The 2018 Champagne harvest recently ended, concluding one of the most remarkable growing seasons the region has ever seen. The harvest began in August 2018 amidst palpable excitement: it had already been a record-breaking year, picking conditions were currently perfect and the ideal weather looked set to continue. However, nothing is guaranteed where Mother Nature is concerned. With the harvest complete, we now have a much clearer picture of what can be expected from this extraordinary year.
After an exceptionally wet winter, spring and summer in Champagne saw sunshine and temperatures well above the 10-year average. These outstanding conditions led to rapid and vigorous vegetative growth, producing an abundance of healthy bunches, rich in sugar and aromas. As such, the harvest was predicted to begin in August, just the fifth harvest to do so this century (alongside 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015).
In fact, consistently hot weather throughout the summer expedited the ripening process with such haste that the harvest not only began in August, it was the earliest on record. Although the official Comité Champagne harvest dates pronounced that picking would commence on Monday 20th August, the first vineyard was actually picked on Friday 17th August, by Champagne Andre Beaufort in Ambonnay.
Through a process known as derogation, producers can apply to start picking earlier than the official start date for any village, if potential alcohol levels are half a degree higher than the figure set for the year. Winemaker Réol Beaufort, commenting on Champagne Andre Beaufort’s decision to start picking Pinot Noir on 17th August, said: “We already had 12° [potential alcohol] in some plots… we have never seen that before, except in 2003 when we started on 19th August”.
Indeed, the 2003 harvest was previously the earliest on record, during which picking began on 18th August. The earliest prior to 2003 was way back in 1822, when picking began on 20th August. However, unlike in 2003 – where extreme temperatures and an almost complete lack of rain reduced yields to just 8,256kg for the whole region – the grapes are not raisin-like and dehydrated, but remarkably healthy, helped in part by the record-breaking winter rainfall.
Although the Comité Champagne set a maximum yield of 10,800kg/ha back in July 2018, the agronomic yield in reality varied between 16,000-19,000kgs/ha across the appellation – an incredible bounty for a year of such exceptional quality. Thanks to the outstanding conditions, harvest was an unusually relaxed and stress-free period, as pickers brought back crop after crop of perfectly ripe and healthy grapes.
The quality of the musts has left many producers optimistic of the potential for vintage 2018, however we will have to wait for the first tastings in autumn and spring to confirm expectations. The work now lies with the producers to guide the wines into developing their full potential. If there are no surprises and the wines are as promising as the grapes that produced them, then 2018 could well be the vintage of the century.
Below are some comments on harvest 2018 from a selection of Champagne’s top winemakers, obtained by the website Best Champagne.
Eric Lebel, Chef de Cave of Krug
“My general impression of the 2018 harvest is that of precocity, quantity, and quality. We have never seen such a beautiful year for as long as we can remember. The harvest started in August, quite early compared to the average in Champagne. The quantity of grapes was extraordinary and so was their quality.
Through our very precise and selective approach based on the individuality of each parcel used, we have very special relationships with our grape suppliers, binding me with the winemakers who work several plots specifically for Krug. Part of my job preceding the harvest is, among others, to visit these vinegrowers, walk with them in their plots, taste their grapes, listen to their viewpoints, exchange opinions, and guide them. This tour in the vineyards throughout almost all of Champagne, made me realize that this harvest was exceptional everywhere in the region. No one was disappointed or experienced climatic accidents, or if they had experienced a few storms in May it was just “an old memory”. Seeing the winemakers’ smile and serenity before the harvest was really exceptional.
It is too early to comment on the wines of this year, but the quality of the grapes that we pressed was very high and we all hope that it will be reflected in the wines. I personally have very good hopes.
Every year is different and has its own particularities, but 2018 will be recorded in the annals of Champagne as exceptional. For the younger generations [of champagne makers] 2018 is a textbook case and I hope that in their career they will experience years like this more often because it’s really a pleasure to work with such beautiful raw material, surrounded by happy and smiling people and winemakers.”
Régis Camus, Chef de Cave of Piper-Heidsieck Rare Champagne
“As far as we can remember, we haven’t seen anything like that in Champagne before. The quantity, quality, sugar/acidity ratio, and the sanitary conditions of the grapes were excellent.
All 3 grape varieties, throughout the whole region, resulted in musts of great quality as the abundance of the harvest allowed a stricter selection of the best bunches. At this stage, the still wines are flawless and precise and let us hope for a great vintage. What a joy!”
Gilles Descôtes, Chef de Cave of Bollinger
“I have never seen anything like that before! All the grape varieties in all the sub-regions of Champagne were incredible in terms of quantity, potential alcohol, and sanitary conditions.
The Pinots from the Montagne de Reims will be the stars of this vintage in my opinion as this sector received fewer rains without suffering droughts, thanks to its chalky soil. Here the yields were smaller and the grapes very ripe, with an alcohol potential of more than 11° in our vineyards.
We have yet to properly taste the still wines, but we can clearly tell that 2018 is a promising vintage of great quality.”
