Every spring, we set ourselves the task of travelling to Champagne to meet with winemakers from all over the region and taste the vins clairs (base wines) from the previous harvest. It is a privilege that we always eagerly anticipate, however given the hype surrounding the 2018 vintage it’s fair to say our excitement this year was atypically high.
In March 2019, alongside fellow enthusiasts Essi Avellan MW and Simon Stockton, we tasted base wines with winemakers at fifteen houses located in different areas of the appellation to get a variety of perspectives on vintage 2018s potential.
The Growing Season: Weather and Harvest
The 2018 growing season was remarkable from start to finish. First, an unusually wet winter saw a record-breaking 345mm of rainfall between November 2017 and January 2018, beating the previous high of 338mm set in 1965. Next, from April to June 2018, the region basked in 750 hours of cumulative insolation (sunshine) – 19% more than the 630 hour average. Temperatures above the 10-year norm then provoked rapid development of vegetation (so fast that vine workers were in a race against nature to keep up) which culminated in flowering taking place without incident in early June.
As harvest time approached expectations were sky-high, with many predicting that, if the near-perfect conditions continued, it could be one of the greatest harvests in living memory. Fortunately, the warm weather continued and 2018 broke yet another record, being the earliest harvest since records began in 1822. Although the official picking dates declared by the Comité Champagne (CIVC) set the harvest start date as August 20th, the first grapes were actually picked on August 17th by Champagne Beaufort Reol in Polisy, approximately two weeks earlier than usual.
The southernmost villages of the Côte des Bars region (Buxeuil, Polisot and Polisy) were harvested first, before pickers worked their way north through the Grand Crus of the Côte des Blancs and, eventually, the Montagne de Reims. The red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, generally ripened quicker and were picked before the Chardonnay grapes in most regions.
Despite the CIVC setting the available yield at 10,800 kg/ha (the same as the much less plentiful 2017 and 2016 harvests), actual yields were significantly higher, over 15,000 kg/ha in some regions.
Except for rain and stormy conditions on August 29th (which had little negative effect) the harvest took place under ideal conditions. Winemakers all over the region reported that the grapes looked as good if not better than expected.
Given the extreme heatwave and other highly unusual weather patterns experienced throughout the 2018 growing season, the CIVC addressed the now unavoidable impact that climate change is having on the region, commenting: “Global warming is also a local reality that Champagne growers and houses have taken into account, to adapt to the situation and to reduce their carbon footprint.”
Individual House Summaries
The fifteen houses we visited are listed below with a summarising quote from each – click the link to view the full report for each house.
“The average sugar level in 2018 was 10.5 and the average pH was 3.0, which is low” – Florent Nys, Chef de Cave
“A good vintage, although perhaps not a vintage that will keep for a very long time” – Florent Boizel, Winemaker
“2017 was the worst harvest of my life and 2018 is the best. We started to pick on 23rd August and we picked in August in 2017, 2011, 2007, 2003… the previous time was 1893. So there is definitely something happening with climate change. For now, in Champagne, it’s a chance, it’s an opportunity, but for long-term business it can be a problem” – Gilles Déscôtes, Chef de Cave
“The wines in 2018 were good overall. Some were exceptional… some over-mature. This year reminds me a little bit of 2003 and 2005… we have the ripeness of 2003 and the phenolic character of 2005. The good news is that we’ve managed to get rid of all the bad wine that was polluting the winery from 2017… that’s the biggest thing this year!” – Cyril Brun, Chef de Cave
“It was a dream, this harvest. In my career, I have never seen such a great harvest. No botrytis, no disease, and an incredible level of maturity. This is a very good vintage to have after 2017. Even the oldest 90 year winegrowers I have spoken to have never seen such a harvest” – Hervé Dantan, Chef de Cave
“When we first tasted them [the wines] in December, it was disappointing. However, now the wines have opened up, they are much more impressive. A warm climate makes a huge difference in the terroir… this year, they [the wines] are different within the cru… it’s very interesting.” – Michel Fauconnet, Chef de Cave
“We had fun in 2018. This year has produced the ultimate terroir driven wines – each parcel is really clearly different. Every summer with dry conditions, we have strong wines – the winner is the chalk, as it retains the water and expresses the character of the terroir… 2018 has the density of 2002 and the precision of 2008” – Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, Chef de Cave
|Moët & Chandon
“This was one of the best years region wide. It is on par with 2012… but still a challenging year. We had a very tough start from January to June… lots of rain, hail, pressure of mildew and no nitrogen. Then at the end we have something special” – Amine Ghanem, Winemaker
|Palmer & Co
“We are expecting a lot from 2018 because of the spring and the summer. It was a good year, similar to 2004, with lots of ripeness” – Remi Vervier, Managing Director
“The wines are pretty ripe altogether…. and aromatically fine. If there is a problem, it is with ripeness.  is better than 2009, yet not as racy as 2012” – Charles Philipponnat, Chairman
“The quality of the grapes was perfect all over the region. We have only good or very good wines… though not so many exceptional wines. The Chardonnay is the least strong varietal… the Pinot Meunier is very nice this year, as it keeps the freshness, especially in the coolest regions” – Émilien Boutillat, Chef de Cave
“This  has been a miracle for the Champagne region. It was a fantastic year… every single grape was beautiful. We have made pretty much everything in 2018” – Laurent d’Harcourt, President
“This is unlike any season we’ve ever seen, even 1976… 2003 was similar, but the nights in 2018 were not as warm. This was a year of extremes. We cannot ask for more. We’ve cleared out the [lower standard] 2017 wines and restocked with 2018” – Frédéric Panaïotis, Chef de Cave
“I think we will produce a Comtes in 2018. The quality of the wine is very nice, very interesting. When you have a harvest of good quantity and good quality, you can feel the acidity and concentration in the wine” – Alexandre Ponnavoy, Chef de Cave
“This is a good year for the Chef de Cave, definitely much better than 2017. This year, the different plots on different slopes and from different supplies in each village show very different characteristics” – Dominique Demarville, Chef de Cave
The Vins Clairs
The general consensus during our vins clairs tastings was that every region in Champagne produced either good or outstanding wines. As highlighted by Veuve Clicquot cellar master Dominique Demarville: “Some of them [the wines] are exceptional, some of them are good… none of them are bad!”
