Champagne's 2009 growing season got off to a difficult start. After a cold winter, the rainy spring helped recharge groundwater reserves, but June saw a long, difficult flowering, particularly in the Côte des Blancs, caused by cool nighttime temperatures. That led to inconsistent ripening at the end of the season, but this is less of an issue in Champagne than other regions, due to the typically gentle pressing of the grapes and lack of maceration with the skins.
The wet spring led to outbreaks of downy mildew, forcing growers to use treatments to stop its spread. There were also isolated thunderstorms accompanied by hail and mudslides on June 14 and July 3 in the Marne Valley, notably in the village of Aÿ.
August debuted very hot and dry, and stayed that way all month. "We could almost say that Champagne had its first really fine summer since 2003," said Frédéric Panaiotis, chef de cave at Ruinart. "Little rain, lots of sunshine, which, combined with the early budbreak, resulted in grapes ready to be picked early September."
Picking began in earnest during the second week of September, and most growers and houses were finished by Sept. 30. Dominique Demarville, chef de cave at Veuve Clicquot, began with Chardonnay, but waited on the reds. "From my point of view, the grapes were ripe enough regarding the level of sugar and acidity, but not homogenous, due to the inconsistent flowering," he said. "Tasting the grapes a few days before, we decided to delay the picking."
From all reports, the grapes were healthy, with good levels of ripeness balanced by fresh acidity. Ruinart's Panaiotis pointed out that the numbers looked similar to 2008, but the weather patterns during the growing season were completely different, with '08 ripening at the very end, just before harvest.
"Because the summer was dry, the grapes were healthy: No oïdium (powdery mildew), no botrytis," said Pierre Gimonnet, proprietor and winemaker at Didier Gimonnet. "And when it is healthy, that is real quality—very pure flavors."
Yields ranged from 8,000 kilograms per hectare (about 3.5 tons per acre from an old-vine parcel damaged by hail in Aÿ and harvested for Deutz) to 14,000 kg/ha (6.2 tons/acre), depending on grape variety and region.
Though 14,000 kg/ha was the maximum yield in the vineyard, this year the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne limited the amount that could be bottled as Champagne to 9,700 kg/ha for growers and 8,000 kg/ha for houses. The remainder, up to 4,300 kg/ha can be set aside as reserve for future years. This policy effectively manages supply and stabilizes prices in a year that has seen sales of Champagne drop by as much as 50 percent.
Whether 2009 is a vintage year or not has yet to be decided by most houses. Régis Camus, chef de cave of Charles and Piper-Heidsieck, likens the young vins clairs to those from the 2002 and 2004 vintages.
Gimonnet noted that, "In the past, our grandfathers and fathers produced one exceptional vintage per decade. This millenium is amazing: 2002 is exceptional, then 2006 and 2008 could be exceptional. So we think we are not credible if we are saying 2009 could be exceptional too."
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