CHAMPAGNE HARVEST 2016
A BAD CASE OF WHITEVANITIS AND SORTING THE WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF
You can tell immediately that the harvest is in full swing in Champagne. One tell-tale sign is the rash of white vans that appears all over the vineyards (OK there are a few grey ones too, but there are so many white vans that one suspects that Champagne is keeping the whole white van manufacturing business going)
Another sign is the busy roads. I use the term ‘busy’ loosely because anyone who lives in a major city or town would laugh out loud at what passes for ‘a lot of traffic’ here in Champagne, but nevertheless there are a lot more people around than usual. That’s hardly surprising seeing that it is estimated that close on 120,000 extra jobs are created for the period of the harvest: that’s not just the pickers themselves, but the caterers who feed the pickers, the people who transport the picked grapes and the plethora of other support staff that are needed.
Another sign is the crisscross pattern of black tyre tracks on the road where cars have driven through the sticky mass of juice that drips onto the tarmac from cases of picked grapes that start leaking on the way to the press house.
It’s an exciting time of year and it’s all too easy to let the heady atmosphere go to... well, to your head. This tendency is no more apparent than in the prognostications that everyone and their dog start making about the quality of the harvest, but once again this shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, it’s a rare wine maker who comes out and says “My wine is rubbish this year. Don’t buy it” (although to their credit Nyetimber, for one, did decide not to bother picking their harvest in 2012 because they felt the quality of the grapes was not up to their standards).
Wine makers and wine retailers are far more likely to emphasise the positive side of the harvest. A case in point is the claim recently made in the publication Drinks Business
It’s certainly true that France has had a lot of bad weather this year and that the UK has probably had the better of it, but whilst that is promising for UK wine makers, it is not a guarantee that the wine in one country will be better than the wine produced in the other. Mind you, you certainly can’t blame the English wine makers from wanting to get their claim in as early as possible – that’s just normal marketing practice.
However, most serious wine makers, whilst being optimistic about the quality of the grapes as they come off the vines, will tell you that until the first fermentation is done and the wine has had a few weeks or months to develop, it is simply premature to make any sweeping statements about whether or not the juice will make great wine. So, in just the same way as a grape picker has to select only the good bunches and leave any that have traces of rot, it pays to be selective in what you read in the wine media. Even ‘experts’ can get it wrong ,conclusions reached in haste can be mistaken and no one knows for sure what the passing of time will bring.
But back in 1975 when they were harvesting the grapes there was little indication about how great the wine would turn out to be. In fact according to Decanter:
On paper, 1975 was not an ideal vintage. Spring was cold and budbreak late, though flowering took place in fine conditions. The summer was warmer than usual, with a few August storms.
Harvest began on 29 September and had to be completed fairly rapidly, as the weather soon worsened. A small crop produced wines high in acidity, which gave many 1975 Champagnes the structure for long ageing.
Finally, I can’t resist telling you two quick stories about a champagne maker I know who has a mischievous sense of humour and who delights in pulling the wool over the eyes of people who should know better. On one occasion he bought some white vinegar at the local supermarket and put it in the fridge the night before a tasting with some prominent journalists. The next day he served the vinegar, ice cold, as the first wine to be tasted. There were several comments about the ‘wine’ being too cold, a bit rough, or too young, or green, but only one taster suggested that it wasn’t really wine at all.
On another occasion the same champagne maker was visited by a very well-known wine writer. A range of champagnes were served but, unbeknown to the wine writer, wine 1 and wine 5 were the same. Wine No.1 received very complimentary remarks but wine 5 was said to be mediocre at best. Go figure.
As for the 2016 harvest, let’s come back in February or March next year and take another look at how the wines are developing.