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 NOVEMBER 2021

CHAMPAGNE BULLETIN NOVEMBER 2021

In this month’s bulletin…

Champagne bouncing back and the implications good and bad.

Toasting glassesWell, as 2021 draws to a close it’s certainly been a roller-coaster year for champagne and the twists and turns aren’t over yet.

From pervasive doom, gloom and apprehension at the start of the year to soaring demand and bursting order books towards the end of the year and talk of shortages and price rises.

So, what exactly is going on in Champagne?

 Just to put things in context, this time last year some voices in Champagne were predicting a disastrous drop in sales of 100 million bottles – that’s about 33% of a normal year’s sales. In response, the quantity of grapes that was authorised to by picked at harvest time was sharply reduced in an effort to avoid over supply and ballooning stocks of unsold bottles sitting in the cellars and costing money.

October shipmentsIn the event, things didn’t turn out as badly as some had predicted. Annual sales in 2020 dropped by just 18% or 50 million bottles– actually in Champagne people talk in terms of ‘shipments’ out of the cellars rather than ‘sales’ which are considered to take place further down the supply chain at retail level.The situation continued to improve throughout 2021 with shipments recovering as each month went by. At the end of October cumulative shipments this year were up 36.5 % compared to 2020 and up 8.5% versus 2019 (the last ‘normal’ year) with exports hitting record highs.

Barring any disasters in the next few weeks, it looks very likely that annual shipments will have recovered to the 2019 level of 300 million bottles, or even slightly more, by the end of the year.  Not surprisingly therefore there are many relieved and happy faces in Champagne at the moment.

However, we’re not out of the woods yet.

Ever popular

Since pandemic restrictions started to be eased from mid 2021 onwards there has been an amazing rebound in orders. If this demonstrates one thing it’s that champagne has lost none of its appeal and one might even say that the pent up desire to start living normally again that has been felt around the world has brought with it a desire to really celebrate life and what better to do that than with champagne. Orders are rushing in from almost every part of the globe and one could even say that champagnes image and appeal is stronger than ever. It all sounds great doesn’t it but there’s a downside.

Higher prices

As mentioned above, the size of he 2020 harvest was deliberately reduced to react to the fall in demand. In hindsight, one might say that it was reduced too severely. With the ever-more obvious signs of recovery this year, the size of the 2021 harvest was set at a much higher level, but with the worst possible timing, Mother Nature threw a spanner in the works with a series of near disasters such as frost, hail, storms, and diseases in the vineyard which ruined a large part of the hoped for and much needed crop.

That makes two years of small harvests and although there is a wonderful system of reserves in Champagne that will compensate, to some degree, for this shortfall, in the short term there is an excess of demand over supply which inevitably will lead to prices increases.

Premiumisation (if such a word exists)

In parallel to the upward pressure on prices, particularly at retail level, due to the supply/demand equation being out of balance, the (logical) response of many champagne houses has done nothing to reverse the trend; in fact, it has accelerated it.

Faced with fewer grapes than needed and hence fewer bottles to sell, many houses, especially the better-known brands, took the decision to scale back their release of standard non-vintage champagne and to use more of the available grapes to produce higher prices prestige cuvées. Due to the long ageing time needed for these cuvées, they won’t hit the market for some years yet, but the reduced quantity of non-vintage champagne is already having repercussions in the market.

We can see this is reports from the U.K and the USA, the two biggest markets by volume and value.

DealsOn the one hand, established brands are announcing strong demand, booming sales and buoyant prices. On the other hand, the usual year-end cut-price deals on entry level champagnes and supermarket brands may be about to dry up. After all, if there is a shortage of supply, why offer any discounts?

At least this has been the general feeling of many in the champagne trade and they suspected that offers like the one shown in this picture would be a rarity, at least in the short term. However, at the time of writing this bulletin most supermarkets in the UK and France are still promoting champagne offers, albeit not quite so generous as in past years.

Nevertheless, the predictions amongst the champagne community is that the trend towards higher prices and fewer discounts will continue. In fact, it’s what the established brands have been wanting for many years: the pandemic and the two consecutive small harvests have merely provided the means to drive this message home.

They have always pursued a policy of ever-increasing quality, value and price and they lamented the (over?) availability of entry level offers that do little to enhance the image of champagne and certainly don’t maximize the overall value of the champagne sector.

How to respond, particularly if you are considering launching a private brand?

It seems to be more important than ever for any brand seeking to get a foothold in the market to identify what special features set it apart from the competition. A low price is not enough. Competing on price with the Walmart’s, Costco’s and Aldi’s of this world doesn’t seem to be a strategy that has much future – if it ever did.

