Jiles's Blog

Who Am I?

17 years spent living and working in Champagne has allowed Jiles to build up a vast amount of knowledge about all things bubbly as well as a very extensive network of contacts, especially amongst the smaller and less well-known champagne makers whose champagnes will probably amaze you with their quality and diversity.

A job as area manager for Asia and Australia with Moët et Chandon was what first drew Jiles to Champagne after completing an MBA in Luxury Brand Management at ESSEC, a prestigious business school just outside Paris.

After nearly 9 years at Moët Jiles moved back to the UK where he started one of the first online businesses promoting and selling grower champagnes,

However the draw of ‘The King of Wines and the Wine of Kings’ once again proved irresistible and another 8 year stay in Champagne was the result. During this second stay in Champagne Jiles worked with the Syndicat Général des Vignerons de Champagne as an accedited consultant for small, independent champagne makers before setting up his own consultancy.

Jiles now spends his time between England and Champagne.and puts his knowledge and contacts to work helping wine lovers everywhere learn more about champagne and helping businesses and individuals to create their own private champagne brand.

He is the author of two books on champagne, several concise guides to champagne  and is the creator of an online champagne study course called My Champagne Expert

 


 

Champagne Bulletin May 2020

Champagne Bulletin May 2020

The easy stuff

The 3 Saints Glaces in mid-May (the three saint’s days after which tradition has it that the risk of frost has passed) have come and gone without incident and the vines are developing nicely with flowering expected any day now. By the time you read this, it may well have taken place already.

The date of flowering gives a good indicator of the date when harvesting will start.

Flowering July 1st 2013 Another traditional adage – there are lots of them when it comes to farming and the weather -  says that picking will start 100 days after flowering, however, these days as a result of the warmer temperatures over the past decade and more, it is more accurate to assume 90 days from flowering to harvest. That would bring us to another early harvest possibly before the end of August. Until a few years ago an August harvest was almost unheard of, but it seems that the champenois may have to get used to them.

 Now it gets more difficult

However, the main topic of discussion in Champagne at the moment is not the date of this year’s harvest but the size of it. What will be the permitted yield per hectare when it is announced in due course?

In normal times, the decision about the permitted yield is taken by representatives of the main players in the industry with a view to maintaining supply of champagne in line with market demand and thereby maintaining stable prices

Sales of champagne have been declining slightly for a few years now and dipped just under the psychologically significant barrier of 300 million bottles last year.

 This, coupled with the COVID 19 crisis, means that demand is down, and that grape buyers, predominantly the big houses - in particular, the Moët Hennessy group - will not be wanting to purchase more grapes than they need in a declining market. To do so would risk seeing their stocks ballooning and their costs doing the same and, as I alluded to above, a large surplus of supply over demand would put severe downward pressure on the price of champagne which is the last thing that anyone in Champagne wishes after many years’ effort to bring about exactly the reverse.

Two measures towards price stability

  • To avoid prices falling, a temporary ban has been declared on the sales of what are called vins sur latte. These are bottles already maturing in a champagne maker’s cellars which can be sold on to another champagne maker for the buyer to complete the ageing and sell the champagne under their own brand name.

 A galleryThe practice is frowned upon by some because the champagne is not sold by the person who originally blended and bottled it. On the other hand it can be a lifeline for a seller in need of cash  and a real bargain for the buyers because vins sur latte are often sold at discounted prices

With plenty of champagne makers in financial difficulty right now and in need of funds, the ban was introduced to prevent a flood of cheap bottles becoming available which might eventually find their way on to the retail market at knock down prices

  • Another tool to manage supply and demand is regulating the yield per hectare that is allowed to be picked at harvest time.

Last year is was 10,200 kg per hectare and at this level both sellers and buyers are content in a normal year

A very approximate calculation shows that with about 34,000 hectares of vines under cultivation in Champagne and with a yield of 10,200 kg per hectare, roughly 350 million kg of grapes would be harvested: enough to make about 285 million bottles of champagne – pretty much in line with the 297 million bottles shipped in 2019.