The fortunate absence of any bad wines is attributable to the complete lack of disease or rot in the vineyards in 2018. Indeed, Moët & Chandon winemaker Amine Ghanem told us how their winemaking team had to use different metrics for vineyard comparison: “This year we monitored each vineyard by acidity, rather than botrytis or rot, because there were no problems with disease.”
Ghanem also shared his slight disappointment with the Chardonnays, which he described as arriving at the winery “a little oxidised”. He proposed that this could be due to a lack of nitrogen in the soil. To be taken up by the vines, nitrogen must be catalysed by water which was in relatively short supply due to the drought between June and late September. That said, a lack of nitrogen wasn’t raised elsewhere, suggesting it wasn’t a widespread issue.
Some, but not all, producers noted that the red grapes tended to be riper than the Chardonnays, with several cautioning that a few Pinot Noirs were perhaps even a little overripe. The vins clairs that showed overripe characteristics tended to be from the south-facing Pinot Noir sites from the Montagne de Reims.
Another common thread was the low pH levels recorded. Most wines were between 3.0 and 3.1, however some houses, including Louis Roederer and Laurent-Perrier, reported average pH levels in the winery of below 3, which is extremely rare in Champagne.
Further, despite some winemakers initially raising concerns that the acidity levels were too low, Lanson cellar master Hervé Dantan proved this to not be the case. Each year, Dantan uses a ‘maturity index’ to calculate a numerical figure that is useful for comparing vintages. The equation, maturity index = level of sugar (g) / total acidity, equalled 28 in 2018, which Dantan described as “a good level, so the acidity was not a problem.”
One of the most clearly defining characteristics of the 2018 vintage and perhaps what it will be most remembered for in the minds of the winemakers was the specificity of the terroir. Due to there being minimal external factors interfering with the growth cycle, each village, and indeed vineyards within villages (and, even plots within vineyards), was afforded the freedom to express their true individual, distinctive characteristics. This was something highlighted almost unanimously at our base wine tastings.
Although some houses prefer to keep their cards closer to their chests, almost all confirmed that they will be producing a vintage 2018 champagne, with many openly declaring that they have made everything in their range. It is too early to tell whether 2018 will indeed be ‘the vintage of the century’ (as many are predicting), however the fundamental elements are certainly there. The base wines were undoubtedly the freshest, most generous and expressive that we’ve tasted over the last few years, and if they age as well as expected, 2018 could well enter the pantheon of the all-time greats.
Now all that remains is to wait for the maturation cycle to work its magic. The first non-vintage blends with a 2018 base will hit the market in mid-2022, the earliest vintages will arrive in 2024, and the prestige cuvées will be seen around 2026-2030.
|2018 Vintage Summary|
|+ Record-breaking rainfall in winter (leaving considerable water in the soil for the hot and dry summer)|
|+ An unusually warm summer with higher than average total sunshine hours|
|+ The earliest harvest since records began (in 1822); the first vineyard was picked on August 17th!|
|+ The red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, were generally riper and picked earlier than the Chardonnay grapes|
|+ Although the maximum available yield was set at 10,800 kg/ha, the agronomic yields were much higher, over 15,000 kg/ha in some regions|
|+ The pH levels were especially low in 2018, with some houses reporting an average pH of below 3|
|+ The specificity of the terroir was a significant characteristic throughout Champagne; each village displaying their individual, distinctive personalities in the base wines|
|+ All houses are likely to produce a vintage champagne, with many winemakers producing every champagne in their portfolio in 2018|