserve individuelle across the appellation currently stands at an average of 8,185 kg/ha per producer.

“The Réserve Individuelle should cover, on average, the needs of the growers; the question is what about 2013? From today we have no more security stock in our cellars and each cloud passing by will be scrutinized closely. Here [at Drappier] we have sufficient stock and making a quality wine in 2012 will be no problem. But we will have to be careful with our sales and hold back some volume, especially for our Quattuor Blanc de Quatre Blancs which uses old varieties as we didn’t produce any in 2011 and won’t now be able to in either 2012 or 2013,” says Drappier.

The CIVC Services Techniques later reported that the area of vineyard in each village ‘affected’ by the hailstorm as follows:  Fontaine 100%; Baroville 97%; Bergères 100%; Meurville 74%; Urville 97%. They added all the vineyards in the villages of Bertignolles, Bragelogne-Beauvoir and Arconville were also hit by the same hailstorm, while those in Noé les Mallets, Saint Usage (98%) and Bligny (69%) were damaged to a lesser

Frost hits low lying vineyards planted with Chardonnay

Philippe Brun and neighbour inspect the frost damage to vines in Mareuil-sur-Ay

Frost on the night of April 16/17 have severely damaged part of the Champagne vineyard, destroying embryonic buds on the vines showing their first leaves as many, particularly Chardonnay, already are.

Driving around vineyards this morning (18 April) in Grande Vallée de la Marne including Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Avenay, I saw widespread damage, in the relatively forward Chardonnay in the low lying flat areas of vineyard close to the Marne River, but also in some Pinot Noir parcels.

Talking to other vineyard workers inspecting their own vines we heard about one producer who had lost around one hectare of vineyard in Le Mesnil sur Oger on the same night of 16 April but this information is as yet unconfirmed.

With temperatures dropping to as low as -4degC and -5degC on the night of the 16th, the damage was confined to vineyards on the valley floor and to those vines already in bud or where second and third leaves had developed.

Frost damaged vine in Mareuil-sur-Ay

Looking at the vineyards some 36 hours later in certain places all the buds were frozen, however it won’t be possible to assess the extent of the damage fully for a couple more days by which time the effected parts go black and buds drop off.

It is mainly Chardonnay which is affected and the problem here is exacerbated as Chardonnay grows quickly once the first buds break. In the low lying vineyards of Mareuil-sur-Ay where Pinot Meunier is still planted, as it used to be more widely in the past, there is no problem as the vines are not yet in bud. There was also a less severe frost on the night of Friday 13 April reported as destroying around 5% of Chardonnay is some parts of Villers-Marmery. (More news to follow soon)

Further comments 25 April 2012:

Olivier Bonville of Franck Bonville, a grower based in Avize says: “Frost affected about 30% of our vineyard. After the warm temperatures in March the vines were already showing two leaves and we were also hit by frost in the previous week on the night of 12/13 April when temperatures fell to -2 to -3degC.”

For Arnaud Margaine, a grower with vineyards in Villers-Marmery on the east facing slopes on the Montagne de Reims, the frosts of April 13 caused less than 5% damage but the night of 16/17th was colder and “we saw 15-20% of the vines damaged. But it is still too early to see the impact on the next harvest as some new buds may grow”.

Benoît Gouez winemaker at Moët & Chandon just back from the USA this week reports that “Globally between 7 and 8% of [the potential crop] our vineyards have been destroyed,” with the worst damage in the grands crus of Avize and Aÿ – 18 and 17% respectively but Cramant “12% destroyed and Bouzy 9%” also hit. The vines in the Côte des Bar to the south-east of Troyes where Pinot Noir is planted mainly were hardest struck and Gouez says Moët has lost nearly one fifth of its crop there.

Grower producer Cyril Jeaunaux based in the village of Talus-Saint Prix to the south-west of the Côte des Blancs says they suffered 40% frost damage in his vineyards with the worst affected areas on low lying land in the west part of the village. “Chardonnay isn’t more affected than Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier even though it was much more developed. We are often hit here because of early bud break and higher humidity than some areas which is caused by proximity to the Petit Morin river”, says Jeaunaux. “This year in Villenard, which is next to Talus, the damage is less serious with only 10-15% of the vines are affected.”