What then might be alternative strategies? The possibilities are much the same as they always have been.

Brand recognition

BOOBAOne obvious avenue that offers the prospect of rapid brand recognition, distribution and sales is to involve a well-known celebrity, if you aren’t already a celebrity yourself.

This is why personalities such as Idris Elba, Jay Z, Brad Pitt and many others have launched their own champagne brand and the appeal of champagne for famous people, as both a fun project and a profit-making enterprise, shows no sign of waning.

A famous French rapper artist by the name of Booba recently announced that he is working on a champagne project, and I’ve heard from a reliable source that a famous Hollywood actress is also planning to do the same next Spring.

All these people already have a crowd of loyal fans who follow them on social media and in person and who are potential customers. Of course, you don’t have to be a global or even national celebrity figure to have a network of good contacts, there are many other fields of activity you can be involved in that could be the source of sales as long as you are a trusted figure with some sort of following – the bigger the following, the better of course.

Distribution

Another key to success is distribution. No matter how high the quality of your product, if you can’t get it to consumers, where they want it, when they want it, your sales are going to struggle.

If you have a means of warehousing and delivery and ideally plenty of strong contacts in hospitality venues, they too can provide a key source of competitive advantage.

Presentation

HabillageLast but certainly not least of course, is the champagne and the bottle – lets call that, the presentation.

There are champagnes at almost every level of quality that can be sourced for private brands, although the higher the quality, the more limited the availability and, often, the higher the price.

 The choice of quality will depend, amongst other things, on the requirements of your target customers. Are they, to take one example, serious wine connoisseurs who will deliberate long and hard on what they taste in their glass, or are they more casual drinkers who pay little attention to what’s in their glass as log as it is pleasant?

 As for the bottle and packaging, there is an almost infinite variety of ways in which you can make your bottle look stunning. Some of these effects can be achieved quite quickly – multi-coloured sleeves around the bottle, for example, while others such as virtual reality brand presentations incorporated into the labels, take more time and a little more investment. I’d be happy to run through some of the options on a Zoom call if you’d like to explore any of these topics in more depth.

This will be the last Champagne Bulletin for 2021. Come the end of December, I plan to be more involved with drinking champagne than writing about it.

Thanks for reading my bulletins this year; I hope you’ll come back next year and, in the meantime, I wish you and yours a wonderful Christmas and New Year holiday, wherever and however you spend it.

All the best from Champagne

Jiles

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CHAMPAGNE BULLETIN OCTOBER 2021

Champagne Bulletin October 2021

In this month’s Champagne Bulletin

  • New brands on the market – some interesting innovations.
  • What retail price is right for your brand? – a few examples to refer to.
  • Champagne is just as popular as ever - Champagne sales on track to reach 300 million bottles again.
  • Champagne Day – did you miss it?

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  • New brands on the market – some interesting innovations.

I’m sure you’ve all noticed the flood of celebrities who have launched their own wines and spirits brands over the past few years and some of them have ventured into the world of champagne.

The latest to do so is a French rap artist called Booba. He’s a big name in France and has already launched his own brand of clothing, a radio and TV channel and a brand of whisky, so with the following he has, his new champagne will probably be a big success too.

Not much is known about the project apart from the fact that he will be working with a champagne supplier that has also been making something of a name for itself over the past few years thanks to the quality of their champagnes.  You may not have heard of this company but that need not be a concern: for any of you considering creating your own brand, the good news is that I already work with the chef de cave (head wine maker) at this same champagne maker who I’ve known for over 20 years, so his expertise could one day be at your disposal too.

To find out more, please send me an email and we can discuss your project in more detail.

HooxahMeanwhile another new brand is attracting a number of articles and a lot of attention. It’s called Hoxxoh (no, don’t ask me how to pronounce that; I have no idea) and it is certainly eye-catching.

The bottles are florescent when in the right lighting, each bottle of the white version comes with 6 leaves of edible 24 carat gold,Hoxxoh and a small 0.45 carat ruby is embedded in the label of each bottle of the rosé.

The brand was actually launched last year and is apparently enjoying some success in the on-trade, especially in Italy despitE (or perhaps because of) the price: €250 for the white and €310 for the rosé.

The champagne is made by a small producer rather than a large existing brand or cooperative, so that would normally imply that production capacity is limited but the company is currently looking for investors, so they clearly have ambitions to grow considerably.

What retail price is right for your brand?

It’s a question that’s really important for anyone considering creating their own brand of champagne and I wish that there was a simple formula that allowed you to come up with the right answer every time, but it’s not as simple as that.

Let’s look at some of the factors to take into consideration and some examples from the market.

