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 August 2020

Quick, quick, slow… and other events

Quick, quick…

Harvesting at Jacques Rousseaux1Over the past month, as the harvest approached, this strange year in Champagne got even stranger.

In early August the hot weather meant that the grapes were ripening at a speed that took everyone by surprise, so much so in fact that the announcement of the start dates for the harvest had to be brought forward to 15th August – only just in time for some areas of Champagne who were given permission to start picking just a couple of days later, on 17th August.

One vigneron in Buxeuil, in La Côte des Bar, even got a special derogation to start on 13th August!

Even more bizarre was the fact that, for the first time ever, the starting dates for the harvest were announced before agreement had been reached about the authorised yield per hectare.

I spoke to one wine maker in mid-August who just shrugged and said, “We simply don’t know what’s going on!”

Eventually, at the eleventh hour, a compromise was agreed at 8,000 kg/hectare which is enough to produce 230 million bottles (compare this to last year’s authorised yield of 10,200 kg/hectare, enough to produce 300 million bottles). Even within this 8,000 kg a small proportion must be held in reserve until 2022 to see how quickly and how much market demand bounces back.

Slow

Veraison at Mousse 640Once the start dates were known, many people summoned their harvesting teams to start picking as soon as they could, whilst other (wiser?) voices were urging patience to avoid getting carried away.  The concern of the latter was that despite the data on the acidity and sugar content all indicating that the grapes were, or very soon would be, perfectly ripe, technical data are not the only, or even the most important guide to when to pick.

More important than these data is phenolic maturity, in other words, how the grapes actually taste and their aromatic profile – these are things that can only be judged by sampling the grapes which can only be done by the growers going out into the vineyards and tasting the grapes for themselves, village by village and plot by plot. There are no machines as sensitive and skilled as a wine maker and her/her expertise.

This first-hand sampling revealed a great deal of heterogeneity across regions, villages and grape varieties and this prompted many growers to ask if it might perhaps be a good idea to wait a while longer.

Sure enough, a few days of fairly widespread rain literally ‘put a damper’ on the breakneck speed of ripening and necessitated calling a halt, or at least a pause, in picking in many area.

From a wine maker’s point of view this is the last thing you want because you still have to pay your team of pickers even if you tell them to take a day or two off and then there is the concern that they may have to leave before the job is completed.

As I write this bulletin, picking is still in full swing in many villages and may well continue for a few days yet. No serious wine maker will make a definite pronouncement about the quality of the harvest at this early stage, but many are saying ‘So far, so good’.

Also of interest is the fact that the few days delay in picking meant that the average time from flowering (end of May) to harvest was 88 days – a far cry from the 100 days that traditional wisdom always suggested, but not as short a time as the 85 days that, at one point just a few weeks ago, seemed likely this year.

The rise of rosé

I doubt that there are many of you reading this bulletin who have not heard of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. What you may not know however, is that they invested in a Provencal wine estate several years ago and now produce a much-sought-after and highly-priced Côtes de Provence rosé wine called Château Miraval https://www.miraval.com/en/home/

A few months ago, they announced their intention to produce a rosé champagne, Fleur de Miraval, in collaboration with Rodolphe Peters, the much-admired winemaker at Champagne Pierre Peters in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

Fleur de Miraval laquered bottledThis week, pictures of the new champagne were released. The bottle is sober, classic and elegant in appearance. It’s scheduled for release on 15th October at a retail price of 340 euros per bottle.

This seems like a smart move by Brangelina who are ideally placed to benefit from the worldwide growth in sales of rosé wines.

According to an August 28th article on the website  ‘The Connection’, sales of rosé wine in the USA have grown by as much as 40% per year over the past 8 years and much the same trend in being seen in other markets too: in France rosé now outsells white wine and accounts for a full 30% of the market.

Some of the rise in sales is perhaps down to the number of celebrity brands that have been launched, but they account for only a small portion of the market and there’s a much more significant, underlying trend in play.

The consumer base is also expanding; it’s not just female consumers who are enjoying rosé wine, men are buying rosé in increasing numbers, as are younger consumers.

All in all it’s becoming increasingly mainstream to view the world (of wine at least) through rosé- coloured glasses.

