Reims, 3 September 2021
“This year is rather special. The Champagne vineyards will have seen everything!” exclaims Isabelle Tellier, Chef de Cave of the House of Chanoine Frères. “After the severe frost in early April and early May, then a cold and rainy month of May and hail in certain sectors, we had to deal with mildew and then botrytis! The weather and plant health conditions certainly haven’t been favorable, whereas demand is promising.”
Lower yields expected
Of all the vagaries that can affect production volume, the overall impact of the frost is evaluated at -30% and the impact of mildew is estimated at between -20% and -25% throughout the vineyards. That means that yield is expected to be well below the authorized level for the appellation, which has been set this year at up to 13,100 kg of grapes per hectare; the amount harvested above 10,000 and up to 13,100 kg will be used as reserve wine. In certain places, it’s feared that the yield will not be above 5,000 kg.
Bad year for organic wines?
In any case, this year’s conditions have had especially severe consequences for organic growers. Organically grown grapes have had a very bad year in Champagne. In certain vineyards, nothing is left — no leaves, no grapes. Other plots may yield only 2,000 kg per hectare! In Champagne, given the variability of climatic and plant-health conditions and their impact, reasonable farming is looking like a more... reasonable choice than organic for the vineyards and for the winegrowers.
The latest vagary to appear has been botrytis, a fungus that causes certain grapes within a bunch to rot. “Even if the entire bunch is not spoiled, it won’t be harvested; we won’t use it. And this year there’s nothing we can do because starting one month before the harvest, vineyards in Champagne can’t be treated.”
After véraison comes ripening
Véraison is when the grapes change color, which signals the start of ripening. It took place on 12 August, with véraison of the very first berries having started in early August in the earliest-ripening sectors, such as the Pinot Noir vineyards in Les Riceys. Isabelle Tellier notes that “véraison in 2021 took place seven days late compared to the decade average. We’re a long way from the very early start last year, where it had begun in late July.”
Ripening — the stage at which the grapes increase in size and the proportion of sugar grows and acid diminishes — took place during a month of August that started off cold and humid in Champagne. As of the end of August the sugar/acid ratio is in the low average, which means that total acidity will be high for the three Champagne grape varieties. Isabelle Tellier says “Those numbers are actually favorable. We want good acidity to keep freshness in our cuvées – it’s an important criterion for me.”
Sorting the harvest
“Based on the samplings done in late August to gauge the rate of alcohol and the weight of the bunches, I can see the harvest starting during the week of 13 September. Currently things are evolving well – ripening has been accelerating for a few days now, the dynamics are good, but we’re not rushing things.”
According to Isabelle Tellier, the 2021 harvest will require a lot of attention and care. “Due to all the climate and plant-health issues we’ve had, this year is showing a lot of heterogeneity from sector to sector. And there are even differences within single plots. That means that at harvest time we’ll have to be vigilant and sort the grapes more than ever. The watchword is to harvest only what’s good, and since in Champagne we only take entire bunches, this is looking to be a very selective harvest.”