In March 2018, we travelled to Champagne for our annual vins clairs visit and to take on the challenge of reporting on the 2017 vintage. In just three and a half days, we met with winemakers at thirteen houses to taste their base wines and learn all about the vintage, alongside fellow Champagne fanatics Essi Avellan MW and Simon Stockton.
The Growing Season: Weather and Climate
The 2017 campaign began with difficulty. Severe frosts in spring wiped out 23% of buds across the region, with the Côte des Bar in the Aube department most affected (some vineyard managers reported losses of up to 50%). The weather then changed dramatically, with a near continuous hot and sunny spell between mid-May and the end of July setting heat records in many sites. Despite the lack of rainfall, the vines were in remarkable condition at the end of July when the Comité Champagne announced the first decisions about the harvest.
At this point, the growing cycle of the vine was about ten days ahead of the ten-year average and the Comité Champagne were optimistic about the potential of the vintage – setting the available yield at 10,800 kilograms per hectare, including 500 kg/ha to be released from the reserves. However, the situation reversed in early August. A number of storms, including some hail, damaged many vineyards and an increase in rainfall at the end of August led to outbreaks of botrytis.
This caused some panic amongst winegrowers across the region, with many deciding to commence picking early. We were in Champagne from August 27th-29th with Jancis Robinson MW and visited the infamous Clos du Mesnil vineyard with Olivier Krug. Olivier told us that Krug had started picking on August 25th – the earliest start date ever recorded for Clos du Mesnil – and had finished the vineyard before the rest of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger even started. Krug weren’t alone in picking early though. Many others started in late August (the earliest date we heard was at Moët & Chandon – August 23rd!), making 2017 one of the earliest harvests since the 1950s.
The harvest officially began on September 4th. Some of the winemakers we met voiced concerns that the decision to start harvest is heavily influenced by administration, rather than viticulture. It is believed that some growers didn’t want pickers to start in August as they would then have to produce payrolls for both August and September for thousands of pickers, which would involve considerable paperwork. In the meticulous art of Champagne production, even a one-day delay can have significant consequences for the quality of the crop.
Unfortunately for those who delayed picking, the bad weather continued throughout the harvest, forcing winegrowers to sort the grapes very carefully and discard the worst affected batches. Due to the frost and hail damage, the maximum yield was not achieved in every part of the region and most houses had to draw from their reserves to supplement production. Overall, the average alcohol content of the musts was more than 10% by volume in most sites which, along with satisfactory total acidity, left some still hopeful of producing good wines.
That said, the weather is only half the story. Once the grapes have been picked and pressed and the juice has undergone first fermentation, the winemakers can begin tasting the base wines and properly evaluate the quality of the crop. When we visited in March, assemblage was in full swing and most producers had already completed their non-vintage blends.
Individual House Summaries
The thirteen houses we visited are listed below with a summarising quote from each – click the link to view the full report.
|Bollinger | Producing a Vintage Champagne? ❌
“The vintage started well. We had dry weather in the winter and although we lost 10% of the vineyards to spring frosts, there was still potential for it to be a vintage harvest. Instead we had warm and wet weather… which is worse in terms of botrytis” – Gilles Déscôtes, Chef de Cave
|Champagne André Robert | Producing a Vintage Champagne? ✅
“The charming thing is that the weaker vintages make you appreciate the stunning ones” – Jean-Baptiste, Winemaker
|Champagne Corbon | Producing a Vintage Champagne? ❓
“Last year was… something. The toughest season since I started making wine in 2006… but one really bad vintage every 10 years is not too bad!” – Agnés Corbon, Winemaker
|Lanson | Producing a Vintage Champagne? ✅
“It was a very difficult year… the inverse of 2016. We now know when we have an early vintage, it is not necessarily a good vintage. These harvests are a big problem. We cannot fully reconstitute the reserve wines even with a good harvest next year” – Hervé Dantan, Chef de Cave
|Laurent-Perrier | Producing a Vintage Champagne? ✅
“It was an easy harvest until the end of July… and then the rain came. [Harvest] was easy and fast for the Chardonnay, but not so much for the Pinot Noir… it was difficult getting the right maturity” – Michel Fauconnet, Chef de Cave
|Louis Roederer | Producing a Vintage Champagne? ✅
“In general it was a complicated year, of which Chardonnay was the clear winner. The harvest came quickly… we started with all 600 pickers straight away rather than slowly increasing to our full picking workforce” – Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, Chef de Cave
|Moët & Chandon | Producing a Vintage Champagne? ❌
“The 2017 harvest was very challenging. Aside from 2003, this was the earliest harvest since the 1950s. Our strategy this year is to not touch the reserve wines. We will try to use up the 2017s, as they will mature early” – Amine Ghanem, Winemaker
|Palmer & Co | Producing a Vintage Champagne? ❌
“A special harvest… quite difficult. It lacks the power and acidity for a vintage. It is a good harvest for the ‘mind of people’… to understand that you can go further and produce something to be proud of regardless of difficulty” – Remi Vervier, Managing Director
|Philipponnat | Producing a Vintage Champagne? ❌
