Similarities to 2003 but many put quality ahead even of fine 2018
It seems that there is no longer such a thing as a ‘normal’ harvest in Champagne. Almost every year there is some extra-ordinary aspect to the growing season and it’s clear that more extreme weather is one of the main things that the Champenois have to worry about on the production side in the 2020s.
In 2019, there were striking similarities to the unprecedented 2003 harvest, in terms of high temperatures in the region and low rainfall, if not quite the same drought-like conditions. The negative effects of the three heat spikes of summer were less dramatic than in ’03 although there was some heatwave scorching (échaudage) of the grapes, resulting in volume loss. Michel Davesne chef de cave at Deutz estimates that between 10-20% of the crop was lost in some Pinot Noir plots as a result of the three summer heatwaves.
In the last week of July 2019, the temperature reached 42.9degC in the Vitryat village of Glannes to the south-east of Châlon, the highest ever recorded in the Champagne region. And there were 23.13 days when the temperature was above 30degC over the summer. This is barely less than in 2018 when there were on average 24.69 days during the summer that were over 30degC, which resulted in the earliest ever harvest start on record on 17 August.
Despite this heat, picking in 2019 didn’t begin until the first week of September with the majority of the crus not opening until the following week, from Monday 9 September. But this was partly because cool weather in May and early June 2019 delayed flowering until around mid-June. Rainfall was below average in June and August and significantly down in July, when just 15.1mm fell on average compared with the normal monthly average of 57.9mm, while there were 306.9 sunshine hours, well above the normal average for July of 236.2 hours.
After a relatively mild winter, temperatures were 2.6degC above the average in the second half of February, according to Castelnau chef de cave Elisabeth Sarcelet. In spring the weather was very humid, as Denis Bunner from the Bollinger winemaking team notes, exacerbating the mildew problems. Bud break occurred at the normal time while rain in early spring was followed by two episodes of frost in April causing some damage on lower slopes and more frost-prone areas.
Bollinger had yields in Chardonnay reduced to 8,500kgs/ha – compared to an average of 11,000kgs/ha — because of frost, hydric stress and uneven flowering, says Bunner. Florent Nys, Billecart-Salmon’s chef de cave, says that “the average yield for Chardonnay was 10,000kg/ha, but on the low hillsides it was down at 5,000kgs/ha because of frost damage. Cool temperatures during the flowering contributed to this drop with millerandage and coulure resulting and heatwaves in July and August didn’t help.”
Michel Drappier reports that in Urville in the Côte des Bar, they too lost crop to spring frost, “about 5%, but the excess summer heat combined with the drought, was a bigger factor accounting for a further 15% loss”.
For Louis Roederer, winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon says the first episode of frost on the night of 5 April, “caused significant damage to their Cramant and Avize Chardonnays”. But the second bout of frost — 12-15 April — much less damage thanks to the much drier conditions. He says bud burst started on 8 April for the Chardonnay, 13 April for the Pinot Noir and 14 April for the Meunier. In May the cool, wet weather continued and the vines developed very slowly, until warmer weather towards the end of the month.
“This cool weather continued over the flowering that started at the same time for all the varietals, 18 June for the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir and 19 June for the Meunier. We were therefore 4-6 days late compared to the 10-year average and this cool weather dragged out the flowering,” says Lécaillon. Uneven and elongated flowering inevitably led to problems with some coulure on the Pinot Noir and millerandage
(uneven fruit set) on the Chardonnay. This was confirmed by Lanson’s chef de cave Hervé Dantan. “It is only from June 15 and in hot temperatures [the first heat spike of the growing season] that flowering finally ends quickly.”
“At the end of July, the second heatwave arrived: this time, the heat was exceptional both in terms of its intensity and its duration,” says Lécaillon. “The temperatures even reached 40degC+ in a particularly dry atmosphere on 23 and 24 July. The grapes had not yet changed colour, they were therefore fragile and we saw significant damage from scalding depending on the grapes’ sun exposure and also the varietals. Meunier and Pinot Noir were more affected than the Chardonnay.”
