Nearly two weeks ago, the 2018 Champagne harvest officially began. Each year, the Comité Champagne determines individual start dates for all 320 crus of Champagne, with different dates set for the three main grape varieties, depending on grape health, potential alcohol, and acidity levels. The earliest official start date for the 2018 harvest, set for the southernmost villages of the Côte des Bars region (Buxeuil, Polisot and Polisy), was August 20th.
Although the official dates are distributed to every grower in the region, producers are allowed to begin picking earlier than the scheduled date for a particular cru if potential alcohol levels are half a degree higher than the figure set for the year. Under such circumstances, picking can begin from as early as August 15th, as long as the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité are informed.
Although the very first grapes of 2018 were picked on August 17th (by Champagne Beaufort Reol in Polisy), most producers began a few days later. Pol Roger were one of the earliest houses off the mark, picking Pinot Noir grapes in the Grand Cru villages of Bouzy and Verzy on August 22nd. They started with their Chardonnays in Cramant and Épernay a few days later and expect to have finished picking all of their vineyards by September 11th. The house seem impressed with the crop so far, describing it as “some of the best condition we have seen.”
Many other houses began a day later on August 23rd, including Bollinger, Krug and Ruinart. Bollinger started in Aÿ, with the famous Clos Saint-Jacques plot of ungrafted vines that produce unique Pinot Noir grapes for the exclusive Vieilles Vignes Françaises cuvée. The next day they picked Les Chardonnieres in Verzenay – at a high 11.6% potential alcohol – the first juices of which were already in barrel by August 27th. Bollinger’s first Chardonnay grapes were picked in the Premier Cru village of Cuis in the Côte des Blancs on September 1st.
Interestingly, Krug were one of the few houses to begin with Chardonnay rather than Pinot Noir, picking the Les Corroies plot in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger on August 23rd. The 2018 harvest will of course form the base vintage in the future blend of Krug Grande Cuvée Edition 174 NV, although it will be some years before we get to taste the result.
The first sub-plot of Krug’s renowned Clos du Mesnil was picked on August 25th (a day later than last year) and the last sub-plot wasn’t finished until September 2nd. That Krug utilised a full week to harvest this tiny 1.84-hectare Clos is indicative of just how much variance in maturity and ripeness there is not only between different vineyards but also within a single vineyard. In contrast, the Clos d’Ambonnay harvest was completed in just a few days and produced a slender nine barrels of wine for Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 2018, should it be produced.
For Billecart-Salmon, the 2018 harvest is already extra special as it represents their 200th since they established in 1818. They began picking the first of their Pinot Noirs in the single-vineyard plot of Clos Saint-Hilaire on August 24th and were pleased with the quality of the grapes, commenting: “The bunches are especially beautiful and the maturity is perfect for making future great Rosés.”
Unsurprisingly, Louis Roederer were one of the last of the big houses to begin, not picking their Pinot Noirs until August 27th and their Chardonnays until August 30th. This is typical of cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, who prefers to wait for higher ripeness and alcohol levels. Louis Roederer have been conducting their picking by cuvée: Brut Nature in Cumières on August 28th, Vintage Rosé on September 2nd, and Blanc de Blancs in Avize also on September 2nd.
As the zero-dosage champagne Brut Nature can only be made in exceptionally warm years that produce grapes with the required vinosity and maturity, the conditions this year could prove ideal for a Brut Nature 2018. Lécaillon also revealed a new project for Louis Roederer: a white Coteaux Champenois (still wine produced in the Champagne region), which is being produced using grapes from the Volibarts plot in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.
Another house to begin later than others was Charles Heidsieck, who also started on August 27th, in the Grand Cru village of Aÿ . Chef de Cave Cyril Brun commented of the first crop: “[The] quality is amazing… we have had warm and dry conditions and the result is there. It’s a rich, condense, and very opulent profile of grapes. So it might be a year of superlatives… when tasting and assessing grapes we get everything one could expect for a vintage.”
All in all, the grapes thus far look as good if not better than expected. Except for rain and stormy conditions on August 29th – which appears to have had little negative effect – the harvest has taken place under ideal conditions. Weather forecasts for the remainder of the harvest bring further good news: warm days between 22-25°C and cool nights between 7-11°C. Ultimately, it is impossible to make any definitive judgement as to the quality of the vintage until the first wines have been tasted in a few months. However, if the harvest continues as promisingly as it has begun, it should, should, be a very special year indeed.