A useful way to do this is to take a look at the results of a competition recently held in the U.K. to choose the best champagnes of 2021

https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2021/10/the-best-champagnes-of-2021/

Best Champagnes 2021What is of interest is not so much the names of the brands but rather the information that is given about each of them, in particular the retail price. The prices are the those in the U.K. so they are not directly comparable to prices in other markets but the positioning relatively to one another is relevant, as are the price categories that emerge.

You’ll see that there are, broadly speaking, 3 price bands

1) £35-£50

Accessible: for a wide audience with  relatively low wine knowledge; frequent use, celebrations

2) £60 - £90

 Special cuvees and vintage champagnes for more discerning drinkers. Usually, lower volumes than less expensive brands.

3) £100 > as high as you like

 Ultra-premium brands whose prices have no real reference point and cannot be rationalised logically – this is the classic characteristic of a luxury brand. (see New Brands below)

Convenient though it would be if there were a reliable formula that could be used to determine the retail price, alas no such formula exists. And besides, the market conditions as well as the rate of tax and the structural costs of doing business vary from country to country.

Having said this, a rule of thumb that has traditionally been used as a guideline in the USA is that the retail price is between 3 and 4 times the cost price in France. This takes into account the margin requirements of importers, distributors and retailers at each stage of the chain, but the real factors determining where you set your retail price are much more complex and include

  • the price of competing brands already in the market
  • the expectations of the consumers you are targeting
  • the distinctive features of your own brand and of course
  • the cost price and the projected profit margins of your brand

For a more in-depth exploration of this topic, email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Having said all that however, just a few words about wine competitions and tasting panels in general…

The judges who taste and evaluate the wines are no doubt all very expert and knowledgeable and the champagnes they rate highly are clearly well made and of high quality, but the questions I always ask about this sort of ranking system are

How many champagnes in total were judged and by extension, how many champagnes did not even enter the competition?

All that a list such as the one we’re going to look at, can do is to give you a snapshot of a small cross section of the market. There are always going to be fantastic champagnes available that were not even entered into the competition

Champagne is just as popular as ever

2021The last ‘normal’ year for champagne sales was 2019 when annual shipments reached just 297 million bottles. That’s still a lot of bottles but it was a disappointing result for the champagne industry which had seen shipments decline steadily over the preceding 10 years from a total of 320 million bottles.

The 300 million bottle target represents a powerful psychological benchmark in Champagne and the failure to achieve this, coming on top of a decade-long decline in shipments was worrying to say the least. Had champagne lost its sparkle? Would Prosecco take over the mantel of champagne?

2020 was a disaster all round and there was not much serious insight to be gained from the 244 million bottles shipped last year – in fact that was much better than some had feared at the start of 2020 – so you can imagine the optimism and anticipation that has gripped champagne over the past few months that have seen a remarkable bounce back across the board with, whisper it quietly, the heads of some major houses saying that shipments could hit the 300 million mark once again in 2021.

It doesn’t look as though any other sparkling wine is going to knock champagne off its perch any time soon.

  • Champagne Day – did you miss it?

Champagne DayYou may not have noticed it, but October 22nd was Global Champagne Day. In fact, this date has been GCD ever since the initiative was started about 10 years ago.

It’s a virtual event that takes place entirely on-line over many platforms, and is designed to create a sense of community amongst champagne lovers around the world and it’s also an excuse, if one were needed, to open a bottle or two.

If you missed GCD this year, don’t worry, there are only some 355 days until the next one comes around. Start planning and practicing now!

 

That's all for this month's bulletin and if you have any comments or questions, please email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

CHAMPAGNE BULLETIN SEPTEMBER 2021

Champagne Bulletin September 2021

In this month’s Champagne Bulletin

  • Could the worst harvest in 60 years yet turn out to be one of the best?
  • Changes to the US 3-tier system?
  • Increasing costs and longer lead times

You wonlt be surprised that the main news from September is all about the harvest and most of it is bad, but could the worst harvest in 60 years yet turn out to be one of the best?

At first sight that question may sound ridiculous, but it may not be as far-fetched as it seems. Let’s find out why.

As you will have gathered from my previous bulletins, the weather this year has been nothing short of dreadful:

  • frost in Spring that destroyed as much as 30% of the young buds, and in some places destroyed almost the entire future crop.
  • violent storms in Summer with deluges of rain and hail too that battered the vines causing further losses.
  • and then a multiplicity of diseases such as mildew, oidium and grey rot which ruined another 30% or so of the grapes.

 All in all, a combination of conditions not seen in decades. In fact, not since the 1950s according to the Comité Champagne.

