Deciding Champagne yields each year is a complicated process. A multitude of factors are taken into consideration, involving a network of industry stakeholders, to determine quantity. In doing so, the industry must find its balance between meeting future demand and satisfying quality objectives.
The Champagne appellation is governed by the strictest quality control rules applied to any wine producing region in the world. Harvest is a meticulously choreographed exercise, rolled out as a series of heavily regulated processes, with the ultimate objective of ‘having man and nature play their parts to preserve the unique characteristics of a grape that is the essence of terroir and the origin of the wine, champagne’, at least according to the industry’s trade representative, the Comité Champagne.
Whilst quality objectives drive the regulation and compliance requirements of the region, there is also a commercial reality for France’s second most in-demand alcoholic beverage (after Cognac) with shipments by volume continuing to trend upwards. Harvest yields, therefore, play a critical role in judiciously balancing the mandate for quality with trade.
The legal base yield in Champagne is fixed by the INAO (Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité) and defined as 10,400kg of grapes per hectare of which juice extraction is limited to 102 litres of must per 160kg of grapes, or 66.5 hectolitres her hectare. This is revisable up or down on the advice of the Comité Champagne. Yield, therefore, becomes a two-step process defined initially by weight at picking and then by volume at press.
These rules of ratio are unique in the world of wine; no other wine producing region mandates this level of control using a two-step process. However, because good champagne needs a creamy, delicate mousse (which is dependent on purity of juice, long lees ageing and fine bubbles) and fresh acidity, tiny solids from grape pulp and skins must be avoided.
In reality, rules of extraction make actual yield just 64% of the bunch weight harvested. This is reduced again when separating the ‘cuvée’ (first pressing) from the ‘taille’ (second pressing), which sees 2,050 litres from 4,000kg of grapes portioned off as the best juice.
Many top producers use only the cuvée or the cuvée plus a small fraction of the taille before selling the rest. Thus the amount of juice that can be pressed from grapes is an important control point in the yielding process.
Base yields, accordingly, set the maximum for what may be turned into champagne as soon as possible and become very important in meeting future worldwide demand in 15 months (for non-vintages) or three years (for a vintage), following the compulsory maturation period.
To balance the needs of growers and producers with demand from global markets and quality, annual yield figures are recommended by the Observatoire Économique (organised by the Comité Champagne) based on observed sales figures alongside the current stock of reserve wine, bottles ageing and predicted sales. The task is set each year to marry production with demand; ensuring vignerons offload grapes and maximise profits while making sure producers aren’t oversupplied, resulting in excess inventory.
Not everything harvested gets converted into champagne straight away. Reserve stocks are a necessary consideration each year, legally obligating producers to set aside a percentage of their yield from each harvest as a kind of insurance against future poor years (such as in 2001, 2003, 2011 and 2017, in more recent times). By way of example, in 2018, which was a very abundant year, the base yield was set at 10,800kg/ha. 400kg/ha of this comprised existing reserve stock which meant 10,100kg/ha of grapes could be picked to make champagne from that vintage.
However, there is a nuance in all of this. Permission may be granted to allow some flexibility in yield. An ‘upper limit’ may be set depending on the quality and quantity of the yield but capped at 15,500kg/ha, or 100 hectolitres per hectare.
For the 2018 vintage, the upper limit was set at the allowable 15,500kg/ha, so the 4,700kg/ha difference between the base and the upper needed to go into reserve holdings.
Quality is therefore an important consideration in yield decisions. Monitoring ripening of vineyard plots is the responsibility of Réseau Matu (ripening observation network) comprising volunteer professionals from the Champagne region. 450 control plots are monitored twice weekly, as grapes start to change colour (véraison). Grapes are picked, weighed and pressed then checked for estimated sugar and total acidity as well as any indication of grey rot. Dates for harvest, according to ripeness and acidity, are ultimately determined from this process.
In another example, but on the other end of the spectrum, the 2017 harvest was a very challenging one whereby the entire appellation’s average yield reached 9,500kg/ha; considerably less than the yield set of 10,300kg/ha. A release of 500kg/ha was allowed from the reserve (taking the allowable total to 10,800kg/ha). Yet many producers still fell well short of desired supply.
Restricting yields creates a genuine shortage of champagne to sell, fueling increases in the price per kilo as producers compete for supply. This can result in price hikes passed onto customers. Conversely, increasing yields may ease the pressure on the price per kilo (in good years) but quality can suffer.
Yield decisions are therefore important in the context of producing enough current and reserve wines, as their combined security and release meets market expectations especially during periods of exceptional demand.
Read more in ISSUE NO. 3 of VINE & BUBBLE Magazine.
Words by Sara Underdown
Photography by Tyson Stelzer