Last week, Decanter published an article under the title Champagne shortage looms after frost, rot and mildew. This refers to the not yet harvested 2016 vintage in the Champagne wine. I’ve noted that this has led to notices and articles in several other news outlets based in several countries, including some that have over- or misinterpreted what Decanter actually said. There seems to some journalists who always wants to fins a crisis/disaster/end of the world angle to a story. Let’s just say that as yet, there isn’t much reason to worry if you’re just a regular consumer or lover of Champagne, be it a big or small one, rather than a vineyard owner in the southern part of the Champagne wine region.
What did Decanter say has happened?
Several problems have plagued the vineyards in Champagne this year, in particular those in the Côte des Bar, the southernmost part of Champagne. Similar problems have struck other French wine regions as well, including nearby Chablis and other parts of the Burgundy wine region, as previously reported by Decanter. At current, about one-third of the hoped-for harvest volume in Champagne seems to be lost, at the level of the region as a whole.
Côte des Bar, the subregion of Champagne that has been particularly hard hit, is composed of the two areas Bar-sur-Aubois and Barséquanais. Here we find 7 778 hectares (19 220 acres) of a total of 34 447 hectares of vineyards in Champagne, or 22.6%. Pinot Noir makes up 86% of the vineyards in the Côte des Bar. The first to hit Côte des Bar this year was a lat spring frost. This is a frequent problem in many colder wine regions, and it causes some buds of the vines to die which then leads to parts of that year’s harvest being lost before any grapes have appeared on the vines. Decanter cites an example, Fleury (a house with only biodynamical Champagnes located in Courteron, a village in the Côte des Bar) lost 70% of its potential harvest in this way.
Later, hail struck Aube, the department where Côte des Bar is located. Hail doesn’t just destroy the grapes, but also tends to increase the risk of rot since many bunches will have some broken grapes sitting of them. Grey rot is a problem in Champagne this year. Grey rot is a “bad case” of the same fungus (Botrytis cinerea) that produces the desirable noble rot in many wine regions producing sweet wines. It is mentioned that 65% of the vineyards show smaller amounts of grey rot. As far as I undertand, this does not bode well for the quality of the vintage, because wines don’t tend to be particularly good if large amounts of grapes affected by grey rot are brought along at the time of pressing. Also, since grey rot is often a phenomenon that occur closer to harvest time (if there is excess moisture), it is a bit worrying that it is so widespread already.
This year, the entire Champagne wine region also has problems with mildew, which is an infection by fungi or oomycete on e.g. leaves or grapes, common in many wine region. The “Master” organisation says that 99% of the vineyards inspected showed symptoms of mildew. The effects of mildew on grapes or harvest, Master says that 34% of the vineyards had lost at least 10% of their harvest due to this, and that 4% had lost at least 50% of their harvest.
What does this mean in total? “Official estimates” apparently stand at 7200 kg/hectare, compared to the 10800 kg/hectare decided by the Champagne organisation CIVC in July as “mark” for this year. (This was actually 9700 kg/ha from this year’s harvest + 1100 kg/ha released from the reserves. On average, producers can be expected to put the same amount into their reserves as the take out, but an individual year they can put in more, so it would be possible for some to harvest more than 10800 kg/ha this year, if conditions allowed. I allow myself a bit of simplification here.) Unless there are no additional surprises, this year’s harvest will be 33% than wished for.
In the frost- and hail-hit Côte des Bar, the situation is much worse than the average of the region. Olivier Horiot (an excellent small producer in Les Riceys in the Côte des Bar) estimates that the harvest in this part of Champagne will be 2500-3000 kg/ha, i.e., only a fourth of what the producers there would have wished to harvest. The “heartland” of Champagne in the Marne departement has so far been less affected, though, and Philipponnat (a medium-sized Champagne house in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, part of the Lanson-BCC group) estimates the harvest in this departement to be 8000-8500 kg/ha.
