Words by Abhi Ayare
Australian bushfires, Kobe’s death, a powerful B.L.M movement and CORONAVIRUS (In Cardi B’s voice) has been a year which has woken everyone up whilst shutting everything down. But as Lucy Edwards, the champagne nerd, declares, “Champagne is not cancelled”.
Global warming? Zero Dosage champagnes? Are these trends or are these concerns? Champagne has faced some of the most grueling challenges throughout the times, but if we take a leaf out of Lily Bollinger's book, we shouldn't be concerned;
“I only drink champagne when I am happy, and when I am sad. Sometimes, I drink it when I am alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it unless I’m thirsty”
and I rightfully agree, because in my case, my life motto is aligned and is as easy as;
“I only drink champagne on two occasions: When it is my birthday. And when it is not!”
Although my personal consumption mirrors that of Lily Bollinger's and the number of bottles I open definitely contributes to bolstering the Champagne economy, with the quarantined champagne vintage of 2020 there are some major challenges ahead. Obviously, it was almost impossible to travel to Champagne, and trade was brought to a standstill for many months, but thanks to technology, the wine world was brought closer to the region. Zoom masterclasses were a great way to connect to champagne houses as most of the Chef de Caves and growers took time out of their busy schedules to educate the world on champagne and the need for it.
Soup of the day: Champagne
I had an opportunity to speak to Olivier Krug (sixth generation of the Krug family) from Champagne Krug and Jean-Marc Sélèque from Champagne J.M. Sélèque about the 2020 vintage.
Olivier explains that so far,
”The spring was beautiful where a good rainfall followed in early winter and while the vintage was dry, sunny, perfect conditions for early flowering, almost no diseases, harvest could be one of the earliest ones but yet summer is unpredictable”.
On the other hand, Jean Marc highlights that so far;
“Vintage 2020 looks great (touchwood). As the region had a really wet winter 2019-2020 with the rain of 1 year (600mm-700mm) in 5 months, the reserve of water in the soil was already high and given the warm temperatures during February and March, the vines started early. However, on a positive note, the vine cycle had no big perturbations so far, a small spring frost occurred but no damages at all. In May, a little bit of cold temperatures made the vines a bit lazy but since the last month, the cycle is perfectly smooth. Blooming has occurred in good conditions and they are close to the cluster closing”.
Meunier clusters at Champagne J.M. Sélèque
While these are signs of a pronounced vintage, the main concern is the early harvest as every vintage started in August (including August 2017 and August 2018) has made the harvest very difficult to manage. The hot nights have been burning the acid and instead increasing sugar levels. For example, Jean Marc explains that last year, they had fresh nights in mid to late September to slowly mature flavors in the grapes while preserving freshness and balance. Due to the concern of the early harvest, the champagne house of J.M. Sélèque has adapted the way they run their vineyards by slowing down the cycle of the vine with grass competition or by raising the canopy higher to preserve the grapes from sunburn.
Higher canopies at Champagne J.M. Sélèque
It's getting a bit hot out here!
Global warming is a definite challenge for all the winegrowers around the world and while some regions are benefiting from it, there could be real concerns for some prestigious regions. Every champagne house has their own way of adapting to the conditions, and while no year in Champagne is same, Champagne Frerejean Frères explained that their way of tackling global warming is to listen to the vineyards. "We begin with the earth" says Rodolphe Frerejean-Taittinger. They have always used a low-chemical approach and avoid any sort of pesticides. Also, the water-management plan for the house where they recycle their water and resources assists them in sticking to the basics. The house of Frerejean Frères is usually a late picker in the Côte des Blancs, and since harmonizing acidity and sugar is critical, the current Chef de Cave Didier Pierson will make sure that he hits the bullseye every time. From mid-August, Didier will visit each vineyard day-by-day, tasting until he is satisfied and once the horn is blown, the whole team is ready. While Guillame and Rodolphe Frerejean Taittinger will assist Didier in the winery prior to the harvest, the entire team of pickers including the staff from the Paris office get their hands dirty down in the vineyards. The house estimates their current harvest date between 7th - 20th September keeping the CIVC stipulations in mind.
How could you leave Côte des Bar behind?
Hugo Drappier from Champagne Drappier was kind enough to give their point of view on the vintage. Hugo agrees as well, that the vineyards in Aube have never been in better conditions. Even in the zero fungicide vineyards of the Drappier family, there have been no disease symptoms such as mildew or powdery mildew. However, around the second week of June, there was a little hail in a part of their block. The temperatures in the Aube did come down to 0°C (as usual) but experienced no frost while some other parts in Champagne did. Despite these cold temperatures, Hugo has an impression that while the harvest will start in August and most of the champagne houses will pick up their grapes before August is over, it is still unpredictable.
Organic Arbane in the Drappier vineyards
A pinot noir bunch affected by hailstorm in Drappier’s vineyard.
The Last Dance
Family Clouet from Champagne André Clouet explained to me that the temperatures of the spring were very unusual and in saying that, Spring 2020 was one of the warmest recorded in France since the start of the meteorological measurements, just behind the spring of 2011. While a study explains that there is a definitive link between the temperatures of the previous year and the yield of the crop of the current year, we all need to understand that global warming in
Champagne is a fact. The Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, the governing body for the winegrowers in Champagne, stated that in the past thirty years, temperatures have increased by almost 1.2°C and the dates of the flowering and harvest have been brought forward by two weeks. With the diseases limited for 2020, the grapes are numerous. Consequently, as sales are also down, C.I.V.C may decide a drastic drop in the marketable yield of 2020, well below 10,000 kg per hectare.
"Yields are yet to be announced but rumours of 6,000 or 7,000 kg per hectare have been circulating. This is a subject of great debate in the region and puts a key challenge into perspective: How do we balance the economy of champagne in these uncertain times, and at the same time make the most of bountiful Mother Nature?" says Lucy Edwards. "Anything over the designated yield cannot be classified as AOC Champagne, which means that 2 or 3 tonnes per hectare could go to waste. On the other hand, many houses have multi-annual agreements with growers, meaning that they will be paying for over 10 tonnes per hectare, but in reality receiving much less".
While I discuss the conditions of year 2020 giving everyone a bit of hope for a great vintage, the important thing is that the Summer has only just begun. The final result is unpredictable and all we can do is pray. The imperative question here is how the precious zingy acidity of Champagne can be preserved over the years while adapting to anew climate. Viticulture by its nature is complicated.
But complications give birth to new ideas. Ideas fuel unity in groups. Currently growers are banding together towards a sustainable goal. Innovation is necessary. Champagne is important. And even if the whole world comes down, then what better way to enjoy it with a bottle of Champagne on your table. Because as Mr. Churchill famously said,
“In victory, we deserve Champagne, and in defeat, we need it!”
Abhi was born in Mumbai & hails from the great vintage of 1999. Over the past 4 years he has worked with some of the most influential Australian wine professionals & some of the finest champagne lists in Sydney like the Park Hyatt & The Coogee Wine Room. He has become truly passionate about Burgundy, Riesling & of course champagne. When he is not working with wine, he can be found indulging in fine single-malts & writing poetry.