The Unvarnished Truth about the Champagne Harvest of 2016

With harvest already underway in some parts of Champagne, and others yet to start, my loyal readers ask “What’s really going on?”  “How bad will it be?”  “Will there really be a champagne shortage?”

To answer your questions, we first have to look at this year’s growing season.  Although it was fairly mild, Winter lasted quite long this year, and the Spring rains lasted even longer.  It was the worst Spring weather in 20 years, and we didn’t see many dry, sunny days until June!  This meant that mildew and rot were frequent vineyard threats since bud break in March.  Then came flowering, which allows grape berries to form once the flowers are pollinated and fertilized.  Soon we suffered the joys of hail in July, and in a matter of minutes, some vines were stripped of all their berries.

See any grapes? No, me neither.

See any grapes? No, me neither.

So what happens next?  If Mother Nature is kind, and gives us warmth and sunlight, then secondary bunches will grow on the vines.  Second growths are smaller than the first and less numerous, but they’re better than nothing.  This year, however, Mother Nature turned her back on us for a few more weeks, with near-daily rainfall, morning frost, and grey, unforgiving skies.  Secondary clusters grew on some vines, but not all.

These unfortunate events occurred throughout the Champagne region, but the Aube, the southern part of Champagne, was the hardest hit.

The CIVC, the organization that regulates champagne from vineyard to bottle to sales, set this year’s yield at 10,800 kilos/hectare (approximately 9,700 lbs/acre).  This is to be made up of 9,700 kilos from harvest, and 1,100 kilos of reserve wine.  What is reserve wine?  Well, as detailed in an earlier post, non-vintage champagne is normally composed of wines from two or more harvests, blending wine made from the current harvest with wine held back in previous years.  However, the amount of wine held in reserve varies widely.  While the large houses hold many huge tanks full of the stuff, some dating back 10 years or even more, small producers rarely have the space (or sufficient cash flow) to be able to do that.  Some hold back wine from only one or two years.  This means that, depending upon the size of their harvest, they may be able to make up the quantity lost for one or two years, but if the harvest is as small next year, or heaven-help-us the next two years, some small producers will be in deep trouble.

Not bad

Not too bad!

Not everyone will be able to harvest 9,700 kilos/hectare.  Some growers I know in the Marne Valley, not far from Epernay, expect to harvest between 8-9,000 kilos.  In the Aube, others are expecting 4,000 kilos.  Some will get only 3,000 kilos, and that’s if they are lucky.

When I was in the vineyards last week, it was truly a distressing sight to see vines without grape bunches, or with just a few, knowing that harvest is just around the corner.

Oh, and did I mention sunburn?

Oh, and did I mention sunburn?

The big houses have enough reserve wine and they buy grapes from all over the Champagne region, minimizing their risks.  There will be no shortage of big-name champagne in the foreseeable future.  Some “grower” champagne producers, however, will suffer badly.  Prices will rise, quantities will shrink, tempers will flare.

We ask the Champagne Gods for better weather next year, and a full harvest.

Champagne producers Jean-Félix Josselin and Maxime Barbichon discussing the sad state of affairs in the vineyards of the Aube

Champagne producers Jean-Félix Josselin and Maxime Barbichon discussing the sad state of affairs in their adjoining vineyards in the Aube


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