There hasn’t been much positive news coming out of Champagne lately.
Between the pandemic and nature's recent calamities, the wine world's spotlight has somehow missed the excellent vintages that recently found their way into the labyrinth of cellars.
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Of course, the abundant and very clean 2018 vintage received its fair sharing of write-ups – to be expected after the disastrous 2017 vintage – but little has been communicated about 2019 and 2020. One reason may be the cancellation of the "professional" vins clairs (still wines before de second fermentation process) tastings, press visits and winemaker events.
Another may be that tasting vins clairs is not for the faint-hearted. They may lack the tannin of en-primeur Bordeaux, but there is more than enough acid to cause serious havoc to the taste buds. Hence, no wonder that most critics and wine writers have contented themselves with reviewing the latest finished cuvées rather than digging deeper into the last two vintages. Moreover, with the Champenois' singular focus on boosting sales, the window of opportunity to taste the still wines was firmly shut before interest could be expressed – unless one somehow could make their way into the cellar.
Living in the heart of Champagne has its advantages. First and foremost, you can live the growing season, taste the grapes on the vine and drink the juice running from the press. But most importantly, it allows you to assess the vintage potential right from the start. And afterwards there are always opportunities (even during the pandemic) to taste the wines straight from the barrel or tank, and thus follow their evolution.
The growing season in 2019 was particularly harsh on the vines, which were battered by spring frosts and early powdery mildew outbreaks in April, downy mildew outbreaks at end of May, and severe heat stress during the summer. Yet in true ironman triathlon style, the result was intense and powerful. With average alcohol levels even higher than in 2018, there was a lot of head scratching at harvest, but the resulting wines were taut, lean and characterized by an electrifying tension.
2020 on the other hand, was a year unlike any other in our lifetime. The lockdown significantly complicated the day-to-day vineyard management, even if the start of the growing season was relatively easy and unusually warm. As France exited the lockdown, things became a little more complicated for the vines. A rainy spell during the record breaking early flowering period resulted in a heterogeneous bunch-closing process. The summer was less hot than the previous year, still there were three mini-heatwaves. These, combined with the exceptionally dry spring, caused acute hydraulic stress in many vineyards.
Harvest started mid-August, the earliest recorded so far, and more often than not, plants had some bunches that had not started veraison, while the rest of the bunches had reached full ripeness. In true 2020 style, it was a harvest unlike any other.
Though different does not necessary mean inferior. Quite on the contrary, as expressed during harvest by Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, cellarmaster at Champagne Roederer, the grape juices neared perfection. Lécaillon mused that it was the first time he saw such balance between the acid and sugar levels. When asked after completing his blends if he still felt the same way, he simply answered that 2020 was the harvest of his career.
At Champagne Krug, the winemaking team was all smiles as well and claimed to be bluffed by the elegance, balance and expression of the wines.
Around 150 km south of Reims, in Urville, Champagne Drappier's Hugo Drappier was equally happy about the 2020 harvest. During harvest, he gloated about the beauty and quality of the Pinot Noir, the widest planted variety in the Cote des Bars. On the other hand, he was more anguished about the Chardonnay, which struggled to ripen. Since then he has changed tack. "We waited a long time before harvesting the Chardonnay, and all through the winter I doubted whether we should have harvested even later. The spring tastings not only confirmed we made the right decision, against all odds it seems to be yet another whites' year.
Drappier's feelings were echoed by Julie Cavil, cellar master at Krug. Like Lécaillon, she has great aspirations for the 2020 vintage, and the Chardonnays, especially from traditional Pinot Noir terroirs, have wowed her most. Still Cavil also holds a warm spot for the 2019 harvest, which was very expressive. Krug has a long history of wanting to preserve specific plot characteristics and the distinctive expressions of the 2019 vintage were a blessing for the future blends.
Fabrice Pouillon, from Champagne Pouillon et Fils, was most impressed with Les Valnons, a Chardonnay plot in the Pinot Noir village of A? in 2020. Still his overall preference goes to the more intense 2019 vintage. "The difficulties the vines experienced during the growing season created linearity and tension. The wines have an amazing freshness, and will age wonderfully." He considered 2020 to be a little rounder and more approachable, but still with an impressive finesse. Comparing both wines with the 2018 vintage, he believes the 2018 wines were more diluted and have maybe less longevity.
Pouillon muses that the visual aspect may have distorted the public opinion, especially after 2017. "In 2018, there was an abundance of grapes, and they were exceptionally beautiful. This immediately created the impression of perfection."
Delphine Richard, from Champagne Francis Boulard et Fille was blunter in her 2018 description. For her the wines were heavy, especially when compared to the following two vintages. Like Pouillon, Richard prefers the 2019 vintage for its freshness and expressiveness, though she marvels at the overall balance of the 2020 wines.
Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, at Champagne René Geoffroy, agrees with Richard on the excellent balance of 2020. Unlike the two previous years, Geoffroy started the 2020 harvest with Meunier, which ripened first. For him, the Meuniers had a wonderful summer fruit characteristic – juicy, ripe yet not cloying. However, Geoffroy believes that the biggest revelation of the past three vintages is the Coteaux Champenois potential. With most of the family vineyards in Cumières, Geoffroy comes from a long line of Coteaux makers.
"Global warming has significantly improved the growing conditions to make excellent still wine in Champagne," he explains, before adding that making Coteaux requires a significantly different vineyard approach to making Champagne. That view is shared by Lécaillon, who has been experimenting with Coteaux since 2002, but only released wines from the 2018 vintage onward.
The recent hot vintages have also created a shift back to the region's forgotten grape varieties (Fromonteau, Pinot Blanc, Arbane and Petit Meslier). Drappier has been a pioneer in experimenting with Fromenteau (Pinot Gris) and for him this grape variety is a bit like the ugly duckling turning into the swan. "Every year, we pick the grapes between 12 and 12.5 degrees potential alcohol. The pH is always relatively high and the acid significantly lower than for our other grape varieties. Looking at the figures, any enologist will tell you this wine is not suitable for Champagne. However, when tasted blind, these same enologists will put it as a top wine because of its mouthfeel and freshness."
Drappier has planted his Fromenteau in the hottest part of the family’s vineyard, yet the last two years the vines have not suffered any heat damage, while the Pinot Noir wilted on the vines.
Back in the Marne, Benoit Tarlant, winemaker at Champagne Tarlant, also planted some Fromenteau in one of the family's warmest vineyards on the steep slopes of Celles-lès-Condé. The vineyard is relatively new, compared to the Pinot Blanc, Arbane and Petit Meslier he planted in 2004 in a cooler spot in Oeuilly. Over the years Tarlant has seen these forgotten grape varieties flourish, which has encouraged him to plant more of them. Today they make up almost 10 percent of the family’s 14-hectare estate, and the family produce several different cuvées from them.