All this meant one thing for sure: it would be a very small harvest and that’s the way it turned out – one of the 5 smallest harvests for half a century.

Here are a few pictures to give you an idea of what some vines looked like just before picking started – not a pretty sight

Chardonnay in bad condition Sept 2021

   ChardonnayMore bad Chardonnay 

 

 

 

 

So how could such a disappointing harvest be seen as anything but a total disaster?

The answer is partly because the crop wasn’t bad everywhere and because, contrary to what you may have heard in other contexts, size isn’t all that matters.

We can get a clue as to why this should be when we take a look at something that, at first sight, might seem totally unconnected: the start dates for the harvest.

2021 harvest datesPicking doesn’t start on a specific date across the entire Champagne region. Instead, each village - and there are some 320 of these in Champagne - is given a start date based on the development of the grapes in each local area and there is also a start date given for each grape variety. You will immediately begin to appreciate that, despite the fact that many champagne drinkers think that all champagne is pretty much the same, that’s not really the case.

The Champagne region covers some 34,000 hectares (about 85,000 acres). Over 100 kilometres separates the most northerly part of the region from the southernmost areas. So, you won’t be too surprised to learn that this diversity means that the quality and quantity of the grapes can vary significantly from one place to another and even from one plot of vines to another.

The worst losses were in the southern part of Champagne in what is called the Aube region, and in the Vallée de la Marne where the weeks of unrelenting wet weather and the heavier soil in the valley made the vineyards almost unworkable.

Pinot Noir in good condition Sept 2021On the other hand, some villages nearer to Reims such as Ambonnay and Bouzy, both famed for their Pinot Noir grapes, were relatively untouched by the problems elsewhere and brought in a big harvest of grapes in excellent condition.

Some villages in La Côte des Blancs where Chardonnay is the dominant grape also reported good yields.

Quality versus quantity

Of course, every vine grower wants to have an abundant harvest but when it comes to making champagne the quality of the juice in the grapes is just as important, if not more so and one key measure of quality is the balance between sugar and acidity in the grapes.

As the grapes ripen, the sugar content rises, but the acidity level usually decreases as well. The sugar will be converted into alcohol during fermentation but too much sugar makes the wine heavy and unattractive. A good level of acidity is also essential to give champagne its liveliness and zing.

It’s quite rare that you get the ideal balance between the two extremes of sugar and acidity, but the first analysis of this year’s harvest indicates that the saving grace of 2021 is that the sugar/acidity balance is almost perfect.

Some people are saying that it resembles the great vintages of 2012 and 1996. If that is the case, and we won’t know for several months yet how the wine will turn out, 2021 promises to be a really good quality vintage… there will just be less of it that you might have wished for.

Changes to the 3-tier system in the USA?

Every country in the world has its own system of regulations surrounding the import and sale of alcohol, but the system in the USA is particularly complex.

Traditionally, a bottle of imported wine has had to pass through three separate entities before reaching the final consumer: an importer, a distributor, and a retailer. There are historical reasons for this not least of which was to prevent vertical integration of the industry, but it does make for a complicated process, and some say, for higher prices and a reduced choice for the consumer.

However, this may be about to change because in July President Biden instructed the Treasury Secretary, Attorney General and the Federal Trade Commission to assess threats to competition and barriers to entry across a range of industries including the beer, wines and spirits sector.

It’s too soon to know what will come of this review, but the point that is important to grasp, especially for anyone considering launching a new brand in the USA, is that it is vital to understand the distribution system and all the legislation surrounding it. Distribution can mean the difference between success and disappointment in the wines and spirits business and it’s a subject that cannot be ignored.

Lead times and costs

Those readers who have already contacted me about a private brand of champagne will have heard me say that lead times for orders are currently running considerably in excess of what they were just a year ago. The reason, of course, is the plethora of measures that governments have put in place in the name of health.

The normal patterns of trade in almost every industry have been disrupted and champagne is no exception. In fact, the problem is not so much that the champagne itself is in short supply, but rather that the necessary raw materials for packaging are harder to get hold of.

Foil samples blackFor example, supplies of aluminium for making foils are harder to come by and the same is true of paper to make labels and boxes. Lead times that would have been two months a year ago are now running to three, or even four months at the moment.

Prices for packaging are also edging upwards, but fortunately they still represent a relatively small portion of the total costs associated with creating a champagne brand. I have not yet seen any significant movement in the price of champagne ex cellars, but I’ll be keeping an eye on this is the months ahead.

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That brings us to the end of this month’s Champagne Bulletin. Look out for the October bulletin in a few weeks’ time and meanwhile, if you have any questions or comments about what you’ve just read, please feel free to email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

All the best from Champagne

Champagne Bulletin August 2021

Champagne Bulletin August 2021

2021 – could the weather get much worse?

