Looking back on the 2023 harvest

You may well have read several reports already about this year’s harvest in Champagne, but the few weeks that have passed since picking and pressing stopped may allow us to get a more complete assessment of the situation and I would say that the verdict is that what promised to be an exceptional year has come up just a little short.

It was a year of contradictions: overall a good vintage, but perhaps not a great vintage.

No solutions, just trade-offs

The weather up until August was fairly benign with no unusual bouts of frost nor any problems with disease in the vineyards. However, August was warm, wet and humid: perfect conditions for rot to set in and this soon became a major concern that threatened to get worse with every passing day.

Pourriture 2

Any bunches affected by rot should not be picked because they can give an unpleasant taste to the juice off the press so, widespread rot means that picking has to be done very carefully to leave out rotten bunches, but this takes more time and, as in so many instances, more time taken to harvest means higher costs, so there’s a trade-off to be found between quality and cost.

The start dates for the harvest were fixed for the first week, or so, of September – the exact date varying from village to village and from one grape variety to another. By this time much warmer weather had arrived which usually means that the sugar level in the grapes (and therefore the potential alcohol) would increase quickly, but this didn’t seem to be happening and the sugar levels were only creeping up slowly.

This presented another dilemma for the wine makers: should they wait a few days longer to allow the sugar levels to rise, or should they pick as soon as possible before rot caused more damage to the crop?

In general, those who decided to harvest sooner rather than later came off better, not least because even for those who waited a few days more, the sugar levels never really got up to 100 which is what would normally be expected.

Usually, this low sugar level would mean that the level of acidity in the grapes, which has an inverse relationship with the level of sugar, would remain fairly high, but somewhat strangely, this year the level of acidity also remained quite low.

Great Champagne always needs a good degree of acidity and of sugar and so the combination of lowish levels of both sugar and acidity could be problematic, but this could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

The lowish levels of sugar remind some people of the harvests that were common some 15 or 20 years ago which would be no bad thing give the high quality of some of the vintages from that period.

On the positive side, it was a big harvest with the vines fully laden and what’s more, the weight of the bunches was unprecedented with some being as much as 1 kg (2.2 lbs). In theory that should mean more juice from which to make champagne, but the problem with rot meant that not every bunch could be picked so the final yield was not as large as had seemed likely a few months ago.



Big bunches reduced

Another positive measure was the announcement that amount of wine that is allowed to be put into reserves was increased. This is especially important at the moment because stocks have been run right down over the past couple of years as a result of small harvest in 2020 and 2021 coupled with strong increases in sales.

In addition, the relatively low levels of acidity may mean that the champagnes from 2023 will not need quite so many years ageing in the cellars and so will be ready for sale sooner rather than later.

In the days and weeks following the harvest, the first job is to carry out the first alcoholic fermentation that turns the grapes juice into still wine. It’s important that the fermentation takes place slowly and steadily because that preserves the full breadth of aromas in the wine. Normally fermentation takes about 2 weeks to complete but some reports indicate that this year the fermentation was more rapid than usual for reasons which are not entirely clear.

Nevertheless, some vignerons are saying that this year’s wines are very aromatic, so once again we have something of a contradiction at play.

Inox vats

The lowish levels of sugar remind some people of the harvests that were common some 15 or 20 years ago. Who knows if this trend will continue? It seems unlikely given that average temperatures have risen noticeably over the past 15 years or more, but only time will tell.

Other issues

On the subject of rising temperatures, a lot of attention was given, not unsurprisingly, to the fact that at least 4 grape pickers died in the vineyards due to the heat which was well above 300C on some days during the harvest.

I imagine that this will lead to earlier starts for pickers in the morning and perhaps even to harvesting at night.

Also in the news in Champagne were stories about the working conditions for the harvesters, which in some cases were reportedly appalling.

Some 100,000 people come to Champagne each year to take part in the harvest and this puts a huge strain on the local infrastructure. Many travellers come to earn money doing the harvest and it’s a common site to see groups of caravans parked on any spare piece of ground.


In past times, pickers were often housed and fed by the champagne makers and this is still true in some cases, and the traditional end-of-harvest meal called 'Le Cochelet' is an experience not to be missed, but stricter regulations about the standard of accommodation led to many champagne makers having to abandon the idea of housing the pickers because the cost of upgrading the facilities was too great.

Tissier meal

In principle, this improvement in standards was a good move designed to make life easier for the grape pickers however, with fewer pickers being lodging ‘in-house’, more of them need somewhere else to stay and that means even more caravan and camping sites where conditions are not good, to say the least.

To make matters worse there have been many allegations of so-called ‘gang-masters’ recruiting workers from outside France and exploiting them in all manner of ways.

The majority of champagne houses are very responsible and pay their pickers decently, but unfortunately there are almost a few ‘bad apples’.

In any event, conditions were said to be so bad in some cases that the story hit the local and national press with the result that an inquiry was set up which should see things much improved for next year.

Thank you for reading this bulletin from Champagne and do come back again next month for more news.

Until then,

All the best