The sun has set on harvest season in Champagne and for the first time in at least six months, the Champenois have something to celebrate: the potential quality of the 2020 vintage.
Right from the start, the growing season looked promising. Spring came early, and so did budburst. While this generally implies the vines are at risk of late frosts, winter was on lockdown just like the rest of us. Basking in the mild weather, Champagne headed into one of its earliest flowering seasons on record, with flowering completed by early June.
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Summer was hot, though not as scorching as last year, and the dry weather kept disease at bay. There was a small powdery mildew outbreak at the beginning of July, but growers learned from previous years and overall the disease was dealt with before it could explode.
The two and a half-week heatwave at the end of July into early August proved to be the most daunting challenge of the season, but it only really impacted the yields. And, since the commercial yield had been set at a record low of 8000 kg/ha, the overall damage to the region has been insignificant.
According to Maxime Toubart, president of the Syndicat des Vignerons and co-president of the Comité Champagne, growers noticed an average drop of 10-15 percent between the yield estimates in the third week of July and harvest.
Nevertheless, as always, some growers suffered more than others. Olivier Horiot, from Champagne Olivier Horiot, based in Les Ricey, one of Champagne’s most southern villages, estimated he lost between 30 and 40 percent of his crop to heat damage. Many grapes literally scalded on the vines, and the remaining ones struggled to plump up.
Charles Philipponnat, of Champagne Philipponnat, also spoke of a 30 percent yield loss in the south-facing Clos de Goisses vineyard, and more specifically in the Pinot Noir blocks. Like Horiot, Philipponnat believes Pinot Noir is more susceptible to blistering than Chardonnay. Even so, the drought affected all varieties, slashing the Meunier bunch weights and significantly delaying the ripening of the Chardonnay, hence further complicating the harvest organization.
Picking coordination had already been severely impaired by Covid-19 security measures and fears of shutdown in case of infections.
The MSA, the social security organization of the agriculture sector, had issued strict guidelines to respect national social distancing requirements. However, it was not always practical, or even possible to strictly adhere to these during the harvesting process. Champagne's vineyards are densely planted, and the harvest process is labor intensive. Pickers traditionally pick opposite one another, and every few rows there are débardeurs, people who empty the baskets into cases and carry the cases out of the vineyards. This means that to follow the rules, one either had to space people out every second row and ask them to pick at one-meter intervals (rather than opposite each other) and empty their own baskets.
Alternatively, pickers had to wear masks. Both options were near impossible to implement, though several producer tried. At Philipponnat, pickers harvested every second row and emptied their own basket, even if they quickly ended up picking opposite each other again. To prevent potential contamination the house also kept its four teams strictly separated, even if this meant they had to cancel the traditional evening "Casse Croute", a light meal where the Champagne tends to flow.
Johan Merle, assistant cellarmaster at Champagne Roederer, imposed mask wearing at all times in the vineyard, at the winery and at the press. He further requested all pickers the house provided accommodation for to be tested before their arrival in Champagne. The second measure undoubtedly ensured the safety of the teams more than the first one, as mask wearing while picking or carrying out cases under the blistering August sun for eight hours a day was simply not possible. Nevertheless, every picker had to have their mask somewhere close to their face, as police engaged in random checks and failure to produce a mask resulted in an instant personal fine of €135 ($160).
Ironically, the lower yield helped with the Covid-19 restrictions' implementation, as fewer people were employed.
The heatwave-induced ripening blockages also meant that harvest was more spread out, and could therefore take place at a more leisurely pace with fewer people.
Aurelien Laherte, from Champagne Laherte Frères, told Wine-Searcher that harvest took almost twice as long this year – 19 days (with a few breaks), compared to an average of 10 days normally to pick the family's 11.5 hectares. Normally the Lahertes employ between 40 and 50 people, who are all housed and fed, but this year the team shrank to half that number.
Dominique Moreau, from Champagne Marie Courtin, and Rolland Piollot from Champagne Piollot et Fils, told us the same story. "This year it was really important to pick at the right time, and often this meant we had to wait. We also saw that vineyards who are normally the last to be picked, because of their cooler location, were ripe long before the vineyards we normally pick first," said Piollot. He believed the cooler location helped the ripening process in the heat of the summer.
However, spreading out the harvest is not something that comes naturally to the Champenois, who are used to having their harvest wrapped up in just over a week. This meant that many picked too early, resulting in unripe grapes coming in. Ophélie Delpierre, quality assistant at Champagne Les Roches Blanches, acknowledged having refused a press load because it came in at 8.5 percent potential alcohol.
Still, low alcohol percentages are not new to Champagne, after all the region has a long history of chaptalization. And the region's largest producer, Moët et Chandon, even suggested their suppliers picked between 9.5 and 10 percent potential alcohol to preserve as much malic acid as possible.
Others disagree with this reasoning, and believe phenolic ripeness is what one should be looking for instead.
Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, technical director and cellarmaster at Champagne Roederer, believes phenolic ripeness will assure the balance between sugars and acid, and he added that this year, the balance seemed perfect, maybe because phenolic ripeness was reached at an ideal potential alcohol percentage (between 10.5 and 11 percent). He admitted that "for the first time in my winemaking career, I have had no comments on how we could have improved things. This year will be an outstanding vintage, the best of the 2018, 2019, 2020 trilogy."
It pays to point out, that Champagne Roederer moved its pickers around extensively, to pick at the right moment. Lécaillon continued: "The greatness of this vintage is determined by when the grapes were picked. Going in too early means one lacks expression and flavor, picking too late can create heavy wines lacking tension."
At Philipponnat, harvest was stopped twice for four days each time, to pick at the optimum time. "It was the first time ever that we stopped harvest so long, but we had no choice. If we would have continued as usual, we would have missed the potential for greatness that 2020 held." As stated by Toubart, 2020 was exceptional as all grape varieties faired equally well. "We normally have one variety underperforming; this year was exceptional as all varieties had great potential."
Now that a promising crop has been brought in, many Champenois are turning their attention back to the struggling sales, especially since the appellation amount depends on the region selling 230 million bottles this year. If this does not happen, up to 1000kg of this year's commercial yield may be deferred to next year. And so far, things are not looking that promising.
Up till the end of July, only 98.7 million bottles have been sold, which is 39.1 million fewer than the same time last year. And with a second wave of the coronavirus looming in Europe, at a time when worldwide cases continue to increase relentlessly, Champagne’s future remains uncertain. Especially since many outlets where Champagne is often consumed (restaurants, night clubs, large gatherings, sports events) remain restricted or banned all together. Even Toubart, who seemed very confident in August that the region would meet the 230 million bottle target, is less assured today. "I still think we will not sell less than 200 million bottles, but it looks unlikely we will meet the 230 million target."
He admits that there is little the Champenois can do except hope for a quick release of a vaccine. He did not want to dwell on potential worst-case scenarios just yet, and instead pointed out that, so far, it seemed no grapes were left unpressed. This does not mean, however, that everyone without a contract found a buyer, or that those who did were paid the going rate. We will have to wait for till the end of the year to find out.
Still, even if Champagne's future sales remain uncertain, Champagne generally improves with age. So right now, it's time to pop the corks and toast one of the great vintages of this century. Because even for the people who picked too early, the wine will be better than it normally is.
It's just a pity that there will be 20 percent less of it than in other years.