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Champagne 2021 harvest: Picking nears end as growers weigh losses

Champagne could see its smallest crop for 40 years, according to France's agriculture ministry, but this month's harvest has also revealed the disparity in producers' fortunes in a year hit by frost, mildew and hail.

Champagne could lose close to 30% of its 2021 yield due to frost, and another 25 to 30% due to mildew, said the Comité Champagne after harvest began on 6 September.

Final figures are not yet available, with picking set to continue until 27 September, but it’s clear that Champagne has faced one of its most difficult growing seasons for many years. This follows three successive warm and sunny vintages that were pretty easy to manage and practically free of vineyard diseases.

Things went wrong in 2021 from the outset with frost, hail, disease – particularly mildew and powdery mildew but also botrytis – plus storms and torrential rain, all reducing potential yields.

After budbreak in late March, vineyards across the appellation were hit by 12 days of frost between 6 April and 3 May, with the lowest temperatures and most damage recorded 6-7 April and 3 May.

Worst affected were the southernmost Barséquanais and Bar-sur-Aubois areas and the Massif de Saint Thierry to the west of Reims, which were estimated to have lost 63%, 51% and 45% respectively of the potential harvest.

May was cold and wet with higher rainfall than normal, particularly in the Côte des Bars region south-east of Troyes. As it warmed up at the start of June, mildew problems started to spread and downy mildew became a big problem by the end of the month, made worse by storms in the Marne and Aisne Valleys.

Hail damaged around 500ha of vineyard during the growing season, wiping out the entire crop in half of that area, the Comité Champagne said.

Organic producers were particularly badly hit as the fairly constant rain made it difficult to get into the vineyards to treat disease outbreaks.

Hervé Dantan, Champagne Lanson’s winemaker, said: ‘You have to treat the vines again after every 20mm of rain and this year over the 14-16 July we had 115mm of rain in just three days in some places.’

It was a disaster in the house’s 16ha of biodynamically farmed vineyards in Verneuil in the Marne Valley, used to produce Lanson’s Green Label Organic cuvée.

‘Here we are only expecting to pick about 1,000 kgs/ha,’ said Dantan. ‘Some producers in the Marne have been so badly hit they are not even bothering to pick the few grapes they have.’

The picture is rather better in the Côte des Blancs, less badly hit by frost, where picking is only starting in major crus like Chouilly the largest, Avize and Cramant this week (20 September).

Jean-Pierre Vazart, in Chouilly, planned to begin 22 September. ‘It’s a gamble, given the satanic weather we’ve had, but I want 11 degrees (potential alcohol) and at the moment it’s only 9.2-9.3.’ He’s hoping to get a yield at around 10,000kgs/ha.

Some producers have remained upbeat about quality in 2021. ‘It is still too early to estimate the quality, which could be good,’ Anne Malassagne, co-owner at AR Lenoble, told Decanter last week.

The previous harvest badly hit by mildew was 2012, which proved to be a top-class vintage and, despite all the difficulties, winemakers are pretty pleased with the acid ripeness balance of 2021.

As reported by Decanter in July, the Comité Champagne set a maximum yield for the 2021 harvest at the more normal level of 10,000kg/ha, up significantly on 2020 following a ‘dramatic rebound’ in demand for Champagne around the world.

Shipments were up by 50% in the first half of 2021 versus the same period of 2020, when demand sank to ‘historic lows’ following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Comité has since set an overall maximum yield of 13,100kg/ha for 2021, but producers can only use the additional allowance above 10,000kg/ha to top up their reserves.

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