Continuing poor weather in Champagne means that the start date for the harvest is being pushed further and further into the future with one champagne maker I spoke with this week saying that he doesn’t expect to start picking before about 20th September and I don’t suppose he is the only one thinking along the same lines.

In fact, as far as the vineyards are concerned, 2021 has been difficult from the very beginning and in terms of the proportion of the harvest lost to one problem or another, this year is being compared with some of the worst years in the past such as 2003 and 1990.

In past bulletins we mentioned the damage caused by the spring frosts; we’ve mentioned the fierce storms and hail that battered the vineyards in July when some regions of Champagne reported loses of 50%, or even more, of the potential harvest.

In more recent weeks it’s mildew that has been, and still is, the problem with the combination of a few spells of warm weather followed by huge amounts of rain creating the ideal humid conditions for an explosion of mildew.

To cap it all there are now some outbreaks of grey rot too.

All in all, the weather this year has been dreadful, and August has been no better.

All this means that the development of the grapes is a good 2 weeks behind the normal expectations and also that the health of the vines is extremely uneven across the many regions and sub-regions of Champagne.

There is significant variation even within each plot and from row to row as you can see from these two pictures. One picture shows good healthy bunches; the other shows grapes that  are not in such good condition and the pictures were taken about 1 metre apart.

Healthy bunch

 Unhealthy bunch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 When the harvest does eventually get under way, pickers will have to be extremely careful to pick only the healthy grapes and even then, another careful sorting of the grapes will be essential in the winery before the remaining bunches are loaded into the presses.

Nevertheless, the usual monitoring system used every year in the run up to the harvest is in full swing. It’s called the Réseau Matu which means roughly the Maturity Network and it involves a team of vignerons from a selection of villages right across the region taking samples from the vineyards on a regular basis to analyse the development of the grapes in terms of sugar and acid levels as well as the number and weight of the bunches.

The data are then compared with the desired benchmarks and the results are used to determine the start date for the harvest which, ideally, is when all the indicators are judged to be as good as they are going to get each year.

As I write this, we are still two or even three weeks away from the start of the harvest and a lot can happen in that time, much of it depending on the weather.

Does this mean a shortage of champagne?

The short answer is ‘No’ and there are two good reasons for that.

First, you may have read reports in the press of impending champagne shortages and even stories of wealthy individuals reacting to those reports by sending their private jets over to France to bring back as many cases of champagne as they can carry.

However, despite what you might think, these shortages have little or nothing to do with conditions here in Champagne and more to do with problems associated with global trade.

Shipping containersOne of the issues facing all industries is that the pace and volume of global shipping has slowed down over the past year. Normally ships, and the containers they carry, are in almost constant transit around the globe – the containers are shipped to their destination, unloaded, loaded with a new cargo and the ships set off on the return voyage with the minimum of delay. In this way containers are always in use, in transit and available in the place where they are needed at the time when they are needed.

As business has slowed down over the past 18 months or so, it’s been taking longer to fill the containers for the return journey, so they are left empty waiting for the return cargo to materialise. This disrupts the entire system with the result that, back in the place of origin, goods that are ready to leave can’t be shipped because of the lack of available containers when they are needed.

In Champagne this has led to a shortage of incoming raw materials for dry goods that are needed for things such as foils, label, boxes etc and that has caused lead times for producing orders to lengthen considerably.

So rather than there being a shortage of champagne it would be more accurate to say that in some instances, the champagne is not where it is wanted at the time it is wanted.

This could be a concern as we enter the all-important end-of-year period for sales and consumption of champagne. Some commentators are suggesting that this will lead to a reduction in the number and scale of special discount offers on champagne. After all, if demand exceeds supply, even if only temporarily, why would you discount prices?

Reserve stocks

The second reason not to be alarmed about reports of possible shortages of champagne is that the Champagne region is well equipped to manage the fluctuations that are naturally associated with the annual harvest.

Champagne makers learned many, many years ago, that the harvests in Champagne are very variable and so they put in place a system of individual reserves by which each champagne maker is allowed to set aside a certain proportion of the wine from each year’ s harvest and store that against the possibility of a shortage of quantity or quality in subsequent years.

There are several ways of storing the ‘reserve wines’ as they are called. Some wine makers prefer to store each year’s wine separately in large wooden or stainless steel vats. They will also separate the wines by grape variety as well.

cuverie et foudres

Other wine makers use what is called a ‘solera’ system or ‘perpetual reserve’ whereby one large vat contains wines from many previous years. Each year some wine is drawn off and the vat is topped up with wine from the current year. In this way the proportion of wines from earlier years slowly reduces, but nevertheless there is always a small percentage of very old wine left and this lends extra depth and complexity to the entire content of the vat.