But how many grapes would be needed if shipments fell to 250 million bottles in 2020, or even to 200 million?

There has been talk of the yield being reduced to near 8,000 kg per hectare and in some quarters a figure of just 5,200 kg/hectare has been mentioned.La Pesée by Computer 3

That might suit the buyers’ need to control their stocks to cope with what they hope will be a temporary drop in demand, but at that level grape growers couldn’t even cover their costs and for many of them such a decision would spell disaster.

Here we enter the realms of conspiracy theories because if there were to be a series of bankruptcies who would be first in line to buy up the vineyards? Could that be the big groups such as Mpët Hennessy who have long been on the lookout for more vineyards?

For their part, the growers point out that the decision makers must keep in mind that bottles put into the cellars now will not be sold for 2 or 3 years at the very least, and if the market recovers as hoped, all those bottle will be needed - this is not the time to cut back too drastically, they say.

Taking the right decision is a complex balancing act and one that, to a lesser extent, is played out every year, but 2020 is nothing like a normal year and the stakes are much higher than usual. The debate is animated to say the least, and it will be fascinating to see how the situation develops.

On a more positive note, people still celebrate with champagne

Lockdown rules are beginning to be relaxed in France and the French have turned to champagne to celebrate, and even to anticipate, the occasion. According to the market research company Nielsen, on May 9th – two days before the new rules came into effect - off-premise sales of champagne rose by 74%

Not enough to compensate for the huge loss of sales in bars and restaurants, but a sign that there is reason to hope for a recovery in the coming few months.

Espionage in Champagne

I’m not sure what the appropriate reaction to this story should be: amusement or sympathy?

SpiesA champagne maker has been swindled out of £120,000 and many thousands of bottles of champagne by criminals who assured him that the money and bottles were needed as part of  elaborate spy missions linked to former US president Barack Obama and other highly placed people in the world of politics and in the film industry.

Although the story has only come to light recently, the scam started back in 2007 and only ended when the champagne maker went bankrupt in 2012.

 It’s a sad ending to a bizarre story and only goes to prove that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

Jiles Halling

May 2020

Champagne Bulletin April 2020

Champagne Bulletin April 2020

Green shoots?

The first tentative signs of life and business getting back to normal are beginning to be seen in Champagne.

The French government has said that people will soon be able to travel within 100 kilometres of their homes without the need for papers to justify their journey and the EU is saying that business travel will be allowed to resume in the near future, but this does not yet apply to travel for personal reasons which will still be subject to the 100 kilometre rule mentioned above.

Still, this is a small step in the right direction and the tourism industry in general, into which the Champagne region has invested a great deal of time and money in recent years, is starting to look forward to the time when something like normal operations will be able to resume. Whether this will be in time to save something of the summer season remains to be seen.

Tourism

Pommery 640Meanwhile, Champagne Pommery has announced that cellars visits will reopen on Monday 11th May, albeit with a number of restrictions. There will be no personal guides. Instead visitors will have an audio-visual guide they carry around with them and the, now standard, rules about distancing will be applied.

Pommery says that the re-opening is as much to do with giving local people something to do to raise their spirits after many weeks of confinement at home, as being a commercial decision. Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome move that others will no doubt follow in the near future.

Smaller wineries don’t have the resources to provide audio visual visits and they remain closed for wine tourism, but some of those I have been in contact with say that they are re-opening for orders and shipments particularly to export markets.

The rest of the year

Thoughts are now turning to the rest of the year and especially to the harvest and to the crucial end of the year period.

Dealing with the second of these two topics first, one small ray of light is that well over 50% of champagne sales are made in the final few weeks of each year. This holds out the possibility of the year’s trading being rescued, to some degree, by a strong year end. For the time being, this remains no more than a hope, but you can be sure that, as soon as circumstances permit, all efforts will be focused on the vital final quarter of the year.