Regis Camus the winemaker at P&C Heidsieck says: “Pinot Meunier wasn’t touched by the recent frosts it was Pinot Noir that was worse affected with around 10% damage in the Marne Valley and as much as 20% in the Côte des Bar. Chardonnay near the valley floor it the Côte des Blancs was also damaged but it is still hard to say how badly as it has rained steadily since and there are no new green shoots appearing. It is likely there will be secondary buds growing on the damaged vines but these will either bear less or no fruit,” say Camus, “so in either case yields will be down. The frost has also stressed the vines making them more susceptible to disease like rot or mildew.”

Rising cost of grapes will affect Champagne prices

Although we are currently seeing heavily discounted champagne prices in UK supermarkets in the run-up to Christmas it seems clear that the major brands will all try to raise their selling prices early next year following widespread rises in the cost of grapes from the 2011 harvest. On average grape  prices have risen by at least 3% across the board but there are reports of  larger increases for grand cru grapes.

“We are hoping the increase won’t be higher than 2 to 3%, but this will depend on the Crus involved, says Bruno Paillard, chairman of BCC, Champagne’s  second largest group and owner of Lanson. “Some places in the Aube this year should see their price 5€ per kilo, while some grands crus grapes will cost more than 6€ per kilo.”

Alexandre Penet-Chardonnet, a small producer with vineyards in the Montagne de Reims grands crus of Verzy and Verzenay says the price is “around 5.85€ for grand cru Noir”. At Champagne Mailly, the grand cru co-operative, MD Preau puts the increase in prices for grand cru material at “around 5%”. While a press operator dealing with a number of the major houses based in the grand vallée de la Marne says: “It will be 5.85- 5.9€ per
kilo for basic grapes at my press house which is a 4.5% increase on 2010 prices  and he is seeing prices as high as 6.40€ per kilo for certified grand cru Pinot Noir”.

2011 harvest second earliest on record

Although it has been widely reported as the ‘earliest’ harvest since 1822 when grape picking began on August 20, in reality it looks like that honour is still retained by 2003 when after the heat wave summer – we certainly didn’t have that this year — growers in the Côte des Bar village of Bligny began cutting grapes on August 18. It wasn’t a tiny, very ripe harvest either. In 2003 over 12 degrees potential alcohol was common place where as in 2011 some pickers were sent home after they had started when it was realised grapes were not as mature as expected.

For the 2011 harvest the earliest official date for picking was on August 20 for black grapes (both Pinots) in Neuville-sur-Seine and Buxeuil in the southernmost Côte des Bar region, but also for Pinot Meunier in Damery and Cumières, two premier cru villages on the north side of the Marne Valley.

There are even a few people who suggest the very early dates fixed by the CIVC were set too early in some instances and that this decision was partly influenced by the worry that as stocks in the old and new resérve individuelle could in theory build up to as high as 10,000kgs/ha, too much of this material would be based on the relatively ripe recent vintages and lack freshness.

This was certainly an unusual year with a number of firsts. Although the season started exceptionally early with flowering three weeks ahead of usual in the last week of May, after cool weather through June and July, ripeness levels were not near the heights of 2003, when spring frosts had also massively reduced the size of the crop further concentrating the juice.

In mid-August just before harvesting was due to start the speed of ripening did not take place at the expected pace and in a number of instances picking was actually halted. As Moët & Chandon chef de cave Benoît Gouez reports: “We stopped the harvest for a few days in the Côte des Blancs and sent 650 pickers home, something that has never happened in Champagne before in my experience.”

Unusually too Pinot Meunier was picked first by many producers, partly because of fears that if there was further rain this variety, already in a fragile state, would be ruined by botrytis. In general changeable weather conditions just before and during the harvest, plus varying ripeness levels even within the same vineyard made it a difficult harvest to manage. However most producers we spoke to are pleased with the quality they have finished with and nearly all see it as significantly superior to 2010. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are generally the best varieties with some making the comparison with the classic balance of the 1995 vintage.

For a detailed 2011 harvest report with comments from over 20 winemakers and CEOs from across the region see Trade Corner where you will also find past reports for the previous decade.