These reserve wines not only ensure that the supply of champagne can be maintained at the level needed to meet demand, but they also explain why most champagne is called ‘non-vintage’. Since champagne is a blend of several wines from both the current year’s harvest and reserve wines from previous harvests, it’s not possible to say that it comes from one single harvest.

That’s why most champagne does not carry the date of one particular year and cannot therefore be called vintage champagne

A revolution in Champagne

You may remember reading in past bulletins about a vote that was due to take place in July about whether or not to adopt new viticultural methods that have the potential to change decades of accepted practice in this very traditional wine making region.

The issue at the heart of the debate is the need, or not, to adapt to changes in the climate whilst preserving the quality and distinctive style of the wine made here in Champagne.

Research into this question has been going on since 1995, so this is not something that has been rushed in to.

Well, the debate generated a lot of discussion, to say the very least, but the vote happened, and it went in favour of adopting the new methods of growing grapes.

What does this mean?

Not a lot in the short or even medium term.

This is a long-term project that affects the way the vines are planted in Champagne.

This new method of planting is called Vignes Semi-Larges or VSL for short and even a brief look at the details will give you an idea of what’s at stake.

The new proposal will allow, amongst other changes, the planting of vines in rows that are much farther apart than is currently permitted. Currently the maximum distance between rows is 1.5 metres, but the new rules will allow for up to 2.2 metres between rows. That may not sound like a big deal, but the implications are huge. (traditional style on the left – proposed style on the right)

Regular rows at Gionges

VSL at Gionges

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 According to the research, the yield per hectare will be reduced by the new method, but the level of maturity of the grapes is expected to improve. Likewise, the level of acidity in the grapes, which is crucial for champagne, will increase.

The use of herbicides can be reduced or eliminated by the use of VSL.

The machinery currently used was developed specifically for rows a certain distance apart. New machinery may have to be purchased, possibly at great expense. On the other hand, the time and other costs associated with tending the vines should come down significantly.

Equally, it is expected that green house gas emissions will fall by 20% with the new system of planting in VSL.

The change to the rules it Is not mandatory. Each grower has the choice of which system of planting to use, traditional or VSL and it’s likely that the two systems will run in parallel for years, or even decades, to come. So, you’re not going to see a sudden and dramatic change on your next visit to Champagne, but over time the look of the countryside may well evolve so although this is indeed a revolution, it’s not going to happen overnight.

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In next month’s bulletin the focus will be on the harvest:

When will it be?

How large will it be?

What will the quality be?

I’ll be back next month will some initial answers to these questions.

Until then…

All the best from Champagne

Jiles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the harvest does eventually get under way, pickers will have to be extremely careful to pick only the healthy grapes and even then, another careful sorting of the grapes will be essential in the winery before the remaining bunches are loaded into the presses.

Nevertheless, the usual monitoring system used every year in the run up to the harvest is in full swing. It’s called the Réseau Matu which means roughly the Maturity Network and it involves a team of vignerons from a selection of villages right across the region taking samples from the vineyards on a regular basis to analyse the development of the grapes in terms of sugar and acid levels as well as the number and weight of the bunches.

The data are then compared with the desired benchmarks and the results are used to determine the start date for the harvest which, ideally, is when all the indicators are judged to be as good as they are going to get each year.

As I write this, we are still two or even three weeks away from the start of the harvest and a lot can happen in that time, much of it depending on the weather.

Does this mean a shortage of champagne?

The short answer is ‘No’ and there are two good reasons for that.

First, you may have read reports in the press of impending champagne shortages and even stories of wealthy individuals reacting to those reports by sending their private jets over to France to bring back as many cases of champagne as they can carry.

However, despite what you might think, these shortages have little or nothing to do with conditions here in Champagne and more to do with problems associated with global trade.

One of the issues facing all industries is that the pace and volume of global shipping has slowed down over the past year. Normally ships, and the containers they carry, are in almost constant transit around the globe – the containers are shipped to their destination, unloaded, loaded with a new cargo and the ships set off on the return voyage with the minimum of delay. In this way containers are always in use, in transit and available in the place where they are needed at the time when they are needed.

As business has slowed down over the past 18 months or so, it’s been taking longer to fill the containers for the return journey, so they are left empty waiting for the return cargo to materialise. This disrupts the entire system with the result that, back in the place of origin, goods that are ready to leave can’t be shipped because of the lack of available containers when they are needed.

