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 July 2020

The big news this month is that’s there’s no news

GridlockFor first time for as long as I can remember and, I suspect, for as long as anyone can remember, the expected announcement about the permitted yield for this year’s harvest in Champagne, was not made.

If you have been following previous bulletins you will recall that the size of each year’s harvest is usually agreed between, on the one hand, the large ‘ Maisons’ who account for the majority of grape purchases each year, and who want to keep their purchases in line with the number bottles they believe that can sell – thus keeping their stocks nicely balanced – and on the other hand, the Vignerons, the small grape growers who need to sell as many grapes as they can in order to cover their costs and make a decent living.

The announcement was be to be made on July 22nd, but instead a statement was issued by the president of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons de la Champagne (SGV) accusing the ‘Maisons’ of focusing solely on their ‘selfish’ objective of reducing their stocks and ignoring the wider interests of the wider Champagne community.

Some people of a cynical disposition suggest that the ‘Maisons’ are deliberately trying to force down the size of the harvest so as to drive some small grape growers out of business and then buy up their vineyards at fire sale prices.

Be that as it may, a further attempt to reach an agreement will be made in the coming days and weeks, but it needs to come sooner rather than later because it will be another early harvest this year with picking starting before the end of August, so the pressure on the negotiators is increasing with every passing week.

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Meanwhile the disagreement between the SGV and the VIC (Les Vignerons Indépendents de Champagne) gets worse – see last month’s bulletin.

ExitYou may recall that the president of the VIC was dissatisfied with the way the SGV was representing the members of the VIC in the discussions about the authorised yield for this year’s harvest and that, in protest, he  instructed VIC members to suspend payment of their subscriptions to the SGV.

The SGV has now hit back and told the VIC to immediately vacate the offices they use in the SGV premises. Where the VIC will now go to and how this will all end is not yet clear.

All this may sound like childish tit-for-tat posturing, but that would be to underestimate the importance of the decision about the authorised yield which, if it is too low could literally mean collapse for some of the small growers.

On the other hand, if the authorised yield is towards the upper end of the range being discussed, that might cause inconvenience and increased costs for the ‘maisons’ but it is unlikely to bring about their immediate demise.

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As regards the prospects for the rest of the year, opinions are mixed depending on whether they come from a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person.

CarbotVranken Pommery recently announced sales of champagne down 23% in the first half of 2020 and LVMH’s champagne sales were down 30% in the same period. Sales in China have rebounded strongly and retail sales in the USA were robust too, but not surprisingly sales in bars and restaurants were awful.

All this is bad enough, but actually it’s a little better than some doom-mongers were forecasting just a few weeks ago.

Elsewhere, there are signs that sales are champagne are bouncing back.

The president of Armand de Brignac said in a recent interview that his brand is seeing an uplift in sales in every continent.

Equally, some of the smaller producers I have spoken to recently also report a better, and earlier than expected, upturn in orders received.

One intrepid, small champagne maker in Châlons-en-Champagne ( Champagne Carbot) has ploughed ahead with the launch of their new brand and a champagne museum despite everything that is going on right now. It would have been so easy to postpone, or even cancel, their plans and one can only wish them well in their endeavours.

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In more news, a very recent international survey by the Comité Champagne has thrown some light on current attitudes to champagne and, by implication, what one can expect in the immediate future.

Despite a big decrease in shipments to the UK, the USA, Germany, Japan, Australia and Italy in the first 6 months of 2020 versus the same period in the previous year, there is still a core of ‘loyal’ consumers ( ranging from 18 to 26% of respondents) who said that they would not be changing their champagne drinking habits as a result of COVID and who are prepared to pay the price needed for their preferred champagne.

The findings for the month of June 2020 alone are more encouraging with shipments both to France and to Belgium actually showing an increase versus June 2019 (+1.5 and + 8.3% respectively)

Needless to say, the Belgians are very welcome in Champagne right now. Go Belgium!

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So, it’s a mixed bag of results, but my take on the overall mood is that the general feeling is that things are going in the right direction, albeit not as fast as anyone would like.

Next month promises to be interesting and we should finally find out what the size of the 2020 harvest will be.

Watch this space

JH

July 2020

CHAMPAGNE BULLETIN JUNE 2020

Hot air and cold hard facts

If you had assumed that things have been fairly quiet in Champagne over the past few weeks, nothing could be further from the truth.

Heated, even bitter, arguments have broken out in some quarters and whilst some people are predicting that champagne is facing a long haul to get back to pre-COVID sales, that hasn’t stopped others from seeing a profitable future and what’s more, putting up the money to back  their vision

Wine tourism opening up again very slowly

Tasting with David Pehu resizedChampagne has made great efforts over the past couple of years to promote wine tourism so the COVID crisis, which meant that there were no tourists at all, was a severe blow just when those efforts seemed to be bearing fruit.

