The Champagne 2020 vintage is the third high quality and very warm harvest in a row; a trilogy of vintages that resembles 1988, ’89 and 90, in terms of quality, but picked much earlier.
Gloriously ripe but balanced and practically disease free, 2020’s potential was recognised at the time of the harvest.
But eight months on, a Zoom tasting of the vins clairs (still base wines) from the 15 top growers in the Les Mains du Terroir de Champagne group has given another chance to assess its quality and character.
With one of the wettest winters and the warmest in more than a century, bud-burst came early in the first week of April and, after two hot dry months by the end of May, the harvest was already running more than two weeks in advance of the 10-year average.
Jean-Pierre Vazart, of Vazart-Coquart based in Chouilly, said, ‘A common issue of the past three harvests has been the heat during the last weeks of ripening. In both 2019 and 2020, heat peaks caused the vines to close down, temporarily halting the rapid ripening process and making it difficult to select the optimum time to start picking.’
Géraldine Lacourte, of Lacourte-Godbillon, in Ecueil near Reims, agreed. ‘The challenge was to wait for the right harvest date,’ she said. ‘During the past few [very warm] harvests, just checking the sugar levels has not been enough. You need to taste the grapes in the vineyard to check the seeds are ripe and the right phenolic maturity has been reached.’
Tasting the vins clairs, you can see the ripe fruit in evidence with many of the group picking at potential alcohol levels well above 11 degrees.
And several of the group have blocked malolactic fermentation – that softens Champagne’s natural acidity – in their wines from this harvest.
The Gatinois Pinot Noir, that comes from two of their best south-facing plots — Bonotte and Vauregnier – was picked at 11.2 degrees potential alcohol, said winemaker Louis Cheval. ‘That corresponds to a high maturity, but even with this level of ripeness – that brings a wonderful generosity and an intense fruitiness – with Aÿ Pinot Noir you also keep something really crisp, sharp and a freshness that gives a delicate balance.’
He added, ‘Comparing it to 2019 and 2018, I would say that 2020 stands in between the two in terms of style. There’s a hint more of freshness in 2019 and even more density and maturity in 2018.’
Vazart’s vins clairs sample, picked with a potential alcohol of 11.5 degrees, is the blend for his Special Club vintage, and ‘to preserve freshness’ he hasn’t put the wine through malolactic, as he usually does.
Showing refreshingly tangy fruit, with ripe citrus notes, there’s also a touch of bitterness on the finish, which he said is a sign of its good ageing potential.
He put 2020 ahead of 2018, which was ‘picked a little too ripe’, and also 2019, partly because they have been learning how to deal with these significantly warmer summers at harvest time. ‘When to pick is key.’