Shortest season on record from flowering to harvest
One peculiarity of the 2019 harvest was the speed with which potential alcohol developed in the second half of August with temperatures again rising above 30degC after the 21st during the third heat spike the region experienced. As a result, there was a marked reduction in the number of days between flowering and picking and while opinion differs to whether this is negative in terms of fruit quality, it has become a wider observable trend in Champagne.
The Champagne Comité (CIVC) reports that it has been steadily coming down from the ‘textbook’ 100 days to reach an average of 92 days currently and last year (2019) it went further still. Alice Paillard said : “We used to talk about 100 days and that’s come down to between 90 and 95, while this year  it was between 80 and 85.”
Rodolphe Peters who runs grower producer Pierre Peters in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger concurs. “Generally we are now looking at around 92-93 days [in the Côte des Blancs] but in 2019, it was down to 81-82 days.” While this is further worrying evidence of the climate warming and makes more August harvest starts – with all the logistical problems they involve – more likely, it not clear if it results in lower quality fruit being picked.
Charles Philipponnat CEO of the eponymous house sees warmer summers in Champagne as largely beneficial. “Firstly, 100 days is not an ideal value. It’s the historical average before the 90’s, and it includes cold, bad growing seasons. So far climate change has been favourable for Champagne, allowing better ripeness, flexibility to wait for ideal sugar levels and picking in drier conditions, thus avoiding rot and dilution before autumn settles in with cold and rainy weather.”
Clément Pierlot head winemaker at Pommery concurs. “For us, and we are lucky, global warming is an opportunity to improve our quality with ripeness easier to reach during the last ten years, and we can still pick earlier if we want to keep the freshness. The real problem is that earlier bud burst exposes us more and more to the dangers of spring frost.”
Davesne at Deutz says: “The period between flowering and picking was about 83 days, which is a record low. Unlike other early years, this does not seem to be a problem in 2019 because most waited long enough to achieve an optimal level of maturity and aromatic maturity. However, we prefer that maturation takes place more slowly and under milder temperatures in order to be sure of having phenolic and aromatic maturity at slightly lower potential alcohol levels.”
In 1996 when the potential alcohol level soared many producers picked before true phenolic ripeness was achieved which is why so many ‘96 vintage champagnes, claimed by some to be a great vintage, are very disappointing and few are still good today, unlike the superior 1995s. It seems that the Champenois have now learned the lessons of that harvest.
“The average time [between flowery and picking] was 81 days,” says Piper Heidsieck chef de cave Émilien Boutillat. “We broke the record of 2003. The end of August was amazing, in some areas the potential alcohol increased very quickly, rising 2deg° in just seven days. But this increase [in sugar] was not linked with the phenolic ripeness, so we had to be careful.
“On paper, I prefer to have a longer and slower ripening. But even with this very fast ripening, we kept the level of acidity that we needed, which is the big difference with 2003. In the end, only the quality and the balance of the wines are important, the speed of ripening doesn’t matter. However, it is true nobody was expecting this kind of balance with the hot, sunny weather we had. We have to admit that 2019 is unique for that and there is no rational explanation,” says Boutillat.
“This year, there has been a lag between the ‘traditional’ ripeness and ‘phenolic’ ripeness, which is pretty rare up until now in Champagne,” says Pierlot. “This may be due to the incredible heat and drought we faced in July. We tasted a lot of berries [in the vineyard] this year to catch the moment when vegetal aromas change to fruity aromas. It was at around 10.5deg potential for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It was a vintage when it was important for winegrowers to be in the vineyard constantly tasting the grapes.”
For Laurent Fresnet, for the past 13 years chef de cave at Henriot who left to take up the head winemaking post at G.H.Mumm last month (January 2020) “It is not a problem to have a quick maturity in August. The period between flowering and picking the grapes was some 83 days for Henriot and there have only been two comparable years, 1976 and 2003.” Fresnet says, technically, there is no difference between fast or slow maturity, only that acidity tends to decrease more rapidly with the former. He sees it as more important for there to be a minimum number of sunny days during the growing period.