In Champagne this has led to a shortage of incoming raw materials for dry goods that are needed for things such as foils, label, boxes etc and that has caused lead times for producing orders to lengthen considerably.

So rather than there being a shortage of champagne it would be more accurate to say that in some instances, the champagne is not where it is wanted at the time it is wanted.

This could be a concern as we enter the all-important end-of-year period for sales and consumption of champagne. Some commentators are suggesting that this will lead to a reduction in the number and scale of special discount offers on champagne. After all, if demand exceeds supply, even if only temporarily, why would you discount prices?

Reserve stocks

The second reason not to be alarmed about reports of possible shortages of champagne is that the Champagne region is well equipped to manage the fluctuations that are naturally associated with the annual harvest.

Champagne makers learned many, many years ago, that the harvests in Champagne are very variable and so they put in place a system of individual reserves by which each champagne maker is allowed to set aside a certain proportion of the wine from each year’ s harvest and store that against the possibility of a shortage of quantity or quality in subsequent years.

There are several ways of storing the ‘reserve wines’ as they are called. Some wine makers prefer to store each year’s wine separately in large wooden or stainless steel vats. They will also separate the wines by grape variety as well.

Other wine makers use what is called a ‘solera’ system or ‘perpetual reserve’ whereby one large vat contains wines from many previous years. Each year some wine is drawn off and the vat is topped up with wine from the current year. In this way the proportion of wines from earlier years slowly reduces, but nevertheless there is always a small percentage of very old wine left and this lends extra depth and complexity to the entire content of the vat.

These reserve wines not only ensure that the supply of champagne can be maintained at the level needed to meet demand, but they also explain why most champagne is called ‘non-vintage’. Since champagne is a blend of several wines from both the current year’s harvest and reserve wines from previous harvests, it’s not possible to say that it comes from one single harvest.

That’s why most champagne does not carry the date of one particular year and cannot therefore be called vintage champagne

A revolution in Champagne

You may remember reading in past bulletins about a vote that was due to take place in July about whether or not to adopt new viticultural methods that have the potential to change decades of accepted practice in this very traditional wine making region.

The issue at the heart of the debate is the need, or not, to adapt to changes in the climate whilst preserving the quality and distinctive style of the wine made here in Champagne.

Research into this question has been going on since 1995, so this is not something that has been rushed in to.

Well, the debate generated a lot of discussion, to say the very least, but the vote happened, and it went in favour of adopting the new methods of growing grapes.

What does this mean?

Not a lot in the short or even medium term.

This is a long-term project that affects the way the vines are planted in Champagne.

This new method of planting is called Vignes Semi-Larges or VSL for short and even a brief look at the details will give you an idea of what’s at stake.

The new proposal will allow, amongst other changes, the planting of vines in rows that are much farther apart than is currently permitted. Currently the maximum distance between rows is 1.5 metres, but the new rules will allow for up to 2.2 metres between rows. That may not sound like a big deal, but the implications are huge. (traditional style on the left – proposed style on the right)

According to the research, the yield per hectare will be reduced by the new method, but the level of maturity of the grapes is expected to improve. Likewise, the level of acidity in the grapes, which is crucial for champagne, will increase.

The use of herbicides can be reduced or eliminated by the use of VSL.

The machinery currently used was developed specifically for rows a certain distance apart. New machinery may have to be purchased, possibly at great expense. On the other hand, the time and other costs associated with tending the vines should come down significantly.

Equally, it is expected that green house gas emissions will fall by 20% with the new system of planting in VSL.

The change to the rules it Is not mandatory. Each grower has the choice of which system of planting to use, traditional or VSL and it’s likely that the two systems will run in parallel for years, or even decades, to come. So, you’re not going to see a sudden and dramatic change on your next visit to Champagne, but over time the look of the countryside may well evolve so although this is indeed a revolution, it’s not going to happen overnight.

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In next month’s bulletin the focus will be on the harvest:

When will it be?

How large will it be?

What will the quality be?

I’ll be back next month will some initial answers to these questions.

Until then…

All the best from Champagne

CHAMPAGNE BULLETIN JULY 2021

CHAMPAGNE BULLETIN JULY 2021

You might think that with July and August being the two months when many people in France take a summer holiday, that things would be quite quiet here in Champagne, but in fact the opposite is the case. There is plenty to tell you about this month

There’s great news for anyone considering creating their own champagne brand, particularly in the USA

USA Flag

According to Impact Databank, one of the most respected journals for the wines and spirits trade, shipments of champagne to the USA jumped 48% in the first four months of 2021 versus 2020.