Decanter also quotes Eric Rodez (a good biodynamical producer in Ambonnay), who claims that this is the most difficult growing season since 1956. It is possible that 1956 was particularly difficult in the area of Ambonnay, because Pinot Noir apparently faired worse than Chardonnay that year, but in total the harvest was 4600 kg/ha, at a time when the typical yields (harvest per hectare) were lower than today. According to statistics of Champagne as a whole, it was 1957 that gave the lowest yields in the post-WWII era, 2600 kg/ha, due to large frost problems. However, it is not necessary to go back that far to find vintages with a smaller yield than the number estimated for 2016, in several cases in combination with questionable quality. I would like to mention 1971 (5100 kg/ha), 1978 (3678 kg/ha), 1980 (5289 kg/ha), and 1981 (4353 kg/ha).
The Decanter article only talks about problems in the vineyards, before the harvest has started, and doesn’t say anything about a Champagne shortage other than in the heading. Philipponnat simply observes that the producers will have to dig deep into their reserves due to the harvest being smaller.
Consequences of a bad harvest in 2016
Many non-sparkling white wines from the 2016 harvest start to be available for purchase already in the spring of 2017, unless they see some time in oak. (Or half a year earlier if they are from the southern hemisphere.) Champagne and other bottle fermented sparkling wines are sold later, since they spend time on the lees in their bottles, following the second fermentation. This second fermentation produces the bubbles and it is the time on the lees, i.e. in contact with the yeast deposit, that results in the typical “bready/biscuity” Champagne aromas.
For non-vintage Champagnes, the minimum time on the lees is 15 months, and for vintage Champagnes it is three years. Most Champagne produces cellar their bottles longer than the minimum time. A typical time for regular non-vintage Champagnes from many of the more well-known houses is 2.5 to 3 years on the lees. This means that bottles primarily based on the 2016 harvest can be expected to be shipped from major Champagne houses starting in the second half of 2019.
This is what the schedule for non-vintage Champagnes from the 2016 harvest looks, in more detail:
- Grape harvest: typically September 2016
- Following the harvest: production of base wines (vins clair), by fermenting the grapes
- Blending (assemblage) of the batch to the filled into bottles in 2017, which means base wines from the 2016 harvest and reserve wines from earlier vintages: January-February 2017
- The blend is bottled and a suitable amount of yeast + sugar is added at the same time to start the second fermentation.
- The earliest time when the yeast deposit can be removed from these bottles by disgorgement (dégorgement), and the bottle could be supplied with its cork, is after 15 months: April-May 2018
- A more typical time is after 2.5-3 years: July 2019-February 2020
- Shipping of the bottles from the Champagne producers are typically preceded by a couple of months of storage on the cork, following disgorgement: autumn 2019-summer 2020.
If the Champagne houses would just carry on as usual following a bad harvest, a hypothetical Champagne shortage due to a problematic 2016 harvest would “hit the market” in the fall of 2019 at the earliest.
Compensation through reserve wines and future harvests
However, when there is a bad vintage, things don’t just proceed as usual. Champagne houses have large amounts of reserve wines stored in order to “even things out” between vintages. When things run smooth, the role of the reserve wines is mostly described as being there to ensure a consistent house style between years. In more blunt terms, this means that the reserve wines are used to compensate for variations in style and quality between harvests. The producers accept additional costs for storage of wine (including a capital cost for the necessary extra inventory) in order to improve the batches based on the weakest vintages.
Both the reserve wines and the inventory of not yet disgorged bottles also exist to even out the quantities produced. From the late 1980s, harvests have varied less in quantities than they did in previous decades, but established principles of production originate from the era when variations were larger.
What will happen after a smaller 2016 harvest is that the yields allowed for 2017, and perhaps also those for 2018, will be set higher by CIVC, by a combination of vintage-specific decisions and existing regulations for producer’s reserves. The system of regulated yields, and this regulated harvest sizes, exists to create a reasonable balance between grape supply and demand. It is a more extensive form of market intervention than typically found in other wine regions, and I suppose that this is justified as a compensation for the mandatory cellaring time, which is something not found in all wine regions. When there have been no major problems in the vineyards, the allowed yields are primarily adjusted to be in sync with the estimated demand a few years ahead. Since the purpose is to achieve balance between supply and demand, earlier bad harvests also enter the calculation.