What saved the day in later August and early September when the temperatures cooled again somewhat was the night temperatures were significantly lower as this helped preserved the acidity. Dantan notes that “after August 21, with temperatures rising above 30degC, while potential alcohol rose rapidly, paradoxically acidity was still at a high level, with a high level of malic acid. This enabled us to wait a few more days to have the ideal phenolic maturity too.”
At Perrier-Jouët, chef de cave Hervé Deschamps says: “For the moment, we can’t measure the impact of the narrowing of the harvest period on grape quality. We were only slightly affected by the grapes that were not yet phenolically ripe at more than 10.5deg°. But the narrowing harvest period is having an impact, making planning the harvest logistics more difficult. Picking was an extremely intense period of activity, completed in record time, taking just four days.”
At Charles Heidsieck they didn’t have any issues with a time lag between high potential alcohol being reached and true phenolic ripening. Winemaker Cyril Brun says: “We did not really have to face that kind of problem. Our yield in the Chardonnay zones was quite low, around 9,000 kgs/ha due to frost and shatter (coulure) and as a consequence the ripeness, both sugar and phenolic, was there.
“The “new thing” was a series of early heatwaves in Champagne, but it is still too early to really measure that impact of that in the longer term. The pre-harvest weather was very favourable and the good news is that despite high temperatures, acidity has not been burnt off during the summer. Water management has been an issue too, especially for young vines on less chalky soils,” says Brun. “Young vines, particularly those on clay soils like the Côte des Bar, suffered from the lack of water,” says Pommery’s Pierlot.
“We decided the harvest dates not just on the chemical analysis but also as a result of tasting berries,” says Emilien Boutillat of Piper. “In 2019, the perfect ripeness (phenolic and aromatic) was reached with quite a high level of sugar above 10deg° potential alcohol for Pinot Noir and Meunier and even more for Chardonnay; 10.5deg° and sometimes 11deg°. We had to be quite patient in order to reach the perfect balance between phenolic and aromatic ripeness; sugar and acidity.”
Lanson’s Dantan says: “We began harvest after 5 September for Côte des Bars and Montgueux, and delayed harvest for a few days in Côte des Blancs, Vitryat and Montagne de Reims to wait for a true phenolic ripeness that was better around 11.0deg° potential alcohol with a malic acid level under 6 g/l. Most of the other crus started around 7 September. Overall picking lasted 20 days.”
While volume was lost to frost, hail, millerandage and coulure, mildew, powdery mildew (oidium) plus échaudage (Florent Nys chef de cave at Billecart-Salmon says the sun burned about 20% of the grapes in the two heatwaves of July and August), most producers managed to reach the maximum level set for the harvest by the CIVC of 10,200kgs/ha.
“We prefer a longer maturation cycle, but for Bollinger, the most important thing is still a good balance between acidity and the potential ripeness, plus sanitary conditions,” says Bunner. “For that the last 15 days are the most important!”
Dantan at Lanson says: “The degrees obtained are high and the acidities also. This is the paradox of this year 2019 born under a summer that has experienced three heat waves, but fresh enough night temperatures allowed us to preserve remarkable levels of acidity.”
Quality and potential
Magalie Maréchal from the GH Mumm winemaking team says they are “delighted with the excellent quality of the Pinot Noir grapes which are fully in line with Mumm’s style, with a particularly rich aromatic palate, suggesting powerful, structured wines. The clear wines tastings were very positive, so 2019 will be a vintage for several of our cuvées.”
Castelnau chef de cave Sarcelet is delighted with the results from the 2019 vintage. “Meticulous sorting ensured musts of excellent quality and health, displaying aromatic richness, and an intense palate of citrus, exotic and white fruits, with density and length and an average of 10.75deg° and 6.75g/l acidity.”
Dominique Demarville who left Veuve Clicquot last year (2019) to join Laurent-Perrier in January 2020 says: “What makes the  harvest unique is the quality of the grapes. Apart from a few parcels effected by oidium which were not picked, the grapes were very healthy due to the ideal conditions from mid-August to the end of September.
