Champagne: Passing the baton

The newly appointed head winemakers and Champagne itself face some difficult challenges in the next decade as the climate changes and the weather in the growing season becomes more unpredictable and extreme. 

As the 2019 harvest begins in early September, we are hearing reports of the extreme heat and scorching sun of July having an adverse effect on potential yields. The temperature reached 42.9°C in the Vitryat village of Glannes to the south east of Châlon in the last week of July, the highest ever recorded in the Champagne region. 


The Champenois have shown a remark- able ability to quickly adapt their viticultural practices and take these extremes in their stride and the generally warmer summers have mainly been good for quality, largely eliminating the green, unripe fruit that was relatively easy to find in wines on sale in the nineties. The use and establishment of a much larger reserve has also helped improve general quality, though it has massively increased the need for storage capacity and an understanding of how to keep such wine fresh. 

The average level of the reserve – what used to be called the réserve individuelle – held by individual producers across the appellation currently sits at 7,750kg/ha, only a fraction below the maximum level allowed of 8,000kg/ ha, following the abundant high-quality 2018 harvest. 

This is partly because the Champagne Comité and INAO agreed that producers could add up to 3,700kg/ ha to their reserves, on top of the permitted yield for the 2018 harvest which was set at 10,800kg/ha, providing that, by so doing, their reserve did not exceed the cap of 8,000kg/ha. 

Not so long ago there was talk in Champagne of a desire to ensure that there was around half a harvest kept in reserve, as an insurance policy. This was to be used in the face of climatic or disease-led disasters such as frost, hail, botrytis, odium and mildew severely curtailing yields, but also as a tool to improve quality in a harvest perhaps lacking some essential ingredient, be it ripeness or freshness. 

With the yield set for the 2019 harvest at 10,200kg/ha, 600kg/ha lower than in 2018, Champagne’s active vineyard area of some 33,843ha could produce around 300m bottles. But the current reserve would provide far more than 150m bottles – it’s more like 230m. There’s little chance of a shortage of wine, even if the market were to pick up quite dramatically.

Champagne has been producing slightly more than it’s been selling in seven of the past 10 years and there- fore wine is unlikely to be in short supply for several years at least, whatever you might read. [Some uninformed commentators in newspapers love to write about shortages of Champagne after any climatic disaster hits a harvest, without understanding how the Champenois operate.] 

The Champenois do, of course, manipulate the agreed yield set before each harvest to try to keep supply and demand fairly closely in alignment. The big négociant houses don’t want surpluses depressing prices. They sell the vast majority of the bottles produced – around 85% in Champagne’s export markets, though it’s a shade under three-quarters worldwide, as in the French domestic market the co-operatives and growers between them have a bigger share that amounts to some 27% of sales. They also know if there is a large surplus there are always unscrupulous players who will sell cheap, making a small margin on a large volume, effectively undermining their brands’ price positioning.