Quick, quick, slow… and other events
Over 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.
Once 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.
This 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.
A new tourist destination in Epernay
Amongst 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)
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
That’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.
All the best