• Thu
  • Aug 21, 2014
  • Updated: 10:12am
LifestyleFood & Wine
CHAMPAGNE

Trouble with bubbles

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 12:02pm

First the bad news: there is going to be a lot less champagne this year. But the good news is that what there is could be outstanding.

After one of the worst spring growing seasons on record, producers of the world's most celebrated bubbly are bracing themselves for one of the smallest harvests in 20 years.

But thanks to a hot and sunny August, all the signs are that the chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes that go into the king of sparkling wines will be packed full of flavour.

"The vines suffered every possible disaster up to the middle of the summer," admits Champagne wine board (CIVC) spokesman Thibault Le Mailloux.

"We feared the worst, but August turned things around and all the signs are that the harvest will be of exceptional quality."

Heavy rain, destructive hail storms and late frosts have made this a stressful year for champagne producers.

A cold and wet spring prevented a good flowering of the vines, reducing the number of grapes in each bunch and promoting the appearance of millerandage, a vine disease that leads to unevenly sized grapes which ripen at different rates.

That was followed by frosts in April and May that destroyed the equivalent of 2,900 hectares, and hailstorms in June and July that accounted for a further 1,000 hectares in an area where vines had already been traumatised by attacks of two types of mildew.

"It is going to be an atypical harvest to say the least," adds Le Mailloux. "It will certainly be one of the smallest in the past 20 years and it could be as much as 30 per cent down on last year."

The CIVC has set maximum permitted yields at 11,000kg per hectare across the region, which translates into a potential 220.5 million bottles, 12 per cent or some 30 million bottles down on last year.

The fall in output may well suit the producers, however, as the economic climate cuts demand for a drink that is intimately associated with good times and celebrations.

In the first half of this year, champagne sales were down 6.6 per cent on the same period in 2011, largely due to slumping demand in France and the rest of Europe. Sales outside the EU held up better with only an 0.8 per cent contraction.

"The figures have not been great but 50 per cent of our sales are made in the last four months of the year," Le Mailloux says.

The unusual weather and ripening mean this year's harvest will start in the middle of this month and could run for 28 days, a week longer than usual. That will let winemakers harvest in two stages, ensuring the grapes are all of optimum quality.

Agence France-Presse

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