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Frost damage in Champagne

Frost on the vines2Unless you read the wine trade press frequently you probably won’t have heard about the widespread frost that hit almost all wine growing areas in France between the evening of April 5th and the early morning of April 8th.

Just a few weeks ago the talk was that Spring had come early to Champagne bringing with it a spell of mild, warm weather. The danger with this however is always that the thermometer would suddenly go plunging down again and regrettably that is exactly what happened.

First, the bad news
Within a matter of 48 hours the temperature dropped from 23 degrees C (73 degrees F) to -7 degrees C in some places (that's just 19 degrees F). The sub-zero temperatures killed off many of the young buds just as they were starting to emerge, and fewer buds means that fewer grapes develop and that in turn means a smaller the harvest in a few months' time.

There's not a great deal one can do about temperature swings of this magnitude, although there are a variety of measures that can be taken to mitigate the damage. These range from spraying water over the vines in a process called aspersion - it's effective because ice forms around the young buds and, surprising though it may seem, the temperature stays just above zero and so the buds are saved,

Aspersion at Pierry

- to lighting braziers in the vineyards

Braziers 2

 and even to using low-flying helicopters to stir up the air and prevent sub-zero pockets of cold air accumulating.


Credit: Heliops

Unfortunately, each one of these methods has its drawbacks: you need an abundant supply of water close by for aspersion to work effectively; you need an awful lot of braziers to keep temperatures above freezing over a large area of vineyard and not everyone has easy access to a helicopter or two!
Consequently, there was major damage to the vineyards across the Champagne region and across almost the whole of France.

And now, the not so bad news
In a situation like this, one has to look for the positives and despite the loses in the Champagne vineyards, we have a few reasons to be grateful.

Whilst still feeling sympathy for those who have been more severely affected, many here are relieved that Champagne has fared less badly than many other places as you can see from this estimate of the damage recently published in The Drinks Business.

Frost damage by region

The second reason, if not exactly to be grateful but to put things in perspective is that we have experienced frost like this many times in the past and will no doubt do so again. The years 2016 and 2003 come to mind as years when a considerable amount of the crop was lost to frost in Champagne. To some extent, frost damage is just part and parcel of the risks of being a wine maker.

Above all, Champagne, unlike most other wine-making regions, has its system of Réserve Individuel by which every wine maker puts aside a proportion of the wines from each year's harvest. This system has many benefits, one of which is to allow champagne makers to manage exactly the sort of problems that arise from frost damage.

Even within the Champagne appellation the damage varied from region to region. The most prestigious area of La Montagne de Reims and La Côte des Blancs got away fairly lightly. The worst affected area was the Aube region in the southern part of Champagne where the impact of the frost was extremely severe, because, being further south, the development of the buds was further advanced that in more northerly areas.


You can learn more about the different regions of Champagne, about the Réserve Individuelle system and much, much more in My Champagne Expert, my online Champagne course that is invaluable if you are seriously interested in creating a champagne brand or if you simply want to learn more about this fascinating region and its wonderful wine.
Here’s a link to find out more.

Don’t mess with Champagne
If you are considering creating a private champagne brand, I am sure that one of the things I will have mentioned in our discussions is the need to be very careful about the name you choose for your brand.

I have urged you to be cautious about this, in large part because the authorities here in Champagne keep a very close eye and a tight rein on the use of the word ‘Champagne’. In addition, they are extremely litigious if they notice any instances of what they consider to be abusive or misleading use of the word ‘Champagne’.

A case in point that is currently before the European Court of Justice and awaiting a verdict concerns a chain of tapas bars in Catalonia, Spain that calls itself Champanillo.

To summarise what I understand to be the basis of the matter, the Comité Champagne objects to this name because, in their opinion, it deliberately and unfairly uses an association with Champagne to derive commercial benefit thanks to the worldwide fame, recognition and image of Champagne.


The situation is aggravated because the signage used by the tapas bars often features two glasses in a typical ‘Champagne toast’ image.

The case has been going on for a few years already. The Comité Champagne’s first attempt to prevent the use of Champanillo was rejected by a court in Barcelona. That decision was appealed, and the case has now found its way all the up to the European Court of Justice. A final (or maybe not final) verdict is expected any day now.

Another well-known case is that of a village in Switzerland called Champagne. It has existing for centuries and, what’s more, wine has been made in the village for generations. It is still, not sparkling and the only grapes used are Chasselas which cannot be used in Champagne, so you might think that they had a good claim to call their wine Champagne, but you would be wrong.

The Comité Champagne took the case to the courts of the European Union which ruled against the Swiss village which now has to find a different name to market its wines.

The moral of this story is not to mess with the name Champagne. I have known cases of web sites being forced to close down and businesses being made to change their name because they used the word Champagne in the title, even in some cases, when the businesses concerned were exclusively marketing Champagne and, some might say, were helping to promote the wine from this famous region.

You have probably heard the phrase ‘Champagne only comes from Champagne’ many times before and this short story may serve to show you the lengths the Comité Champagne will go to in order to protect the appellation.

Please be careful!

Is this the start of the rebound?
As lockdown restrictions in many countries are beginning to be eased, many in Champagne have been anxiously awaiting the latest shipment figures in the hope of spotting signs of an upturn in sales.

Well, it’s too early to draw any absolute conclusions but the shipment figures, just released for March 2021 show a leap of 38.7% versus March 2020.

It should be remembered that March represents only a small part of the annual total, but this increase is nevertheless a very welcome step in the right direction and the forecast for the first quarter of 2021 is for an increase of 3.7% versus the same period in 2020.

As you certainly know, during the past year there’s been a big increase in sales direct to consumers and in at-home consumption of wine, although this hasn’t been enough to offset the losses due to bars, restaurants and other venues being closed.

Prosecco was the main beneficiary of growth in at-home consumption, probably because of the lower price point compared to Champagne, but as more and more people are celebrating a less restricted life with sparkling wine of many types, including Champagne, the chairman of Henkell Frexienet, one of the industry’s major players in sparkling wines and Champagne, believes that what he calls a premiumisation trend within the sparkling wine category is now emerging, with consumers seeking higher quality and showing more of an interest in learning about the different quality tiers within the sector – more good news for Champagne.

“There’s gold in them thar hills”
This was apparently the cry of prospectors rushing off to California in the 1840s Gold Rush, but you might say the same about wines and spirits.

In last month’s bulletin I wrote about some of the celebrity brands of wine and spirits that have been created by celebrities in various fields, amongst them Conor McGregor’s Proper No. 12 whiskey.

It’s recently been announced that a majority share in Proper No. 12 Whiskey has been acquired for a reported £600 million. Not a bad return considering the brand was only launched two and a half years ago.

A toast to a good deal

Of course, deals like this are very much the exception, not the rule and very few people have the reputation and following of Conor McGregor, but it’s food for thought, nevertheless.

That’s all for this month, but I’ll be back at the end of May to keep you updated.

Meanwhile, all the best from Champagne.

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