Champagne Faces Another Challenging Vintage

Heat, rain, frost and sliding sales are all weighing on the minds of Champagne's producers and growers.

Climate change has become a fact in the Champagne region, with increasing temperatures from summer to summer, but this year has reached new heights.

At the end of July, at the height of this growing season's second heatwave, temperatures broke all previous records, exceeding 40°C for two consecutive days across the region and registering up to 43°C in some places. Even though climate change has been on the Comité Champagne's (CIVC) agenda for a while, it was brushed over in the region's first harvest meeting, held at the peak of the heat wave.

Traditionally representatives of growers and houses use the meeting to exchange issues encountered during the growing season so far and to establish the desired yield. Yet, it is undeniable that climate change is at the heart of growers' concerns in 2019.

The season's issues began at the end of February, when temperatures attained a balmy 20°C for a few days. This unusual wave of warm weather so early in the growing season seemed to have boosted the powdery mildew (oidium) fungi, especially on Chardonnay vines. Jean-Baptiste Robinet, co-owner of Champagne Aurore Casanova, reported to have seen the tell-tale white spots from the first leaves, predominantly in the Côte des Blancs. Besides the bout of early spring weather, Robinet attributes the disease to the fact that the vines were weakened by last year's extremely abundant harvest, which officially yielded 19,800 kg/ha across the region, hence attaining the absolute maximum authorized by the INAO (Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualité).

He further added that, in many cases, the disease remained unnoticed because of its unusually early appearance. "While we treat early for [downy] mildew in Champagne, oidium treatments usually only start when we have more leaf cover."

Robinet aims to limit chemical input in his vines and therefore emphasizes preventative treatments based on observation and analysis.

Thibaut le Mailloux, communications director of the CIVC, confirmed to Wine-Searcher that "2019 will be a powdery mildew year", but he refuted the claim that the disease was caused by overcropping last year.

The growers' woes continued in April when a series of spring frosts hit the region in the first half of April, with temperatures dropping as low as -7.8°C, resulting in 2.5 percent of the appellation suffering severe damage.

Extensive rain during May and the beginning of June saw growers fighting off early downy mildew symptoms, in which they were luckily assisted by the first heatwave hitting the region in June. According to Etienne Sandrin, a biodynamic grower in Celles-sur-Ource, the unusual hot weather stumped the fungi's development and dried out the disease.

The second heatwave, which took place at the end of July, dried out quite a bit of Sandrin's grapes, which literally got sunburnt. Another biodynamic producer, Olivier Horiot, from Champagne Horiot, provided Wine-Searcher the results of the heat damage survey undertaken by the Chambre d'Agriculture de l'Aube for the Groupements d'Intérêt Economique et Environnemental (GIEE) Avenir en Côte des Bar, which encompasses 30 hectares of vines owned by Elise Dechannes, Florent Grados, Didier Goussard, Eric Collinet, Pascal Bonnet and Horiot.

The results clearly show that heat damage affected more than two-thirds of the vineyards, with a total yield loss of about 30 percent. Horiot explained that black varieties suffered significantly more than white ones (hence the notable impact in the Aube which is predominantly planted with Pinot Noir). Another observation is that conventional overcropped vines with a heavy reliance on fertilizers seem to have fared much better, thanks to their thicker leaf cover. This could be a reason why Le Mailloux declared that grapes lost to heat damage were negligible at appellation level.

© Etienne Sandrin | Red varieties were particularly hard hit by the heat, especially the Aube subregion.

© Etienne Sandrin | Red varieties were particularly hard hit by the heat, especially the Aube subregion.

In mid-August tragedy struck again when several severe hailstorms hit the Côte des Blancs, further impacting the yields in certain vineyards.

All these challenges have further weakened the vines and several growers have voiced fears of heavy rainfall during harvest, which is predicted to start between September 10 and 15. According to Horiot: "heavy rain closer or during harvest would almost certainly result in botrytis problems, like what happened in 2011".

Sandrin deplored the complications due to climate change, expressing sadness at the region's determination to hang on to chemical farming and soil exploitation. "The problem today is the survival of our planet earth. The heatwaves we are experiencing are harbingers which many of us prefer to ignore."

Parallel to the complicated growing season, further misfortune can be found in the shrinking Champagne sales volumes.

According to Maxime Toubart, president of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons (SGV) and co-president of the CIVC, this is driven by the continuing declining French Champagne sales compounded with the Brexit uncertainties. France and the UK remain Champagne's largest volume markets, hence the significant impact of the reclining sales in both markets. Toubart told Wine-Searcher that he does not imagine this will correct itself in the short term, expecting more losses in light of the uncertain global economic climate.

The acceptance of the waning sales is also reflected in the maximum sellable yield set by the CIVC, which at 10,200 kg/ha is the lowest in a decade, and down by 600 kg/ha from last year. In Champagne, the yields are determined by the sales forecasts and are raised or lowered to meet market demands. Le Mailloux pointed out that if sales were to suddenly pick up, Champagne would be able to meet the demands due to the extensive reserves (covering about 4.5 years of sales).

Le Mailloux further stressed that the lower yield would allow growers to focus on quality and he reiterated that losses suffered during the growing season could easily be replaced by wines of the Individual Reserve (RI), which is close to the allowed maximum of 8000 kg/ha. The RI consists of extra grapes harvested in abundant year (last year up to 4700 kg/ha) to make up for grape losses in future years, and should also be used to replace disease infected juice/wine.

Toubart confirmed this but admitted that, unlike for botrytis, there is no tool to test for powdery mildew when grapes are delivered to the press centers. He added that the onus for grape quality therefore falls on the grape grower, who since last year has to fill in a short quality survey on the Bon de Livraison, which accompanies his grapes, and also on the press center accepting the grapes. Like every year, all growers and press centers will receive visual references as to what is acceptable and what not. However, in a system remunerated by the kilo at every level, it unlikely that quality will be preferred to quantity, even with full reserves.

Luckily, last year's extensive harvest means many houses and growers still have extra tanks of Vin Ordinaire (VO), awaiting to be delivered to the distillery in November. This wine can be interchanged for powdery mildew infested juice if needed, without having to touch the RI. Many growers do not see why they should dip in their RI buffer, when houses are prepared to buy their less-than-average-quality grapes.

In December 2018, Jean-Marie Barrillère, president of the Unions des Maisons de Champagne and co-president of the CIVC, declared that houses would be more vigilant to the quality of grapes they would purchase and would reassert their right to refuse inferior grapes.

We will see shortly if houses really will put their money where their mouths are.

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