Dominique Demarville, Chef de Cave of Veuve Clicquot
“The 2018 harvest is truly exceptional for quality and quantity.
Thanks to the water reserves accumulated [in the subsoil] between winter and spring, vines haven’t suffered that much in the draught. The result has been superb grapes without any sign of botrytis whatsoever. The ratio between sugar and acidity was ideal and the juices were very fruity and precise, with a nice freshness.
This harvest was also unique for its homogeneity: the whole Champagne region and all grapes varieties did very well, something very rare; it’s fantastic!
This harvest proves the exceptionality of Champagne’s terroir, mostly thanks to its chalk [subsoil], a tremendous medium for a regular supply of water into the vines.
This combined with a dry year like 2018 will deliver great wines, although to draw a precise conclusion on the quality of the still vine of this vintage, we must wait to complete the malolactic fermentations that will take place between October and December.”
Hervé Dantan, Chef de Cave of Lanson
“That was an exceptional harvest, something that we have never seen in Champagne as far as we can remember, with such quality combined with precocity and abundance.
All grape varieties, in all sub-regions, were perfectly ripe. This harvest will be included among the greatest in the history of Champagne.
2018 started under difficult conditions, with an incredibly rainy winter (the rainiest in over 50 years). The water reserves of the soils were then perfectly reconstituted, and as a result, the vine was perfectly prepared for the unexpected period [of drough] that followed.
The sunshine in spring and summer were exceptional, with low rainfall and high temperatures. Only 2003 was warmer and sunnier. Thanks to these beautiful conditions and the water reserves stored in our chalky soil, the ripening of the grapes took place in exceptional conditions.
The average potential alcohol of all grape varieties are high (more than 10°) and the acidities are preserved and in line with those of the great sunny vintages. It’s a perfect balance that we hope will result in a great vintage.
It’s is still early to assess the wines of this vintage as we will have to analyze their evolution in time, but the first still wines we tasted suggest a great potential, with very fine and precise fruity aromas, and a remarkable volume in the mouth associated with great finesse.”
Benoît Gouez, Chef de Cave of Moët & Chandon
“The combination of a harvest so precocious, generous, ripe, and healthy is unprecedented in the history of Champagne!
In 2018 the vines had the ability to feed the grapes [thanks to the chalky subsoil full of water reserves] and offer us extraordinary yields despite the drought.
The sugar/acidity ratio and the grapes’ health remained very stable from the beginning to the end of the picking, which is the sign of a harvest started at the right time and led in the right order.
The balance between sugar and acidity could remember 2003 but the pH is much lower. The only small downside is that the available nitrogen is historically very low, which poses a risk for the smooth running of the fermentations, so we must remain attentive.
We can be satisfied with the results in the whole of Champagne but if we want to quibble a little we can say that the Chardonnays are a little behind their historical performance, because of an unusual sensitivity to oxidation during the settling (débourbage), and that the Pinot Noirs of the Côte des Bar are a little less mature than those of the Marne. The Meuniers are very promising!
The richness in anthocyanins in Pinot Noirs and Meuniers was very high thanks to good temperature changes between day and night during the maturation phase of the grapes. The red wines should be exceptional; however, we must wait until the end of the malolactic fermentation to taste the wine properly.”
Odilon de Varine, Chef de Cave of Gosset
“The grapes were beautiful! Many superlative adjectives have been used to describe this year, and rightly so. Our oldest supplier [of grapes], in its 71st vintage this year, has never seen anything like that before! The particularity of this year is that everything was beautiful everywhere!
The analytical profiles of the musts are quite different from what we usually vinify: nice alcohol degree, rather low acidity, high pH … i.e. a beautiful physiological maturity.
But it’s still a bit early for me to assess the wines. The fermentations are still on the way, and we do not judge the future of a man when he is still in the belly of his mother! And our job is nevertheless based on what nature has to offer, we must never forget that, especially after the last two challenging vintages.”
Florent Nys, Chef de Cave of Billecart-Salmon
“The 2018 harvest is remarkable as nature has been particularly generous with us. The ripeness of the grapes was exceptional with very little malic acids and perfect sanitary condition.
Cultural practices such as tillage have limited the yields, and when necessary we proceeded with green harvests in July to reduce the bunches.
The grapes were of exceptional quality with a natural sugar level close to 11° potential, an ideal acidity with very little malic acid, which will allow winemakers to choose if undergo malolactic fermentation or not according to their style, but without dramatically changing the wines’ balance.
Our cold fermentations [just under 13°] prolong their lengths and many of our wines are still fermenting. However, the earliest picking of 25th August reveals very fruity wines, plenty of freshness with citrus aromas, and nice lengths.
Chardonnays from the Côte des Blancs and Pinot Noir from Mareuil-sur-Ay (where Billecart-Salmon is based), from vineyards whose soil has been worked mechanically, have a very good structure and their balance is extremely promising.
In a few words, I would describe the first wines of 2018 as intensively fruity, fresh and citrusy, balanced and smooth.”