Harvesting at JM Tissier 640As regards the harvest, the current state of growth in the vineyards suggest that the harvest will be earlier than usual, perhaps even as early as late August. Although this is unusual, it can be managed without any undue difficulty as long as the social distancing rules are in longer in place. On the other hand, if they are, it is not clear how the harvest could be managed because in Champagne picking is still done manually by teams of pickers working in close proximity.

 

That leaves another and much more problematic issue which is the size of the harvest.                            

 

One of the reasons for the continued prosperity of Champagne has been the fact that, over the years,  supply has been kept more or less in line with demand thanks to the voluntary agreement between grape growers and grape buyers upon the size of each year’s harvest. The yield has to satisfy the growers need to make a living and the buyers need to keep grape purchases in line with bottle sales so as to avoid fluctuations in stock and hence in champagne prices.

Last year’s shipments (297 million bottles in total) showed a decrease versus 2018 and confirmed the downwards trend of the past few years. A fall in shipments puts downward pressure on the size of the agreed yield for each year’s harvest, but there is a limit below which disaster looms for the grape growers.

This limit is generally considered to be about 8,000 kg per hectare, but if sales don’t start to get back to normal fairly soon, even this amount could be under threat.

There will no doubt be animated discussions in the weeks and months ahead between the bodies representing the different sides of this equation. Initial remarks by the president of the growers association suggest that shipments as low as 250 million bottles might be managed, but if shipments were to drop to, say, only 200 million bottles, some drastic and unprecedented action would be required. Moreover, he insists that the burden of the problem must not fallen entirely on the shoulders of the growers.

There is not much more to say other than “Watch this space”

The Special Easter 2020 online Fizz Quiz

2020 Easter Fizz Quiz 640And now for something completely different!

The Special Easter 2020 online Fizz Quiz

Most of us will be at home anyway this Easter, but that doesn't mean we can't all have some fun together with other champagne lovers around the world. So we've decided to organize and on-line champagne quiz on Sunday 12th April

We'll have prizes and surprises so why not test your skills and see how many of the quesitons you can answer correctly.

We'll have some evil ones to test the most experienced amongst you and also some more gentle questions if you're not an expert, so don't be shy - come and join in

Here's the link to get further details, including the time we'll be going live in your time zone, and to register to save your place.and IT's all totally free, so go ahead and register now.

REGISTER HERE

Looking forward to seeing you then

,Keep safe and healthy

 

 

Champagne Bulletin for March 2020

So, what’s been going on in Champagne these past few weeks?


Well you might think that the answer is ‘Not a lot’ but that’s not strictly true


Be careful what you do in the vineyards
Planting on your ownWork in the vineyards is still going on particularly the planting of new vines which is a critical job at this time of year, although a whole raft of regulations has been issued about ‘social distancing. Fortunately, that’s easier in the open air where there is plenty of space, than in the winery or offices.


Still on the subject of the vineyards, the buds have burst already – at least two weeks earlier than normal. This could be problematic if we get a spell of cold weather and early morning frost which, past experience suggests, is highly likely in the next few weeks.


Be careful what you say on social media
DeutzYou may also have heard of the debacle that occurred at Champagne Deutz: the son of the president of the company went on social media and accused the Chinese of starting the whole corona virus crisis and demanding that Chinese goods be boycotted and other similar suggestions. The backlash in China was immediate and just as vehement as you might imagine and it was a boycott of Champagne Deutz that they were demanding.


Such was the furore that the president of Deutz had to issue a formal apology to calm the situation. It remains to be seen how effective this will be.


Some good news amongst all the gloom
The UK has not been a great market for champagne over the past few years and the market lost the No.1 in value export market status it had held for many years, however things may not be as bad as they seem, even in the current crisis. The president of the Champagne Agents’ Association reports that although shipment volumes increased by only 0.8% in 2019, the value increased by 6.2% to a total value of €431,000.


