Champagne: Passing the baton

Champagne has been going through a period of fundamental change over the past couple of years.

There’s barely a major brand that hasn’t installed a new head winemaker since the start of 2018 or begun the process of replacing the incumbent. And despite the brand owners’ talk of continuity, even when the new and old chef de caves work together in unison for a while during the handover, this changeover represents a great upheaval. 

The potential for disruption was only too well illustrated by the situation at Piper Heidsieck, part of the EPI group, in the summer of 2018. In early June, Séverine Frerson, who had been working for the winemaking team at Piper alongside Régis Camus for some 16 years previously, was announced as the house’s new chef de cave. By mid-September however, Pernod Ricard was welcoming her to Perrier-Jouët in Epernay as the cellar master in waiting to replace Hervé Deschamps. 

While it’s still not clear why Frerson departed after barely three months running the team at Piper, the timing of her elevation and Deschamp’s retirement at Perrier-Jouët has still not been announced a year later as the 2019 harvest gets underway. 

The situation at Piper Heidsieck was happily settled quickly, with Émilien Boutillat joining in October 2018. Despite his apparent youth, he brings four years’ experience as cellar master at Cattier and Armand de Brignac plus an impressive international CV, working vintages at Mud House in New Zealand, La Motte in South Africa and Peter Michael Winery in California, in addition to a stint at Château Margaux. 

Boutillat looks to be a great acquisition for the brand, judging by his very assured performance at the launch of Piper’s Essentiel Blanc de Blancs this July, speaking confidently and knowledgeably about all aspects of Piper’s range, to which the aforementioned Essentiel looks to be a fine addition. 

With Cyril Brun already looking like an old hand in charge of winemaking at Charles Heidsieck, although he only joined from Veuve Clicquot in May 2015, the future looks bright for the EPI champagne brands. And they have not lost the services of the experienced Régis Camus, although he is one of a group of senior, top-class winemakers, most of whom have just or are about to retire. Camus stays on for the moment to oversee his baby – Rare, formerly Piper’s prestige cuvée but now positioned as a standalone brand in its own right, à la Dom Pérignon. 

In 2018 Champagne lost the talents of François Domi at Billecart-Salmon, Dominique Petit at Pol Roger and Loic Dupont at Taittinger, all long-running if relatively low public-profile servants for their brands. But in the case Domi, who lives near Billecart’s winery in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, you get the impression his expertise will continue to be called on by the Roland-Billecart family and new winemaker Florent Nye. 

From the same era and after more than 30 years’ service, as we have already reported in DI, 67-year-old Michel Fauconnet is expected to depart Laurent-Perrier by the end of 2020, with Clicquot’s Dominique Demarville joining him to work in tandem from the start of next year before taking over. 

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. 

The Champagne Comité meets to set the yield for the coming harvest usually in the last week of July, just before everything closes down in August, as it still largely does in France, and about six weeks before picking starts. 

By that point members hope to have a fair idea of how sales are going, even though it’s in the last quarter of the year that the majority of champagne is still purchased. 

This July, of course, they had a twin problem to deal with. One issue was that shipments to the largest export market in terms of volume were distorted as UK retailers shipped stock early in an attempt avoid problems with the first Brexit deadline of March 31. Another was that, in champagne’s second-largest export market by volume, which is now its most valuable because of higher average prices, there is a US president talking about sanctions against French wine. 


You could easily take the view, there- fore, that setting a yield to produce roughly 300m bottles was wildly optimistic in the present dire economic conditions. The French domestic market now takes less than 50% of worldwide sales and it continues to gradually decline. It’s very hard for lost sales in the two major export destinations to be replaced by growth, even in lots of small markets. 

But the decision is, of course, one that has to be approved by both sides of the Champagne business, the growers represented by the Syndicat Général des Vignerons de la Champagne and the négociant houses interests by the Union des Maisons de Champagne. 

The growers are paid for their grapes by the kilo and, while the level looks very generous to most other French wine regions at somewhere north of €6 a kilo on average, and higher with bonuses, the amount of grapes they are allowed to pick per hectare directly and obviously effects their income. So, the SGV will not countenance too low a yield being set for its members. 

But nature has the last laugh on the yield front. If you look back over the years at the maximum yield set for each harvest, compared with the actual yield achieved, the latter is often at least 1,000kg/ha lower. 

And several producers are already predicting that, thanks to some frost damage followed by the searing temperatures of late July, the 2109 crop will be more like 9,000kg/ha on average than the permitted level of 10,200kg/ha.