“A funny vintage… some rot, also rainy and humid, but very ripe. It is not as bad as 2001 and may be even better than 2011. We could have made a Blanc de Blancs, but the reputation [of 2017] will be so bad” – Charles Philipponnat, Chairman
|Piper-Heidsieck | Producing a Vintage Champagne? ❓
“Not a terrible year… Chardonnay was the saviour. [The Pinots] are maybe not good right now, but there is something – will it grow? We have to taste it many more times to see if it can offer something” – Regis Camus, Chef de Cave
|Ruinart | Producing a Vintage Champagne? ✅
“The consensus this year is that the black grapes were not easy. In the last 10 years, Pinot Noir has done well overall… it’s good to have a Chardonnay year for once” – Frédéric Panaïotis, Chef de Cave
|Taittinger | Producing a Vintage Champagne? ✅
“Not a great year for Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, but a good year for Chardonnay. Things evolved quite quickly… the best results were from those picked earlier” – Loïc Dupont, Chef de Cave
|Veuve Clicquot | Producing a Vintage Champagne? ❌
“Heavy rain followed by warm sunshine created tropical conditions for 44 hours, which didn’t help. Everyone was panicking during the harvest… we had to refuse delivery of a lot of grapes. A difficult year, but good for Chardonnay” – Gaëlle Goossens, Chief Winemaker
The Vins Clairs
The general consensus was that it was a very challenging harvest, although some producers certainly had a more difficult time than others. The climate conditions were most favourable in the south and the Chardonnay villages of the Côte des Blancs fared particularly well. Many areas of the Montagne de Reims were struck by storms in August (Lanson Chef de Cave Hervé Dantan identified August 25th as the key date: “The places where it rained [on that day] were not so good,” he said), damaging many of the good Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier villages.
Consequently, the houses who rely on the Pinot grapes struggled much more than others. Bollinger in particular had a troublesome time. Chef de Cave Gilles Déscôtes told us that most of the barrels are empty at Bollinger. “There is more Chardonnay in barrels than Pinot Noir. The last vintage this difficult for Bollinger was 1893,” he said.
That said, there were some strong Pinot Noirs produced in 2017. One village that consistently caught our attention was Les Riceys. Located on the southern border of the Aube, it was the only vineyard that experienced no climate issues last year. Whereas wine from sites like Ambonnay and Aÿ is usually more generous than wine from Les Riceys, the reverse was true in 2017.
Overall though, Chardonnay was the clear winner of the vintage and the white grape dominant houses had much more success. Villages that stood out include Avize, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Villers-Marmery. Unsurprisingly given their affection for Chardonnay, Taittinger had some of the best vins clairs that we tasted. Of the Le Mesnil base wine tasted at Taittinger, Essi Avellan said: “This is the first [base wine] that shows real potential for me.” The winemaking team told us they will be making a small amount of Comtes de Champagne 2017.
Other prestige cuvées that will be produced include Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2017 – Chef de Cave Frédéric Panaïotis commented: “We made one sample and it was everything we wanted” – and Clos Lanson 2017, although just 2,500 bottles of the latter are planned. Laurent-Perrier are also producing a Vintage 2017, which will likely feature in a future Grand Siècle NV blend. The preference for Chardonnay at Laurent-Perrier showed in the quality of their vins clairs. We tasted a base wine there from the Côte de Sézanne – a region not normally famed for harvesting exceptional white grapes – that was mature and richly flavoured, with impressive tension from the supporting acidity.
The 2017 growing season also saw many advances made in organic and biodynamic farming methods. The biggest advocate of biodynamic Champagne, Chef de Cave Jean-Baptiste Lécailllon, shared a quite stunning range of biodynamic wines at Louis Roederer. The best of the bunch were biodynamically farmed Chardonnays from the village of Avize, which Lécaillon will use to make his sole vintage champagne this year – Louis Roederer Blanc de Blancs 2017.
In summary, 2017 was a truly difficult vintage and one that is likely to be remembered for all the wrong reasons. However, those fortunate enough to own property in the best Chardonnay villages of the Côte des Blancs and those bold enough to begin picking early at the end of August have produced some wonderful base wines, that leave us hopeful of a few good Blanc de Blancs from 2017 to drink in years to come.
Further, as is typical during weaker vintage years, the NV blends have been bolstered with the use of the better quality base wines and higher reserve wine contents (Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label NV has 48% reserve wine this year). We tasted completed NV blends at most houses and all were tasting as rich, fresh and fruit forward as ever.
Now all that remains is to wait for maturation to work its magic. The first NV blends with a 2017 base will hit the market in mid-2021, the earliest vintages will arrive in 2023 and the few prestige cuvées made won’t be seen until around 2025-2029.
|2017 Vintage Summary|
|+ Spring frosts damaged 23% of buds across the region|
|+ Hail, rain and high temperatures at the end of August caused botrytis to spread|
|+ One of the earliest harvests since the 1950s – picking started August 23rd in some regions!|
|+ Good for Chardonnay, much more challenging for Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier|
|+ Lower yields mean many NV blends will have a higher reserve wine content|
|+ As few houses will make a vintage, the better quality wine will go into the NV blends|
|+ Some prestige cuvées will be made, mainly the Blanc de Blancs|