Champagne Harvest Is Set for August 20th – Earliest in 189 Years

France’s 2011 Champagne harvest is set to be the earliest in 189 years according to Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne “CIVC”. The CIVC expects picking to begin on August 20th due to an unusually warm April this year.

The local weather reports have also recorded that April and May have been exceptionally sunny with temperatures five degrees above normal, and with one of the driest springs in over half a century.

Will this year’s harvest be exceptional? Time will tell!

Champagne Harvest Comes Early

It’s official August holidays have now been cancelled Champagne in anticipation of an early harvest, possibly the earliest on record for a number of reasons.

WARM WEATHER
Due to the warm weather in March and which continues into early June has caused flowering early this year. Flowering has generally been completed before the end of May, and this year, the vines were in full flower by 21 May. Adding 92 days, the average time over the past decade in Champagne between flowering and the start of the harvest—picking could start on 22 August.

Dominique Moncomble, The Director of Technical Services at CIVC said flowering has taken place around three weeks in advance this year and was especially early in the Côte des Blancs area.

However, August is usually warmer and has more sun than September, it is possible the period between flowering may be even shorter, perhaps 80 days, which means the first grapes may be picked on August 16.

LACK OF RAIN
The lack of rain this year could also accelerate the date. Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon winemaker for Louis Roederer and Didier Mariotti, winemaker for GH Mumm are both ready to start early August, if not earlier.

The earliest harvest in the Champagne Region, on record, was during the ‘heat wave summer’ of 2003.

Photo by
Liz Palmer
May 24, 2011

CHAMPAGNE PROCEEDS WITH CAUTION :: Shipments are up, but the industry sets limits on grape yields for the 2010 harvest

People looking for signs of economic recovery watch unemployment figures or housings sales or retail figures. In the wine industry, many look to Champagne sales. Demand is increasing for Champagne in the United States. Imports from the region nearly doubled in the first two months of 2010, compared with January and February 2009. The industry is still a long way from the boom times of just a few years ago, but there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Nonetheless, Champagne producers are proceeding with caution when it comes to the bubbly supply. The Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), the industry’s regulatory body, set a maximum yield of 10,500 kilograms per hectare (4.7 tons per acre) for this year’s harvest. It’s a compromise between the region’s grapegrowers, some of whom bottle and sell Champagne themselves, and the merchant houses that purchase grapes for the bulk of their production. For growers, more grapes mean more money, while for producers, more grapes mean more wine to sell in an uncertain market when inventories in their cellars are already high.

“The growers wanted more, not only those who sell grapes but also those who produce and sell their own Champagne because they have done well so far and they do not have much reserves,” said Daniel Lorson, the CIVC’s director of communications. “On the contrary, the houses and the [cooperatives] wanted a lower level—below 10,000 kilograms per hectare—so the level that has been set is a compromise.” Last year the yields were limited to 9,700 kg/ha (4.33 tons/acre).

Despite the limit, the estimated crop level for the 2010 harvest is 14,000 kg/ha (6.2 tons/acre). That guarantees a complex scenario for the region come harvest time. Each producer is allowed to harvest grapes in excess of maximum yields and set aside the wine for use in future years, but the amount of reserves is currently limited to 8,000 kg/ha. Most big producers already have the maximum allowed stock of reserve wines or are close to the maximum, thanks to slower sales in the past three years.

So what happens to the surplus grapes? “The 10,500 kg/ha limit is based on the needs of the region as a whole,” said Sam Heitner, spokesperson for the Champagne Bureau, the representative of the CIVC in the United States. “The CIVC updates this limit every year based on the supply situation. Some years it has been higher and other years it has been lower.”

“As a decision on the amount allowed to go into the reserves will take place at a later date, we cannot provide the total harvest per hectare today. However, it is common practice in years with low harvest limits for the Champenoise to pick the best grapes out of each parcel to go toward the limit and the reserve wines and then leave the remaining grapes in the field to nurture the vines.”

The decision to limit the harvests both last year and now this year has stabilized grape prices. Stéphane Coquillette, a small grower in Chouilly, said he was pleased with this year’s increase over 2009 yields but, more important, the stability in the price of grapes.

Louis Roederer’s chef de cave, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, echoed Coquillette’s sentiment. “At Roederer, we think 10,500 or 11,000 kg/ha was the right decision, with a stable price for grapes, as our crop estimation in our vineyard is 11,500 kg/ha,” he said. “If everything goes well [with the weather], every grower should reach the maximum 8,000 kg/ha reserve qualitative individuelle at the end of harvest 2010.”

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, owner of Champagne Taittinger, said there were still a few details to work out regarding the CIVC’s decisions, but he did not elaborate. Taittinger was, however, pleased with the increase in demand for bubbly. “As far as Taittinger is concerned, shipments for the first six months of the year are very good all over the world,” he said. “I think that the quality of the wines, the identity of the brand and the efficiency of the distribution network are paying. The value of the dollar versus the euro is helping obviously.”

The strength of the dollar against the euro recently has certainly helped sales of Champagne in the U.S. Xavier Barlier, vice president of marketing and communication for Maisons Marques & Domaines, Roederer’s U.S. subsidiary, also cited this as a factor in his Champagne house’s recent success.

The CIVC’s Lorson, though optimistic, remains cautious. “At the moment we are enjoying growth. We do not know if it is a steady recovery,” he said. “The situation is better than a year ago, because the destocking is over in most of our export markets. But the consumers are still trading down, which is not good for those who had based their prosperity on premium and superpremium cuvées.”

There is still a long climb for Champagne to reach 2006’s peak of 23.2 million bottles shipped to the U.S. “Our industry is very much dependent on the global economic situation, today more than ever,” said Lorson.

Wine Spectator