“The balance in the juices is perfect for all varieties with a high level of sugar, 10.8deg° on average which is the best level since 1990, plus a good level of acidity (7.2 g/l in sulphuric acid) and a pH of 3.08 on average. The base wines are fresh enough with a very well-balanced structure. The level of nitrogen– very important for the quality of the fermentation and the potential of ageing – is in line with the average of the last ten years. The potential for ageing in 2019 looks great, better than in 2018.”
Brun at Charles Heidsieck says: “Results were homogeneously high, 10.6deg°is the average of this harvest for us, mostly driven by Chardonnay then Pinot Noir, then Meunier, largely because of higher yield than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It’s far too early to make comparison with previous vintages, but for sure it’s vintage quality. The vins clairs are very promising with a crisp acidity folded into a rich, full bodied texture, very ‘Charles’ indeed.”
At Bollinger Bunner says: “The balance between potential alcohol and acidity is still the best quality indicator. It was nearly perfect in 2019 and very good in 2018.” He added: Pinot Noirs were very successful this year, very intense, a lot of body and so many different characters between villages and plots. It was the perfect year to reveal our Pinot Noir “terroirs”. We have just decided that we will make 2019 a vintage.”
Pierlot says: “The quality is very high on the three varieties. All the tanks are good. It’s very fruity, fresh, with maybe more concentration than in 2018. We have some amazing results on some particular villages, such as Cramant, Aÿ, Verzenay and the Clos Pompadour vineyard. Average potential alcohol is 10.75deg°, acidity (H2S04) at 6.6g/l, while pH is 3.07. I found a lot of common points with 2012, but each vintage is always different.” With the very high-quality reserve wines we have – especially from 2018 — all the winemakers will have a lot of pleasure making their blends over the coming weeks.”
Winemaker Bastien Goutorbe Bouillot whose family business is based in Damery agrees with Pierlot. “It will be fantastic to blend 2019 with 2018, which was a good year but with less acidity and less body due to the high yields. I am expecting to make a vintage this year as the wines are already showing great character and the acidity will allow a bit of ageing. I am a bit young to compare with other previous years, but 2019 looks similar to 2012 in the balance of the wines, although maybe with less power than 2012.”
Côte des Bar has perfect pre-harvest weather
Drappier says: “We finished picking on 19 September for the main crop, but our very last patch was harvested on 23rd. Surprisingly, although we had high sugar contents, we needed to wait to get the phenolic ripeness, not only for Chardonnay but also for Pinot Noir. Berries were sweet and not green anymore, but not tasty, something I have never experienced before. Meunier was riper earlier, but this is usual in Urville.
“In 2019 was dry like 1976 or 2003. Two exceptional heatwaves in July and August have hit our vines. A few, maybe too few, showers have helped the vines to recover after these North African temperatures. Late August was a perfect pre-harvest season. No rain at all during picking. This happens only once per decade.
“In the Côte des Bar in general, and in Urville in particular, we had an incredibly healthy crop, something rarely seen. Except the Fromenteau (over 12deg° potential alcohol), the three major champagne grapes were quite close between 10.5 and 11.2deg° alcohol, which is absolutely ideal. Total Acidity was low but higher than expected closer to 5 g/l expressed in sulphuric with pH just a little higher than normal, but very acceptable given the phenolic ripeness at 3.10,” says Drappier.
“Just 83 days between flowering and picking. Yes it is a problem because the last days of ripening are longer and higher in temperature. Ripening now occurs in August not in September. There is not much we can do except choosing late harvest massage selections or clones, be happy to have East and North oriented slopes, and trimming less.”
We have now had pairs of top vintages at the end of the past four decades with 1988 and ’89, 1998 and 1999, 2008 and ’09 and finally 2018 and 2019. It seems to alternate between which of two is best 8 or 9, starting with 1988 in the ascendancy. Perhaps 2019 will shade the latest rivalry?