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Champagne harvest 2023: A bumper crop

Champagne’s 2023 harvest officially began on 7 September, breaking records with its generosity as producers navigated a complex balance between ripeness and disease pressure.

‘In July we expected bunches of 140g,’ said Bollinger cellar master Denis Bunner, ‘but at harvest they were averaging 200g – the record bunch is 1.2kg!’

Champagne’s system of supply management means that only the official yield – 11,400kg per hectare in 2023 – will be allowed to be turned into Champagne this year. However the amount that producers can hold in reserve ( used to boost future harvests if they are less generous ) has been raised by 2,000kg per hectare to make use of the generous crop. What is actually on the vines this year, though, is often much higher, with one producer admitting to 32,000kg per hectare in a plot of old Chardonnay vine .

Why is the yield so generous?

Firstly, there was little to no spring frost damage. Secondly, there was an exceptional flowering period at the beginning of June. ‘The Comité Champagne measures the pollen in the vineyards, and it was so high they thought there was an error,’ said Bunner.

A mixed July was followed by an August that proved somewhat cool and rainy, swelling the berries. ‘Normally the sugar is supposed to accumulate in August, but that didn’t happen as the grapes just kept growing,’ said Alice Paillard of Champagne Bruno Paillard. ‘Some small berries got squeezed, and at the end of August the botrytis started,’ she said.

Bunner added, ‘Nature was very generous at the beginning, but capricious at the end.’

Chardonnay – the star of the vintage?

Drier conditions in the Côte des Blancs , together with Chardonnay’s thicker skins, meant this area escaped the worst of the disease pressure (as it did in 2011 and 2017). The signs are good, with growers widely reporting sugar levels between 10 and 11 degrees potential alcohol, clean grapes and moderate but not abnormally low acids.

For Jérôme Legras of Champagne Legras & Haas in Chouilly, the year has echoes of 2004 for Chardonnay, a vintage still showing well today (and a vintage with similar – if not quite as exceptional – generosity of yield). Bunner also said he is ‘very confident’ about the quality of Chardonnay this year.

Pinot Noir and Meunier – more uneven

Champagne harvest 2023

2023 Pinot harvest in Reuil at Maison Bruno Paillard. Credit: Maison Bruno Paillard.

The beginning of September saw a rapid increase in temperature, quick veraison (when berries turn from green to red) and, finally, rising sugar levels. ‘We were lucky that the botrytis mostly dried out,’ said Paillard, who remains optimistic despite having to reject one press load of Pinot Noir from a cooler, more humid zone in the Montagne de Reims at the beginning of the harvest.

Much of the Grande Vallée and the drier terroirs of the Montagne de Reims appear to have fared relatively well, though. Bollinger’s Côte aux Enfants vineyard, which provides red wine for the house’s rosés, was ‘fully ripe, with brown seeds,’ according to Bunner.

The Pinot Noir from earlier-ripening sites in the northern Montagne area was reaching maturity by the 14 or 15 September, though many producers are wary of what Bunner calls the ‘shrivelling’ of berries that was widely seen due to the heatwave during the first week of September.

‘The heatwave degraded the sanitary state of the grapes, but it’s less dangerous than the rain,’ said Rémi Leroy of his eponymous domaine in Meurville in the Côte des Bar , where the Chardonnay was ‘magnificent’ and the Pinot Noir had ‘no mouldy or vinegary tastes’ despite an ‘average sanitary state,’ he said.

It is Meunier , though, that is the most delicate of Champagne’s grapes – yet also the one planted in some of its more humid terroirs. At Champagne Christophe Mignon in Festigny, Loann Mignon was making sure only healthy grapes were picked, and that pickers were selecting for ripeness, too. Cutting open a dark purple bunch of Meunier grapes, he noted how the inside was still partially green, and how the bottom of the bunch was not as ripe as the top: ‘a peculiarity of this year,’ he said.

Sorting – essential for quality in 2023

In Champagne, all grapes are harvested as whole bunches. Sorting out the good from the bad, then, almost always has to happen in the vineyard, rather than after destemming – as is common for top red wine production.

This is a laborious process that requires tight management of picking crews. Around 120,000 seasonal workers descend on Champagne for the harvest, according to the Comité Champagne, and most are paid by the kilogram, not by the hour. Persuading them to sort the grapes by quality, therefore, can be complex. ‘When they’re paid by weight, you cannot ask them to sort in the vineyard, and most growers are too small to have sorting tables,’ said Legras. The solution for some, including Legras & Haas, is to ‘pay your in-house team to sort out the detritus’ before the harvesters come through, allowing the subsequent picking teams to harvest everything on the vines.

Champagne harvest 2023

2023 harvest, Maison Bruno Paillard. Credit: Maison Bruno Paillard.

At one commercial pressing facility in Aÿ, crates of immaculate, ripe grand cru Pinot Noir grapes sat destined for a well-known prestige cuvée. In the press, though, were some less well-sorted Pinots, pressed under contract for another producer. This juice could end up being rejected later in the process if of poor quality, but, as happened in 2017 (one of the worst-affected vintages in recent memory), there are usually buyers if the price is right. Around the corner, though, Louis Roederer’s press house was full of clean Pinot Noir; even the very last pressings tasted ripe and pristine.

2023 may not prove a year to remember for Champagne’s most economical wines.

Large or small, organic or not, some very good wines will be made by those with enough control of the process: ‘Some people will say it’s the year of the vigneron, not the winemaker,’ said Paillard, ‘but it’s not only that . It’s a year when we will do well if we have perfect continuity of information between the vineyard, the press and the cellar.’

The full spectrum

Phillipe Brun of Champagne Roger Brun offered a pithy take on the year: ‘Of course, I can’t tell you how the harvest is until after the vinifications,’ he said with a wink.

When it comes to harvest, easy is not good, and hard is not bad; in the right hands, and in the right places, 2023 promises plenty to look forward to.

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