It's worth the wait

In a year of unfavourable weather, Champagne came good at the last minute. Giles Fallowfield is on the scene to get the early verdict on the vintage
27 August, 2008
Page 44 
Following the warmest April on record and, with the maximum permitted yield in the appellation set at the new INAO agreed high of 15,500 kilos per hectare, Champagne looked set to have the earliest and largest harvest on record this year. But this expectation has been confounded by unexpectedly wet and cool weather pretty well from May right up until the last week of August.

The warm weather in April - when the average temperature was 5.6°C above the monthly norm of 9.4°C, with temperatures above 25°C achieved on 11 days - kick-started the growing season and flowering began three weeks in advance of normal, leading to the prediction that the harvest might begin even earlier than in 2003, when grapes were first cut in the Côte des Bar village of Bligny on August 18.

However, with considerably more rain than normal and fewer sunshine hours in both July and August - there were 15 days of rain in the first three weeks of August with more than 6mm falling on seven of them and 60 fewer hours of sunshine than the monthly norm - things slowed down. The first official date for picking was August 23, when a number of villages in the Côte des Bar, including Buxeuil and Neuville-sur-Seine, were allowed to start picking black grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) along with Bethon and Cumières (Pinot Meunier only) - the latter always one of the first top-rated premier crus to start the harvest, thanks to its exposure.
== Jumping the gun ==

The consensus in the first two weeks of September among more than a dozen growers and houses spread across the appellation indicates there was a danger that some people had started picking too early to achieve decent levels of ripeness. Pierre Larmandier, of Larmandier Bernier, based in Vertus in the Côte des Blancs, says: "There are big problems of maturity where the volume of grapes has not been controlled and once again people, especially with Chardonnay, harvested too soon. We began the harvest on September 3, while other growers in the village started on August 27. For Chardonnay we have no rot, the fruit is very nice. Pinot Noir is a little bit more difficult."

Hervé Deschamps, chef de caves at Perrier-Joüet also notes: "This year it is very important to measure the level of sugar in each plot before picking to ensure no problems. In some villages where they decided to begin on August 23, they stopped after three days because of irregular maturity, depending on exposure, grape variety and yield per hectare."

"For those who were listening to so-called experts without even walking in their vineyards, they had to reverse steam in emergency," says Philippe le Brun, of Roger le Brun in Aÿ. "It reminds me of the Titanic - full speed ahead with no cares for icebergs. They had to stop picking, close the press house and tell pickers to come back later, which is hard to manage."

With hindsight, Didier Mariotti, chef de cave at GH Mumm, concedes he wishes they had waited a little longer before starting picking (August 28 and 29) as: "Conditions are now perfect (on September 5), windy and sunny with cool nights, and the grapes that are coming in are better and better in quality."

Jean-Hervé Chicquet at Jacquesson summed up the dilemma many producers faced: "When we closed for holidays at the end of July, we thought we could harvest around August 21, but we got the rainiest August in 30 years, with above 100mm of rain and quite cool temperatures. So when we came back, we were facing the worst choice possible: do we pick when it's unripe but without too much botrytis [rot], or do we wait for more ripeness but risk more botrytis?

"As the fruits were decidedly not ripe, we took a compromise decision," says Chicquet. "Starting on the 29th, picking some quite forward Pinot Meunier, we began the real thing on September 3. It worked because the weather became absolutely ideal: dry, windy, but not too hot. Selection is crucial but this wonderful weather [first two weeks of September] has really saved our lives and the grey rot is much less of a problem than last year, even if the average sugar level is lower."
== Patience has its rewards ==

Down in the Côte des Bar, Michel Drappier also delayed the start of picking: "To get riper fruit we decided to wait until August 27 and we will finish by the end of this week (September 15) and be among the last to pick. But while it is more important than usual to be selective in the vineyards, the quality is there, botrytis has dried, sugar levels are up (about 10.5°) and acidity is just right."

The quality being brought in is considerably better than looked possible as recently as the third week of August. "It seems that many people - sommeliers and journalists in France particularly - have already given a very bad reputation to 2007, but they weren't here," says Frédéric Panaïotis, chef de caves at Champagne Ruinart. "With a few more days of bad weather it would have been a complete disaster but, as in quite a few years in the past, luck was with the Champenois. It's certainly been a very strange harvest again, although it's finished before mid-September, we all felt like we were in late September or early October."

Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, chef de caves at Louis Roederer, concurs: "So early, yet the quality of the grapes is closer to a classic October harvest. Two weeks ago, I would have said that it was more a non-vintage year. Today, I think the quality is, in some places, very good and could give some 'grand vin' [vintage cuvées]. We have to wait for the winter tastings, but the overall quality should be good."

This is, of course, a Roederer perspective and only really applies to those producers who work their vineyards in a way that naturally restricts yields. Lecaillon expects the average yield for Roederer to be "around 13,000kg/ha - no more".

As Fabien Henry at Chanoine points out: "The quality in the vineyard is not heterogeneous - a lot of difference could occur from one grower to another and from one village to another." But at the same time he believes this year will produce some vintage Blanc de Blancs, "because Chardonnay is superb everywhere".

While predicting generally low yields - "we'll consider ourselves lucky if we pass the 12,400kg/ha mark" - Charles Philipponnat, managing director at Champagne Philipponnat, thinks the appellation in general is "more likely to achieve around 14,000kg/ha". Mariotti at Mumm agrees with this as an average figure.
== Bringing up the levels ==

In general, alcohol levels will be relatively low this year, certainly compared with 2006. Although he made some saignée rosé at 10.8° alcohol, Philippe le Brun gives the average on his presses in Aÿ as 9.6° and acidity around 8g/l and others report similar levels of potential alcohol and acidity.

At GH Mumm, says Mariotti: "Acidity levels are high, but average alcohol levels are lower than usual, around 9.5° compared with 10.3° for GH Mumm vineyards last year." As Panaïotis at Ruinart notes: "Most tanks, if not all, have been chaptalised to bring [potential] alcohol level to around 10.5-10.8° alcohol, quite a change from the previous five years that required almost no chaptalisation."

At Roederer, Lecaillon says: "Average potential alcohol is 9.7° and the acidity 8.3g/l, which is close to what we had in 1982, 1988, 1993 and 1995. As usual, the Pinot Noirs were ripe, at over 10° alcohol, with sometimes a little bit of rot that we had to sort out. The Chardonnays were clean but less ripe - closer to 9.5° alcohol."

The maximum level of production of 15,500kg/ha is only likely to be widely achieved in the Chardonnay crop, which represents slightly less than a third of the total active Champagne vineyard (28.2 per cent or 9,374ha out of 31,918 in 2005). In the premier cru of Vertus, where more Chardonnay than Pinot Noir is planted, Larmandier predicts the maximum yield will be widely achieved. "We expect between 11,000 and 13,000kg/ha for us. In Champagne in general it will not be this high - 15,500kg/ha is a maximum, not a minimum."