After the bumper 2018 harvest, 2019 had a lot to live up to. Champagne journalist and author, Caroline Henry, reports back from last year’s difficult harvest, with early results indicating it could be one of the best this decade.
After the rotten 2017 vintage, and the diluted 2018, 2019 has been hailed by many as the harvest of the decade. It may be a little early to make these statements yet, but after a complicated growing season the harvest delivered beyond expectations both in terms of quality and quantity.
Climate change dominated the 2019 growing season, testing winegrowers’ patience and resilience. The last week of February was unusually balmy, with temperatures up to 20°C. Winter returned at the beginning of March, but the early heat boosted the powdery mildew virus, especially among chardonnay vines in the Côte des Blancs. Spring frosts added to the woes of the Côte des Blancs growers in April and May, while summer saw grapes withering on the vines all over the region when temperatures soared to 42.9°C. Nevertheless, the weather settled as harvest approached, and the cool nights and more moderate temperatures provided ideal conditions for grapes to ripen. Sugar levels rose rapidly at the end of August, but at the same time a good level of acidity remained. Gentle rain in late August, and heavy morning dew during harvest, further increased the bunch weight without diluting the flavours.
According to Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, cellar master at Louis Roederer, “The 2019 harvest surpassed all expectations both in terms of quality and quantity but, once again this year, the key was to pick at the right time.” This comment may have been inspired by growers precipitating to open press centres in early September, after sugar levels rose dramatically at the end of August. However, grapes did not reach phenolic ripeness at 10 or even 10.5% potential alcohol. Dominique Leboeuf, Director of the Station Oenotechnique de la Champagne, confirmed that the sensation of ripeness only occurred above 10.6% alcohol, adding that for him, the ideal picking window was between 10.5% and 11% potential alcohol. Anything above this, he feared, the wines would become too heavy. Lécaillon disagreed on the 11% limit, stating Louis Roederer had picked at higher alcohol percentages in previous years (as well as this year) with excellent result. This is corroborated by champagne expert Peter Liem, who claimed that the 2018 Roederer vins clairs “were the most elegant he ever tasted”, though many of them were picked above 11% potential alcohol.
During harvest, Leboeuf also stated that grapes picked under 10.5% potential alcohol showed some bitterness in the must, but later confirmed this disappeared during alcoholic fermentation. The resulting wines are less flavoursome than the ones picked at full ripeness, but they show the same freshness. With relatively low overall pHs, despite the intense heat this summer, Maxime Toubart, President of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons de la Champagne, compared the harvest’s quality to 2015, one of the best years this decade.
Furthermore, despite several yield losses during the growing season, Toubart confirmed the appellation requirement of 10,200 kg/ha looked to be within reach. Losses were a lot less than expected, especially in the Côte des Blancs, where the intense heat in July helped to limit powdery mildew damages. Moreover, the abundant 2018 harvest provides a buffer for growers with severe losses, allowing the 2019 harvest to be one of the most serene ones since the turn of the century.
Read more in ISSUE NO. 3 of VINE & BUBBLE Magazine.
Words by Caroline Henry
Photography supplied by Tyson Stelzer