Champagne holds breath after “earliest harvest”

08 September, 2011

Growers, cooperatives and houses in Champagne have offered ambivalent first appraisals of the 2011 vintage, following what has been described as the appellation’s “earliest ever harvest”.

The two-week harvesting period, which traditionally occurs 100 days after flowering, was brought forward to as early as August 20 for some growers, after an unseasonably warm spring accelerated growth rates among the region’s vines.

Marie-Noëlle Rainon, a fifth-generation winemaker at Champagne Henriet-Bazin, started harvesting on August 21. She said: “It has been quite stressful because I have no experience of harvesting in August.”

The early arrival of grapes forced Rainon to improvise in her winemaking. With the addition of air conditioning she was able to keep the must (juice before fermentation) fresh. “When you change your habits, you don’t have the same feeling, so you have to adjust,” she said.

Jean-Hervé Chiquet, joint owner of the Dizzy-based Champagne Jacquesson - a house that grows three-quarters of its own grapes and produces 300,000 bottles per year, said: “2011 has been really strange - it has been extremely similar to 2007. In 2007 we had a dry spring followed by a very wet and cold summer, finishing with a very early harvest.”

Prior to the October/November first tasting, the feeling among many growers was that 2011 had produced good Chardonnay grapes, mixed results for Pinot Noir and poor quality Pinot Meunier.

Laurence Ployez, winemaker at Ployez-Jacquemart - a 100,000 bottle per year US-facing Champagne producer - was unimpressed by the quality of Pinot Meunier, although reserved hope for the Chardonnay harvest. She said: “This year the Chardonnay looked good so we will make a Blanc de Blancs.”

Champagne Jacquesson’s Chiquet added: “We had very good Chardonnay, some very good and very difficult Pinot Noir. It was very difficult [conditions) for Pinot Meunier.  We wanted to pick the Pinot Meunier grapes before it was too late, but they were not that ripe.”

According to Moulin, Pinot Meunier has a fading presence in his cuvées, on account of its dwindling suitability to the climate of the region. He said: “Pinot Meunier is not suited to the conditions [in Champagne] – it is too warm nowadays. For us it gives us nothing that is good, we will replace it with Pinot Noir.”

At cooperative La Goutte D'or - owner of brands such as Champagne Paul Goerg – head winemaker and MD Jean-Phillipe Moulin initiated harvesting on August 25.

He said: “Early harvesting happens more and more with the warming of the climate. It is the same in California and now it is the same for us. It was the earliest harvest ever and if it had been a hot July we would have started harvesting on August 15."

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