The harvest in Champagne has ended while picking has just started in the United Kingdom. For publication in week starting 3 October 2016.
The UK harvest, which begins early this month (Subs: October), is expected to be rated a good (and possibly great) vintage. A dry summer and a hot September produced perfect ripening conditions.
Across the English Channel, the harvest in Champagne started on September 10, almost a week later than last year. Quality was reported to be high but tonnage was much smaller than in previous years; about half the size of an average year.
Richard Goring, general manager at Wiston Estate in the UK, said this year’s harvest was looking varied across different regions, and more so than in past years. “Some are heralding 2016 as the best vintage of the century, which seems a little over expectant or perhaps not mindful enough of the fantastic vintage in 2010 and the remarkable size of harvest in 2014.”
Wiston has received much acclaim this year: The 2011 Wiston Rosé won best English sparkling rosé at the International Wine Competition, and the 2010 Blanc de Blancs was named best English sparkling wine at at the annual Sommeliers’ Awards.
Goring said quality should be very good because of record-breaking temperatures in September, though quantity could be down compared with recent years. “The reduction in yield per hectare will be outweighed overall by the increased number of vineyards planted in the past decade.” He was getting ready to harvest “some wonderful-looking Pinot Noir” in the first weeks of October.
In the past decade the area of vines planted in the UK has more than doubled and is expected to grow by another 50 per cent by 2020. Production will probably almost double to 10 million bottles a year by then, compared with 6.3 million for 2015. Last year, 502 commercial vineyards were registered in England and Wales compared with 106 in 2000.
Chapel Down represents an example of a UK estate with expansion on its mind. It planted 39 hectares of new vineyards in the first half of this year: 16 hectares on leased sites and another 23 with contract partners. Frazer Thompson, the group chief executive, said consumers’ interest in English wines continued to grow.
Sarah Midgley, winemaker at Plumpton Estate, said the 2016 vintage was looking great for English wine in terms of quality “with the hot summer and low yields contributing to ripe fruit with balanced acidity”. She plans to start picking about October 4. John Worontschak, chief winemaker at Denbies in the UK, said high temperatures had accelerated ripening, noting that if October remained dry he expected excellent fruit with late ripening grapes.
The UK’s success with sparkling wines in recent international competitions has prompted Champagne houses to invest in vineyards in southern England. The chalky sub-soils and climate are similar to those of the Champagne region, and the two areas are surprisingly close when one consults a map. Chalk holds moisture, so vines in the UK coped well with the dry summer and September heatwave. Heat stress triggers a physiological response in vines and they become more efficient at transporting sugar to the fruit, which ameliorates the ripening process.
The harvest in Champagne in September was always likely to be problematic because of extremes of weather much of the year. The climate in the early months of winter were described as “challenging” and cold weather affected growth. Frosts hit almost a quarter of the region in late April, and one in seven vineyards reported major losses of buds.
Spring was colder than usual, and rainfall in some areas was up to three times higher than the average for the past 20 years. The rain meant mildew affected many vines. On June 7 severe hail destroyed grapes in some estates.
From August 24-27 a heatwave burnt vines, contributing to the small harvest. And an odd thing happened with ripening: Chardonnay usually ripens first in Champagne. This year the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier were picked first. Viticulturists said they had never encountered this before.
The average yield was about 9,700 kilograms of grapes per hectare and fruit was of good quality. Average alcohol levels for Pinot Noir were about 10 degrees and acidity levels were about 10.75 g/l. First tastings of the must suggested good balance and a high standard of quality.
But the small harvest for 2016 will probably mean prices will rise in the next few years, so best to stock up on any bargains you find.
Back in the UK, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) has started to publicise a wine trail that features the best vineyards in the south of the country. “We encourage people to learn more about this fascinating and rapidly growing industry,” the association said on its website.
In May this year then prime minister David Cameron announced his government would serve English sparkling at Number 10 Downing Street and official government functions. Miles Beale, the WSTA’s chief executive, said he hoped the new prime minister, Theresa May, and her government would continue to do the same. “English wine has never been in a better place,” he said. “Our producers are now gaining global recognition for making some of the best wines in the world. Post Brexit there are opportunities which could see the English industry grow even more than predicted – and without fear of production limits imposed by EU red tape.”
Footnote: National Champagne Week will be celebrated in London from October 1-7, an appropriate time to mention a new book about champagne. Liz Palmer’s The Ultimate Guide to Champagne (Liz Palmer Media Group: Toronto, Canada) will be reviewed in a future column.