Regardless of its quality, the 2011 harvest in Champagne will be remembered primarily for one thing: its extraordinarily early start date. This year, picking began on August 19, making it the earliest vintage in the region since 1822. Only a generation ago, Champagne growers were accustomed to harvesting in late September or earlyOctober; in the past decade alone, three harvests—2003, 2007 and now 2011—have commenced in August.
Looking at the statistics, it’s clear that Champagne is getting warmer. According to the CIVC, Champagne’s governing body, the region’s average temperature over the last ten years is 61.88˚F; that’s up from 59˚F in the 1990s, and from 57.74˚F in the 40 years between 1950 and 1990.
Curiously, an increase in average temperature does not always mean that vintages are warmer. The weather in Champagne is often erratic, and warm weather does not always occur at standard times. Having lived in the region for five years now, I’ve come to anticipate summer-like conditions in March or April, and to be skeptical about the summer itself, which can often be cool and grey.
This was the case in 2011, in fact: the wines are actually lower in alcohol than usual, since the early picking was not the result of a heat wave, as in 2003, but rather an exceptionally early flowering due to warm weather in the first half of the year, as in 2007. An early budbreak and flowering in a northerly region such as Champagne can be problematic, as the developing plants are more prone to frosts and hail. In addition, it makes the grapes more vulnerable in the late summer: as Vincent Laval of Champagne Georges Laval says, “With these early harvests, we’re seeing more storms, and the grapes are more susceptible to rot and other maladies.”
An increase in ripeness, however, is not a bad thing in Champagne. Today, the average quality of vintages is much higher than it was in the past, and truly poor vintages are rare: even in 2001, widely considered to be the poorest vintage of the last decade, some producers made excellent vintage Champagnes. Greater ripeness has allowed producers to chaptalize less and to decrease their levels of dosage. And it’s particularly important for Champagnes that have no dosage at all. “I remember old vintages like ’72,” Laval says, “when my grandfather harvested in October and the wine was incredibly acidic. Hemade a great brut nature—but you had to wait 20 years! Now it’s a little easier.”
Franck Pascal, in the Vallée de la Marne, believes that biodynamic viticulture has helped his vines cope better with the variable climate. “For me, a turning point was 1999,” he says, “and after that, 2005. These were vintages where the climate was notably different from previous years, and it was difficult to maintain acidity. With biodynamic treatments, particularly with 501 [horn silica], you retain a lot more acidity in the grapes, and what’s more, this acidity is allied with minerality, with both integrated into the wine to give it tension and vivacity.”
While many producers are focused on how to preserve the style of Champagne as it exists today, the more pertinent issue may be how the style of Champagne evolves as consumers adapt themselves to the changing conditions. Bertrand Gautherot of Vouette & Sorbée believes that consumer tastes evolve alongside any metamorphoses in winemaking, and that the two are inseparable. “Our consumers are not machines, they are human,” he says. “They experience the changing climate as much as we do, and their tastes and sensibilities change over time. They will adapt just as we do. ”Wine is not static: It is constantly evolving and shaping itself to the culture and audience around it, and in the end, that has as much potential to influence change as climate does.
This story was featured in W&S December 2011.
Author of the much-anticipated Champagne, an obsessively detailed guide to the region and its wines, he’s been a part-time resident of Champagne since 2006, where he reports for his site, champagneguide.net. A former tasting coordinator and critic for this magazine, he last wrote for W&S on sustainable farming in Champagne in our December 2016 issue.
This story appears in the print issue of December 2011.
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