By the way, the idea of creating your own private champagne brand is not limited to celebrities. It does require some investment and planning, but if you are interested in exploring the possibilities, I can help you turn your dream into reality. Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to find out more.

A new tourist destination in Epernay

Chateau Perrier in EpernayAmongst all the elegant buildings on the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay I always found one of them – Le Château Perrier - rather dark and foreboding. Not that it wasn’t impressive in size or imposing in appearance, it is both of these, but for many years is was unused and falling into disrepair.

The château has had a somewhat chequered history. Built in the 1850s by the Perrier-Jouët family, it rivalled in scale and ambition any of the magnificent ‘maisons’ already installed on the most famous of all streets in Champagne.

You can view a few images of the chateau on this site (in the diaporama section)

https://www.fondation-patrimoine.org/les-projets/chateau-perrier-a-epernay

The château originally served as the family home but, like everything else in Champagne, had a hard time of it in World War II serving successively as the headquarters of the British Army (1940), the German Army (1942-1944) and then for the US Army (1945).

After the war, it became the museum of the pre-history and archaeology of Champagne, but the bill for the upkeep of the premises proved to be as huge as the building itself and, as it seemed to me at least, the building became uninviting, sombre and little used.

Fast forward to this year and the château has had a new lease of life and thanks to generous donations from a large number of private and public donors, it has benefitted from a comprehensive renovation and has been restored to all its former glory. From this Autumn it will be opening its doors once again as the Museum of the History and Archaeology of Champagne. It’s also included in the part of Champagne designated as a Unesco World Heritage site. Well worth a visit if and when you need a break from champagne tasting to nurture the more cultural side of your soul.

The Fizz Quiz

Summer BreakThat’s all for this month except to tell you that, after a summer break, The Fizz Quiz will be back soon coming to you in your home, via Zoom.

The Fizz Quiz is the only quiz dedicated to champagne and it attracts wine lovers and wine professionals from around the world to test their knowledge of champagne with some wickedly difficult questions (and a few easier ones too).

It’s free, it’s fun and you are bound to learn something you didn’t know before.

Email me if you’d like to receive details of the next Fizz Quiz This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 All the best

A few early thoughts about the 2020 harvest in Champagne

Case of grapes and background640The start dates for picking were announced last Saturday 15th August and a quick glance at what, at first sight, seems to be simply a list of dates, can tell us quite a bit more about what happens behind the scenes.

To view the entire list, copy and paste this link into your browser

file:///C:/Users/Devil/AppData/Local/Temp/dates_de_vendanges.pdf

Each village and each grape variety is given its own specific start date. Consequently, there is quite a wide range of dates ranging from as early as 17th August for some villages in the Aube region, to as late as 30th August for the village of Grauves in La Côte des Blancs.

In general, it’s the vignerons in the Aube who will start picking first and those further north, near Reims and Epernay, who are being told to wait a week or so longer, and it is Pinot Noir and Meunier that will be picked a couple of days before Chardonnay.

Strictly speaking, picking shouldn’t start before the official start dates, but if a vigneron has a compelling reason to start earlier he or she can apply for a ‘dérogation’  - special permission to start earlier -  and one vigneron, in the village of Buxeuil in the Bar Séquannais region, did just that and started harvesting on Thursday 13th August. I suspect that this may be an all-time record.

The official start dates are only a guideline and it is up to each grower to decide on the start date that is suitable in his/her vineyards. This decision is based on a number of factors: the most obvious consideration is the maturity of the grapes in terms of the level of sugar (potential alcohol) and of acidity. Both these indicators are looking exceptionally good this year and already some people are suggesting that the wines from 2020 will be of exceptionally high quality.

In addition, the growers also have to take into account the weather forecast, the rate at which the grapes are ripening and the threat of disease. Fortunately, the latter is very low this year.

The watchword this year seems to be ‘ Don’t rush’ – just because you are allowed to start picking doesn’t mean that you should start immediately. The more prudent growers seem prepared to wait a few days until they judge the condition of the grapes to be perfect in terms of phenolic maturity, in other words, what the grapes taste and smell like.

The data on sugar and acid content will give an indication about this, but the most conscientious growers will be out in the vineyards every day picking a few grapes and tasting for themselves. No matter what advances are made in the realms of science there is, as yet, nothing to replace the skill and experience of the grape growers and wine makers.

More news coming soon.

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