Of course, this increase has to be seen in context: champagne shipments slumped in 2020 for obvious reasons and so an increase this year was only to be expected. However, the USA fared better than most other markets throughout last year and continues to lead the way this year.

The overall decrease in champagne shipments last year was -18% but shipments to the USA fell by only 2.5% (again according to Impact Databank).

Seen against this background, this year’s increase in shipments of 48% is all the more impressive.

What’s more, data from Nielsen, a company which tracks sales in supermarkets and many other off-trade venues, shows that purchases of champagne were up 60% in the first four months of the year and sales of rosé champagne were even more bouyant at +66% versus 2019.

Not surprisingly, the big brands such as Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot account for the majority of the sales and this is unlikely to change any time soon, if ever, but as they say: “A rising tide floats all boats.”

Back in Champagne

 COTM Button imageOver the past few weeks, several of the big champagne houses have been announcing their half-year results and it’s been good news all round. Not surprisingly, results across the board have shown big increases versus last year – not difficult when sales last year were so dreadful – and some houses have posted increases even versus 2019

What struck me however was a short sentence in the results of the BCC Lanson group which owns brands such as Lanson, Boizel, De Venoge, Philipponnat and 4 others.

First half turnover was up 33.7% versus 2019 but readers of the report were reminded that in Champagne typically only one third of annual sales are made in the first half year and that this is sufficient to cover just half of the annual fixed costs.

That implies that a full two thirds of annual sales are needed to cover fixed costs; put another way, a typical champagne house doesn’t start making a profit until October of each year.

It’s an interesting thought that really underlines the crucial importance of the final quarter of the year for champagne sales.

In The Vineyards

You may remember that in last month’s bulletin I lamented the poor weather we are having this year.  I wish that I could say that things have been hotting up in the vineyards too but in fact nothing much has changed: temperatures are still below average and have been for several weeks now.

We’ve had little sunshine; instead we’ve had grey skies, heavy rain and regular thunder storms.

When the sun does come out for a day or two it is really warm, but after the heavy rain, this produces the perfect humid conditions for mildew, and another vine disease called oïdium, to proliferate.

All in all, unless we have almost uninterrupted sunshine for the next couple of months, 2021 doesn’t look like it will be a great vintage.

I mentioned in last month’s bulletin the old adage that “année en 1, année de rien” which means roughly, “years that end in 1 are good for nothing” and this is looking more and more likely to be true this year.

Those past generations of champagne makers knew a thing or two about the weather and growing grapes despite their lack of fancy technology.

Fortunately, there is no reason to worry that the quantity or quality of this year’s harvest will have too damaging effect on the champagne that is produced because Champagne has its wonderful system of Individual Reserves – wine put aside in previous years - that can be called upon in exactly the sort of circumstances that we face this year. However, that’s a topic to be explored in a future bulletin.

From Russia, but not with love

From Russia with LoveThis month’s blockbuster story has come from Russia and has caused something of a sensation in Champagne.

At the beginning of this month Russia announced a change in their law regarding the labelling of champagne. The new law says that wine from Champagne no longer has the right to put the term champagne in Cyrillic script on the back labels. Instead, bottles of champagne must use the word sparkling wine, in Cyrillic script on the back label.

What’s more and what’s even more galling to the champenois, is that the new law states that only makers of sparkling wine in Russia will be able to use the word champagne, again in Cyrillic script, on the back labels of their bottles.

The word Champagne in Latin script may still be used on the front label of a bottle of champagne, but in the view of the authorities here, that is of no significance. They are up in arms and passionately feel that this new law is simply not acceptable. In fact it seems to be the exact reverse of the situation previously when the word champagne in any language was seen as a protected term to be used only for sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France – a long standing convention agreed to and practiced by the governments of most countries in the world.

To say this has caused outrage in Champagne would be an understatement. Appeals have been made to officials at the highest levels of French and European Union governments to intervene in this affair and in the meantime the Comité Champagne has told all champagne houses to cease shipments to Russia until further orders.

The outcome is as yet unclear, but I suppose one can say that if there is a lack of heat in the vineyards, there’s a lot of heat being generating around the negotiating tables.

That's all for this month, but I'll be back with another Champagne Bulletin at the end of August. If you have any question or comments about the toipcs covered in this bulletin or about anything else to do with champagne, please send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and I'll get back to you as soon as I can.

Meanwhile...

Young grapes July

 

Nature continues its course in the vineyards and the grapes are growing slowly, but steadily.

It will be a few weeks yet before the Pinot Noir and the Meunier start to turn colour and at this stage of the year all the grapes, be they black or white, look much the same.

Fingers crossed for some more sunshine to make sure the grapes are good and ripe come September.