Happily, the first tentative signs of a recovery have been seen over the past couple of weeks as many of the big houses have opened up to visitors once again, albeit with new guideline in place. Pommery, Veuve Clicquot, Moët et Chandon, Ruinart, Lanson and several others have all opened their doors once again.

Meanwhile bars and restaurants have also opened up again and people are once enjoying the good weather and the café lifestyle.

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Carry on regardless

Another piece of positive news has come from the Syndicat General des Vignerons de la Champagne (SGV) that represents the many thousand independent champagne makers. It has pressed ahead with its advertising campaign aimed at encouraging consumers to enjoy champagne on occasions other than special celebrations.

SGV CampaignThe 4 visuals feature champagne with pizza, doughnuts and other snacks with tag line that, roughly translated, mean

  • Just pop the cork to jump out of the usual routine
  • Give yourself a grand moment
  • Sometimes. A few bubbles are all you need to get out of your own
  • As soon as champagne appears things stop being ordinary

The campaign is being rolled out across France, but you won’t see it anywhere outside France because the mandate of the SGV does not extend to advertising in export markets. This is because the ad will be paid for out of the members’ subscriptions and, since not all members are able or willing to take advantage of opportunities in export markets, the campaign has to be limited to French market where all members can, in theory, enjoy the benefits of the increased exposure.

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To pick, or not to pick

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the SGV finds itself embroiled in an internal dispute that is causing quite a stir.

By way of background, representatives of the SGV sit on the committee that decides the size of the harvest each year, the other people on the committee being representatives of the large houses.

Handling the caissesI touched on the issue of the size of the harvest last month, but to recap briefly: with sales of champagne dropping due to the COVID outbreak, the large houses which account for the majority of all champagne sales and buy the majority of the grapes,  are sitting on large stocks of champagne in their cellars which they want to reduce. Therefore, they prefer a small harvest this year. Some reports say that they would favour a harvest as low as 5,000 kg per hectare (a ‘normal’ year would be around 10,000 kg/hectare)

On the other side of the argument are the small houses and independent growers who fear too dramatic a reduction of the authorised harvest because

  • Too small a harvest might leave the small houses with insufficient grapes to make all the bottles that can and need to sell
  • Too small a harvest might mean that the grape growers would not have enough grapes to sell to cover their costs, leaving them on the verge of going under. They are asking for a 9,000 kg or even a 10,000 kg/hectare harvest.

Matters came to a head recently when the president of the  Les Vignerons Indépendents de Champagne (The Independent Vignerons of Champagne/ VIC) whose views are usually made known via the SGV, accused the SGV of a lack of influence in the discussions about the harvest and of not adequately defending the point of view of the independent growers.

The president of the VIC demanded that he have a seat at the table when the decision on the size of the harvest is taken and when this was refused by the SGV, he went further and advised his 400 + members to withhold their subscription to the SGV until at least 22nd July when the decision on the harvest is due to be taken.

If you’ve managed to find your way through all these acronyms and the twists and turns of the debate you’ll see that it’s not a pretty situation and all eyes and minds are focused on July 22nd.

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Buy, buy, buy

Despite all the turmoil at the moment some people are keeping their eyes fixed firmly on the future which they believe will be rosy.

LallierThe Italian drinks group Campari has reached an advanced stage in negotiations to acquire 80% of Champagne Lallier in Aÿ. The acquisition would be notable as the first venture into the world of Champagne by an Italian company.

In addition, Rémy Cointreau has announced that it is in discussions to acquire Champagne De Telmont in Damery.

Rémy Cointreau used to own Charles and Piper Heidsieck but exited the champagne business back in 2011. It’s intriguing and encouraging that they want to regain a presence in champagne and that they have chosen now to do so.

Both Lallier and De Telmont produce about 1 million bottles per year. That’s far fewer than the major brands, but the quality of both is good and no doubt the ambition of both Campari and Rémy Cointreau would be to increase this volume.

They are both in a position to do that thanks to their existing distribution networks and it’s often the distribution power, rather than any other factor,  that determines the success of any brand.

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Frederic RouzaudFinally, to finish on a note of optimism, here are the words (translated) of Frédéric Rouzaud president of Champagne Louis Roederer

I’m not worried. Champagne will get through this and we’ve seen many other crises.

Despite the current concerns, it’s hard to argue against M. Rouzaud. If you look at the history of Champagne there’s a crisis every 10 or 15 years and after every crisis Champagne has bounced back, usually stronger than before.

Mind you, it does help if you have deep pockets and can afford to take the long view as is the case of Champagne Louis Roederer, but then again, champagne has always been about the long-term and as they say: when you start a champagne company, the first 100 years are always the hardest!

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So, the stage is set for the announcement of the harvest size on 22nd July. Watch this space.

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