Heatwave shrinks Champagne harvest by almost 20%By Patrick Schmitt
As this year’s harvest begins in Champagne, db learns that natural yields in the region have shrunk by almost 20% due to extreme summertime temperatures.
Although yields in the region are officially limited by the Comité Champagne, which governs all aspects of production in the appellation, this year’s vintage is being restricted by nature, not man.
While this year’s maximum yield from the 2019 harvest was set at 10,200kg/ha (down by 5.5% on last year’s limit of 10,800kg/ha), it is believed that growers may not reach this reduced level due to heatwave conditions during the summer.
Speaking to the drinks business on Friday, Bollinger’s cellar master, Gilles Descôtes described the harvest as “very small”, adding that he believed that producers across the region would fail to reach the limit set by the Comité Champagne, while recording that Bollinger’s own vineyards, which amount to just under 180 hectares, had suffered a fall-off in yield by almost 20%.
This year’s harvest also, stressed Descôtes, comes in sharp contrast to last year’s conditions, when yields were naturally very high, with some vineyards able to yield as much as 20,000kg/ha – as reported by db in October last year.
“Last year was a very big one, and this year will be a small one,” he said.
“Yields for the appellation are 10,200kg/ha, but I am not sure that the appellation will reach that, and I don’t think we will reach that for Bollinger either,” he added.
Continuing, he told db, “We were expecting to have 11,500kg/ha [naturally], but with frost in spring, then hail, then storms, and powdery mildew – which affected some of our Chardonnay – and then the heat, we can expect to reach 9,500kg/ha” – representing a decline of almost 20%.
However, having mentioned this range of setbacks, he said that “the worst for the quantity was the heat”, commenting that temperatures reached 43 degrees Celsius at the beginning of August, which caused the berries to shrivel.
Descôtes also said that the harvest would be “very quick” – due to the high level of maturity and low yields – with the majority starting to pick the white grapes from the end of this week, and the red grapes from the beginning of the next (even if harvesting has begun for the “very early crus” on Monday).
As for the quality of the vintage, Descôtes expressed his optimism concerning the potential for Bollinger, due to the ideal harvesting conditions forecast for the next 10 days, and the high level of sugar and tartaric acid in the berries.
“The weather now is perfect and the so is the forecasted weather for the 10 days to come, with 25°C in the day, and 8°C in the morning – which we call the Champagne fridge, as we have nice weather during the day, and then cool conditions during the night, which is good for quality,” he explained.
Such weather means that the grapes are mature, with high natural sugars, but also that the tartaric acid is maintained. (Although the level of less stable malic acid is low due to the hot summer, this is less concerning for the majority of producers which promote the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid following the fermentation).
Having previously mentioned the problem of powdery mildew, or oidium, which affected Chardonnay because it is naturally more susceptible to the fungal infection, he said that 2019 was a “Pinot year”, adding that the Chardonnay grapes would have to be sorted “very carefully” before pressing.
It is also notable that Bollinger’s vineyards, which are managed sustainably – ensuring that there is a grass cover in the vineyards, and no application of herbicides – were in in a healthy condition, despite the extreme heat.
“If you look at the leaves, they are perfect,” said Descôtes.
Meanwhile, the Comité Champagne has told db that it believes that the majority of producers will be able to reach the limit of 10,200kg/ha, while reminding that those who do not hit this figure will be able to release wines from their reserves to augment the volumes made this year.
In an email to db, Thibaut Le Mailloux, who is director of communications at Comité Champagne, explained that “the best-case scenario” should see producers reach the set yield.
“Even with 3% of bud loss in May due to frost, even with 10-11% volume potential lost by “échaudage” [sun burn of the berries], and even with extra potential losses due to a bit of mildew earlier in the year, some oïdium here and there pending varieties and terroirs, we could be making 10,200 kg collectively,” he noted, referring to an average across the region, even after grape-sorting in the vineyards.
He added, “However, the players who don’t reach 10,200 kg/ha individually will use the reserve to reach this yield.”
Although yields are set each year in Champagne for the amount of wine that can be produced for commercialising from the harvest, it is usually possible to pick an additional amount of grapes to make into wine to store as a reserve, should a future harvest fall short.
While this year the Comité Champagne did not authorise the picking of extra bunches for a reserve, last year, because the harvest was so bountiful, particularly in comparison to the previous 2017 vintage, it received a derogation from the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) to add 4,700 kg/ha to augment this back-up supply of wine, which is known as the réserve individuelle (RI).
However, because this reserve is capped at 8,000kg/ha, and the average level of reserve in Champagne was around 6,000kg/ha last year, then it may not have been possible for many in the region to take full advantage of this derogation – they would have only been permitted to pick the equivalent of 12,800kg/ha (10,800kg/ha for making into wine from the 2018 harvest and then a further 2,000kg/ha to reach a maximum reserve of wine in tank of 8,000kg/ha).
Nevertheless, even if one takes the figure of 12,800kg/ha for the 2018 harvest, the official drop in yields from last year to this year is 2,600kg/ha, or 20%.
So why was the limit lowered, with no allowance for the réserve individuelle in 2019?
Le Mailloux explained, “This year we have not planned to pick any extra volume in order to complete the reserve, because it is almost full (the current average level is 7,750 kg/ha while the limit is 8000 kg),”
As a result, he said that there was “no room for it”, and “no need for it”.
This last point is important. Champagne reserves are approaching their limit because the region has been consistently producing more wine than the market is absorbing.
Indeed, the amount of wine that could be commercialised from last year’s harvest was capped at 10,800kg/ha, which produced the equivalent of 315 million bottles, while the shipments for Champagne in 2018 were just under 302m.
Furthermore, with the amount of wine held in reserve approaching the limit of 8,000kg/ha on average across the region, producers are holding the equivalent of nearly an entire vintage in tank.
Below I have reproduced some updated figures on yields and shipments for Champagne going back to 2010, although for more detailed analysis of Champagne supply and demand trends, please order a copy of this year’s Champagne Report by contacting Lewis O’Sullivan at email@example.com
Champagne yields set by the Comité Champagne since 2010
2018: 10,800kg/ha (+4,700 kg/ha or quantity required to reach a maximum reserve of wine in tank of 8,000kg/ha)
2017: 10,800kg/ha (10,300kg/ha + 500kg/ha from the reserve)
2016: 10,800kg/ha (9,700kg/ha + 1100kg/ha from the reserve)
2015: 10,600kg/ha (10,100kg/ha + 500kg/ha from the reserve)
2014: 10,500kg/ha (10,100kg/ha + 400kg/ha from the reserve)
2013: 10,500kg/ha (10,000kg/ha + 500kg/ha from the reserve)
2012: 11,000kg/ha (10,500kg/ha + 500kg/ha from the reserve)
2011: 12,500kg/ha (10,500 kg/ha + 2,000kg/ha from the reserve)
Champagne shipments by volume since 2010
2018: 301.9m bottles
2017: 307.3m bottles
2016: 306m bottles
2015: 313m bottles
2014: 307m bottles
2013: 305m bottles
2012: 309m bottles
2011: 323m bottles
2010: 319m bottles
Champagne shipments by value since 2010