Champagne 2017: did harvesting start too late?

Despite being one of the earliest start-dates on record, growers in Champagne may have begun harvesting too late, according to Olivier Krug.

Harvesting began at Krug’s Clos de Mesnil on 24 August this year – the earliest start-date in the single vineyard’s history. Picture credit: Krug

Speaking at the launch of Krug’s 2004 vintage in London earlier this month, Olivier said that the majority of growers in Champagne are saying that they should have started picking sooner, even though the official start-date of the harvest was 26 August, making one of the earliest since 1950, and a vintage predated only by 2003, 2007 and 2011.

“There will probably be a debate at the end of the year, with people asking, ‘why didn’t we start picking earlier?’” said Olivier.

“Nine out of 10 people we have met, which is dozens of people, are saying, ‘we are starting too late’,” he added.

However, Olivier said it would be wrong to blame either the Comité Champagne, which sets the official start-date, or the “grandes marques”, for any contention surrounding picking dates.

Instead, he said that the responsibility should lie with decision-makers among the grower-community in each village, who, he said, are tempted to wait until September for the start of the harvest to save on paperwork.

“Usually there are people with a bigger voice than others who decide the start-date in the village; it is not coming from the houses,” he recorded.

“And these big muscle people said, for example, ‘begin on Monday 4 September’, because they didn’t want pickers to start in August because then they have to make two payrolls for thousands of pickers,” he explained, referring to the extra paperwork that would be necessary to pay a salary for the work in August and then another for September.

Le Clos du Mesnil is always the first to be harvested by Krug. Picture credit: Krug

Continuing he said, “Some might say start on 1 September, but, because it was a Friday, they waited until Monday.”

Indeed, the official start date of 26 August was in fact a Saturday, so Olivier said that by beginning picking on 4 September, it meant that the harvesters could “avoid working over two weekends.”

In contrast, he said that the harvest in Krug’s prized 1.87 hectare walled Chardonnay vineyard in the Côte des Blancs, called Clos de Mesnil, was finished before others had even begun picking in the area.

“We started picking in Le Mesnil on 24-25 August, then again on 28-29, so we were finished before Friday 1 September, which was the day when the whole of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger started,” he said.

Indeed, Olivier stated that he was sure that the 24 August was the earliest start-date ever recorded for Krug’s Clos de Mesnil.

“We blind-taste the grapes, and one week before the opening date for the pressoir, we realised that a good third of the vineyard was ready to be harvested – and from 15 August by law you can start picking if you have half a degree [potential alcohol] above what is set for the year,” he said.

Because it was set in July at 9.5%, as soon as you have 10% you can start harvesting – you just have to send a message to the INAO [The Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité].”

“This is what we did for Le Mesnil, but a lot of people didn’t take that risk,” he said, noting that if you start picking and the wine fails to reach the 10% minimum, “you risk being declassified”.

“We started picking when the berries were 10.2/10.3% and the acidity was still good – we harvested at 7.5-8g of acidity, which is exactly what we wanted… and when the grapes are above 9.5 or 10%, they are ripe, you have the aromas.”

Speaking generally about the 2017 vintage, he described it as “a Chardonnay year”, with “great Chardonnay in Le Mesnil, and very good Chardonnay in Avize and in the south, in Sézanne and Vitry.”

Bringing the harvest forward this year was extremely hot and dry weather from May to late July, although this was then followed by a wet and stormy August, which brought botrytis-pressure to the region.

“Everything was fine until the end of July when it started to rain,” summed up Olivier on 2017’s conditions.

2 Responses to “Champagne 2017: did harvesting start too late?”

  1. Charles Crawfurd says:

    Good old French bureaucracy getting in the way as usuual!

  2. Steve Pritchard says:

    And you cannot mess with August vacations!

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