It’s high-end champagnes that are driving this growth and what’s more, the same trend continued in the first two months of 2020. As for the next few months, all bets are off for the time being.


Recognition for Ratafia
Finally, some news about something that you may not know much about.


Ratafia has finally been recognised as a product of the Champagne region.


What is ratafia? It’s made from the excess juice taken from the press at harvest time to which is added eau-de-vie champenois; this prevents the grape juice from fermenting and adds alcohol to produce a fortified drink of about 18 % abv


It’s quite sweet, very easy to drink and has quite a kick to it. Almost all champagne makers produce a ratafia and you’ll have no difficulty finding it when next you visit Champagne.


Concerted efforts are now afoot to promote ratafia more widely. Here's a short video about the ratafia made by Champagne Moussé Fils


Let’s hope for more good news in April, but that remans a hope rather than an expectation.

 

Until then, stay healthy

Short and long term impact of corona virus on Champagne

Some of the consequences are obvious and common to all sorts of industries:


- employees unable to come to work,
- customers cancelling orders,
- cash running out and
- activity grinding to a halt.


Social distancing in the vineyardsMore specifically, in Champagne a special derogation has been given to vineyard workers so that they can tend the vines. Without this essential work now and in the coming weeks, come September the harvest itself would be put at risk. Fortunately, it’s easy to maintain social distancing in the vineyards and most people work on their own anyway.


Another worry that already upon some champagne makers and which is looming ever closer for others, is what to do about bottling.
Many vignerons, especially the smaller ones, call upon a contractor to bring in and set up the bottling equipment. Since it is only needed for two or three days a couple of times per year, it’s not worth the vigneron investing in the equipment his or herself. At the moment however the contractors aren’t working or can’t work. But the champagne still needs bottling.

Chaine de Tirage 640
It won’t spoil if it’s left a few more weeks or months on lees, but everyone is hoping that in a few months’ time things will be getting back to something like normal and that they will be able to start selling again. To do that however they have to have the bottles ready and you can’t just turn on a tap and produce that stock because, after bottling, the champagne needs to rest for several weeks or months before being released for sale. So, the window for getting the bottling done is getting ever smaller if the producers are to be ready for the recovery when it comes.


So much for the immediate worries, although there are many others I haven’t mentioned, but what about the longer-term impact of corona virus?
As some wise person once said, ‘It’s difficult to predict, especially about the future’, so any ideas can only be speculation, but a couple of things are likely to be affected


This year’s harvest.


GrapesWith sales taking a big hit at the moment, it’s likely that a large harvest will not be needed this year. The big buyers (the négoces) will have adequate stock in their cellars to meet demand when the markets get going again and won’t want to buy as many grapes as they would do in a normal year.
That’s potentially very bad news for many grape growers and champagne houses who rely on selling a significant proportion of their harvest to the big houses. The livelihood of these, usually smaller, growers depends on there being a healthy balance between the volume they sell and the price per kilo they get paid. If either one is out of whack, they could face serious problems.


So, what about the other side of the equation: the price of grapes?


If the demand for grapes goes down this year the price per kilo will probably go down as well, or at least not increase. On the one hand that might be seen as a good thing because the price of grapes in Champagne is notoriously high - between 6-7 euros per kilo and sometimes even more, but falling prices are a problem for those who sell grapes.


It’s also not beyond the bounds of possibility that to bring in some much-needed revenue that the growers might accept even lower prices from buyers in a position of strength.


Whilst none of this is certain, what does seem inevitable is that those in a weak financial position now will be under even more pressure come the end of the year.
Will this mean some growers and perhaps some houses going out of business? Perhaps.


Will some small operators be obliged to sell their vineyards, and will it be the big brands with resilient finances that snap them up? More than likely.


What will that do to the balance of power between small operations who traditionally own the majority of the land and the large operations who already control the lion’s share of sales and who are always looking to buy more vines?


For the time being there are only questions and no sure answers, but the effects of corona virus on Champagne are likely to be felt for months if not years to come.