Champagne harvest ‘hardest and shortest’ in history

This year’s harvest in Champagne was the shortest in Bollinger’s history and the hardest yet faced by the brand’s cellar master, Gilles Descôtes.

Gilles Descôtes: ‘This year was the most challenging vintage of my career’

Although the vintage started well, with hot and dry weather from May until late July (favouring an early budburst and blossoming), the month of August turned out to be warm and wet – conditions that favour the incidence and rapid spread of botrytis in the bunches.

And it was the threat of rotten grapes that made it necessary to pick extremely quickly, as well as sort very carefully, said Descôtes at a lunch in London last week.

“We had very dry, sunny weather from May to July and some people expected to pick in early August, but then we had a rotten August, it was wet and cool, and we started to have botrytis in Champagne,” he recorded.

While cold nights and winds from the north can halt the advancement of rot in Champagne grapes after a spell of summertime humidity, in 2017, such a change in the weather did not occur, with unusually warm night-time temperatures continuing until the end of August, according to Descôtes.

As a result, he said that “the grapes turned very fast”, speaking about the changing composition of the berries, and botrytis infection.

“So this year was the most challenging vintage of my career,” he stated.

Continuing, he said that he “had to make strong decisions”, which included employing a huge team of pickers to bring in the grapes in record time.

“We started picking on 4 September in every vineyard at the same time, making it the shortest harvest in the history of Bollinger – it was over in just nine days, when it would normally take 15-18 days,” he said.

Of course, in an appellation that spans over 33,000 hectares, and in a region that grows three different varieties of grapes, the problems described above weren’t uniform.

Gilles Descôtes: ‘This was the year for sustainable viticulture’

Descôtes said, “The Chardonnay grapes were healthy and good, and we had over 10.5% natural sugars, with good acidity, and no botrytis.”

However, continuing, he said, “It was a lot more difficult with red grapes, especially in the Marne Valley, and I’m worried about the wines from Aÿ in the Marne, although I haven’t tasted the wines yet.”

Nevertheless, he added that he may have “saved” the grapes in Aÿ – Bollinger’s homeland – by enlisting as many as 160 pickers to harvest the brand’s bunches within three days in this part of Champagne.

Summing up, he said, “I’m confident about Chardonnay, and I’m worried about Pinot Noir in the Marne Valley, while Meunier in the valley was the most difficult,” he said, adding, “This year, the further west you go, the worse it gets.”

“Being the house of Pinot Noir makes 2017 a challenge,” he later stated.

On a more positive note, he said that the Pinot Noir from Champagne’s Aube sub-region was “very good” this year – this more southerly area of the appellation didn’t suffer the same August rains that afflicted the Marne Valley.

With similar optimism, he said that the challenges of the vintage were mitigated by sustainable vineyard management.

“I am worried about the wine from our suppliers, but I’m more comfortable with the wine from our vineyards, which are managed sustainably, and this was the year for sustainable viticulture,” he commented.

In particular, the practice of allowing grass to grow between the vines lessened the amount of botrytis infection, according to Descôtes.

“When we started growing grass in our vineyards 10 years ago people said we were crazy, but this year, growers were asking us how we managed to get such healthy grapes – our suppliers had nearly double the amount of gluconic acid, which is a signal that botrytis is present in the grapes.”

As for the timing of this year’s harvest, despite a suggestion – as previously reported by db – that picking may have begun too late, Descôtes said that he believed the start-date was right.

The official official start of the harvest was 26 August – set by the Comité Champagne for the entire region – which Descôtes said “was good”, adding that had one started harvesting before that date, the grapes would not have been ripe.

“The question always in Champagne is ripeness or botrytis,” he said, referring to the difficulty of deciding when to harvest, as growers may want to wait for higher sugar levels, but don’t want to risk getting rot in the bunches.

Speaking further about 2017, he said, “One of the problems this year was that everyone wanted to pick quickly, and if you rely on contract pickers, because everyone wanted them at the same time, you couldn’t get enough.”

In contrast, he said that Bollinger has a resident team of harvesters who the house can rely on.

As for yields this year, despite the botrytis, which necessitated strict sorting in the vineyard, he said that it was better than last year for Bollinger.

“We had an average yield in the Bollinger vineyard of 10,260 kg/ha, which was very good – I think we lost 15% of the crop from sorting: we lost nothing in Cuis and almost nothing in Verzenay, but we lost 30-40% [of the harvest to rot] in Aÿ.”

“It was better for us than 2016,” he then stated, noting that this year Bollinger “was lucky with spring frosts” – which the house avoided for the most part (although Comité Champagne said that freezing temperatures damaged 23% of buds across the region).

For the entire appellation, the average yield reached 9,500 kg/ha, which is lower than the yield set by the Comité Champagne in July, when it announced a limit of 10,300 kilograms per hectare with a release of 500kg/ha from the reserve (taking the total to 10,800kg/ha).

Descôtes recorded that growers in Champagne faced losses from springtime frosts and hail in August, as well as botrytis infection.

Speaking about the latter, he said that rot had forced “some suppliers of Bollinger to leave more than 50% of the grapes on the ground.”

Finally, when asked about the price of grapes from this year’s vintage, Descôtes said that Bollinger was braced for increases.

“Unfortunately prices will go up – it is bad, because usually you pay more for grapes when the quality is high, but some houses need grapes for their growth, and the struggle for getting grapes is even harder than usual, so prices are going up – I think there will be a 5% increase this year.”

If Descôtes is proved right, such a rise will take the average price of a kilo of grapes in Champagne over €6 for the first time in the region’s history (a kilo of grapes cost €5.90 on average in 2016, see table below).

As for sales growth, significantly, Descôtes told db that he expects shipments of Champagne for 2017 to surpass 310 million bottles, up from 306m last year.

“It has been a good year for us,” he concluded, referring to Bollinger, as well as the performance of other houses such as Roederer, Taittinger, along with Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.

Champagne grape prices over the past 10 vintages (€ per kilo)
2007: 5.11
2007: 5.11
2008: 5.40
2009: 5.25
2010: 5.36
2011: 5.60
2012: 5.73
2013: 5.80
2014: 5.89
2015: 5.89
2016: 5.90
Change (07-16): 15.5%

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