Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 24

I

s this the end of Champagne as we know it?
Two of the last three harvests have started in
August, in a region once so cold it was considered to be at the limit of where fine wine could
be produced.
André Simon, writing in The History of
Champagne (1962), tells us that "...grapes cannot ripen fully more than once every three or
four years." However, a look at recent results suggests that
the opposite is now true, and that today, in Champagne,
grapes cannot fail to ripen fully more than once every three
or four years.
Historically, producers reserved wines from great vintages to blend with wines from challenging harvests. Vintage-dated wines were less common. In the most recent
decade, however, Champagne has experienced an abundance of vintage-quality weather. There were only two
poor harvests, 2011 and 2017, and vintage wine was
made even in those years, some of it delicious. As for
2020, results are not yet finalized, since vintage Champagne requires a minimum of three years of aging before
it is released, and base wines from 2020 are not yet ready
for blending. Yet Hervé Dantan, chef de cave at Lanson,
has already been trumpeting the third vintage year in a
row, even as the 2020 harvest shattered all records for
the earliest vintage on record: Picking officially started on
August 17, although there were growers in the southern
reaches of the region who were allowed to begin as early
as August 13.
Some in Champagne will be quick to point out that current trends are not due solely to climate change: 1988, 1989
and 1990 are considered very successful, and '89 and '90
were both hot vintages. And in his most recent harvest
report, Louis Roederer chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon writes that the "trilogy" of 1898, 1899 and 1900 featured
even higher levels of potential alcohol and lower acidity
than seen in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Recently, I met with Moët & Chandon chef de cave Benoît Gouez, who pointed out that all ten of the vintages
with the lowest acidity levels in the past century have been
declared. Gouez is a champion of the 2003 vintage, which
had the second-lowest acidity of the century after 1959.
He pulled out a late-disgorged version of the 2003 vintage
to taste, and it showed well indeed. In fact, my own tasting
experience shows that Champagnes from "hot" vintages

CHAMPAGNE LANSON'S
2.5-ACRE CLOS LANSON
IS LOCATED WITHIN
REIMS, IN VIEW OF THE
CITY'S CATHEDRAL.

can age extraordinarily well. One of the greatest bottles
of Champagne I have ever enjoyed was a 1959 Roederer
Cristal as it approached 60 years of age. Now a rarity, it
led me to wonder what influence warmer summers will
have on vintage Champagne closer to our day.
Some of the larger grande marque houses such as Veuve
Clicquot and Taittinger are still selling their 2012. This vintage was harvested at 11 percent potential alcohol, compared to the more usual range of 9 to 10 percent. Yet the
fruit still retained enough acidity to provide plenty of backbone and structure for the wines: At harvest, the average
was 7.8 grams per liter (g/l), as compared to the warmest
vintages, where it can be just under 6 g/l.
One way to retain freshness in warm-vintage Champagne is to reduce or eliminate the dosage-the sweeten-

The Past Decade in Champagne
2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

A year of rain and rot
almost redeemed by a
beautiful September.

A challenging year.
Warm conditions early
on degenerated to
cool, rainy weather for
much of the summer-
high incidence of rot.

From the worst to the
best. After frost hit several times early in the
year, rain set in until
flowering. Dry conditions prevailed, however, from the middle
of July through harvest, producing superb
grapes.

A late harvest of
uneven quality. A year
troubled by early hail
and rain improved
significantly in July
and August. Rains
returned, however, in
September, bringing
rot and dilution.

An up-and-down year
that ended well. Rain
on and off all year
brought on sour rot
and drosophila flies,
which took ingenuity and persistence to
combat.

A hot, dry year, yet not
quite a replay of 2003,
as there was a fortnight of rain at the end
of August to refresh
the vines. The chief
issue was low acidity.

24

WINE & SPIRITS

DECEMBER 2020



Wine & Spirits - December 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Wine & Spirits - December 2020

Contents
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - Cover1
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - Cover2
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 1
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 2
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - Contents
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 4
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 5
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 6
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 7
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 8
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 9
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Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - Cover3
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - Cover4
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