The 2017 harvest will therefore allow Champagne producers to restock the stock of reserve wines which they will have to dig into following this year’s harvest. Provided that 2017 will turn out to be a more-or-less regular harvest, the smaller 2016 harvest will only be noticed as a temporary variation in the size of the reserves, including the size of the stock of bottles.
To put things into perspective, 7200 kg/ha instead of 10800 kg/ha means that grapes corresponding to about 211 million bottles of Champagne are expected to be harvested in 2016, instead of grapes corresponding to about 316 million bottles, i.e., a loss of 105 million bottles. Sales in 2015 were 312.5 million bottles, so we can make a guess what led CIVC to settle for 10800 kg/ha. Total stocks in Champagne stood at 1428 million bottles as of 31 July 2015, including reserve wines in tanks expressed as the equivalent number of bottles, and not yet released reserves. This means that stocks correspond to just over 4.5 years of sales. Admittedly, this includes bottles still to young to be sold, and reserve wines needed for the blending with future harvest, so stocks could never be brought down to zero without a supply interruption being the result. However, it is worth noting that the expected losses in the 2016 harvest only corresponds to 7% of stocks, and that possibility to compensate exists.
Unless 2017 also turn out really bad, there will not be any significant effect on the availability of Champagnes from major houses. Not even two bad vintages in a row, with 1/3 less harvest than wished for in each of them, is likely to lead to a wide-spread disaster or a noticeable shortage. So if you absolutely have to lie sleepless worrying about something, the upcoming Champagne shortage should not be it. At least not yet.
In terms of quality, it is admittedly not ideal to increase yields too far. However, there is no reason to overestimate problems associated with increasing the allowed yield by 10-20% above the figure set for 2016. Looking back in history, several very good vintages have had yields significantly above 10000 kg/ha, including 1989, 1990, and 1998.
Compensation through pricing
If there should be two or more bad vintages in a row, rather than just one, so that stocks do start to go down, this will not primarily make itself felt by empty Champagne shelves in wine shops. Instead, prices will be slightly increased to bring supply and demand into balance.
It is not possible to judge if this will be necessary by just looking at the supply side. The development of the demand also needs to be taken into account, and this is rather sensitive to the booms and busts of the business cycle, more so than most other wines, as well as sensitive to trends. Therefore, there is a lot of uncertainty about the Champagne demand in 2019-2020.
A hypothetical price increase due to insufficient supply, is likely to be felt primarily through an increase of the average price at the point of shipping from Champagne. This could mean that the availability of the cheapest “discount” Champagnes and other cheap buyers’ own brands goes down, as this market to some extent is dependent on some producers’ surplus bottles.
Worse consequences for small producers in the Côte des Bar
The description above is written primarily the perspective of us consumers, and among the Champagne producers primarily those major Champagne houses that buy in grapes from the entire region. To an individual grower in the Côte des Bar, the consequences are naturally much greater. The average vigneron of that subregion is expected to end up with a harvest about 75% smaller than aimed for, and will lose the corresponding income, either over the coming year if the grapes are sold, or spread over a couple of following years if they sell their own Champagnes. If the average is 75% less, there will likely also be those that have been hit even harder, and more-or-less don’t harvest any grapes this year.
Some high-end small producers will also find it difficult to compensate by harvesting more in coming years, although major houses and other producers that go for a “standard style” have that possibility, within reason. This is because the style of some modern small producers is built on lower yields compared to the average or allowed yields, and they are unlikely to want to change away from the style they like and which has given them a good reputation. In the Côte des Bar, there is a number of such small producers that have come to fame in more recent years. Some of those are Cédric Bouchard/Roses de Jeanne in Celles-sur-Ource, Marie-Courtin in Polisot, the aforementioned Olivier Horiot in Les Riceys, and Vouette & Sorbé in Buxières-sur-Arce.
Good news from other recent harvests
As it happens, Champagne enthusiasts don’t just have potential problems to look forward to over the coming years, but also a lot of good news in terms of good to excellent bottles already “in the pipeline”. The 2012 and 2013 vintages are quite good, and the 2015 vintage is at least very good, and possibly excellent. (I know less of 2014.) So no matter how bad the 2016 harvest will turn out, there will be a steady stream of very good vintage Champagnes to look forward to.