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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.

Bruno Paillard described 2017 as “a very contrasted year”

Picture credit: Bruno Paillard

Meanwhile, at the launch of his 2002 vintage in London last week, Bruno Paillard said that it was a year where Champagne’s classification system for vineyard quality was particularly relevant.

“Probably more than ever before the Échelle des Crus was really justified, with the grand crus of Chardonnay escaping any problems, and Pinot Noir, partially, particularly in the northern part of the Montagne de Reims,” he said.

However, he added, “Everything in the Vallée de la Marne was much more difficult, particularly the further west you go – if you superimpose a map of the rains in August on the vineyards, it is very clear the regions that did and didn’t do so well.”

He then said, “It’s a great pity because at the end of the July we were expecting something between the calibre of 2008 and 1996 – the only problem we had was a bit of frost on 27 April reducing the volume, but flowering in June had gone perfectly well and, until the end of July, we had dry weather that was fantastic for the grapes… maybe it was even a little too warm and dry, and we needed a bit of rain, but we had much more than we were hoping for.”

While acknowledging that Août fait le moût [August makes the must], he stressed that 2017 “was not a disaster but a very contrasted year: we have the best and the worst, depending on how much rain you had, your growing methods, and what date you started picking.”

Due to late-spring frost, summer-time hail storms, and the need for rigorous grape selection following a wet August, Paillard said that yields would be lower than last year, and may fall short by as much as 20% of the official marketable yield of 10,800 kilograms per hectare – which was set for the region on 21 July.

But, because of Champagne’s system of blocage – where a portion of each harvest is put aside for future use – this “should not be a problem”.

Of course, a reserve of wine from previous harvests can only benefit the region’s non-vintage cuvées, but as these represent as much as 90% of the appellation’s output, it is highly significant.

Concluding, Paillard drew attention to the great benefit of having stocks of wine stored in tank for regulating the quantity and quality of multi-vintage Champagne.

“The reserve is Champagne’s great asset,” he stated.

The official report on the harvest from the Comité Champagne from 20 September reads as follows:

Harvesting in Champagne. Picture credit: Veuve Clicquot

Harvesting on the Champagne hillsides has been underway in most production areas since 4th September and is now coming to an end.

The 2017 campaign has been marked by severe frosts in spring (clearing 23% of buds across the region) followed by an exceptionally hot and sunny spell between mid-May and the end of July. New heat records were set in many sites. Until the end of July, the vines remained in remarkable condition despite the lack of rainfall.

However, this situation was reversed in early August with a number of storms, some including hail at local level. With the maturation rate maintaining its momentum, the earliest vineyards began picking their first grapes on 26th August, making the 2017 harvest one of the earliest since 1950, preceded only by 2003, 2007 and 2011.

Frequent rainstorms since the start of harvesting, just when the grapes were fully ripe, have led to a careful sorting of the grapes.

Because of the frost and hail in August and the careful selection process, the maximum authorised yield set for this year (10,300 kg/ha) may not be achieved in every part of the region, with winegrowers and houses drawing on the Champagne reserve to supplement this year’s production.

The average alcohol content of the musts, frequently exceeding 10% in volume, paired with satisfactory acidity levels suggest the balance of the vintage is promising. However, as always in Champagne, the quality will not be known until after the first tastings of the base wines in early spring.

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