Down but not out: champagne production set to weather the storm

Fri Sep 23, 2016 9:30am EDT
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By Sybille de La Hamaide and Johnny Cotton

ECUEIL, France (Reuters) - Champagne makers will escape the harsh weather damage hitting other French wines this year thanks to an old tradition that allows them to blend new bubbly with reserves saved from past years.

The 2016 champagne harvest has been hammered by a combination of frost, rains and drought that is set to take output to its lowest for more than 30 years, down around 30 percent from 2015, producers group CIVC told Reuters.

Yet makers actually plan to slightly raise the number of bottles produced to meet an expected increase in global demand for the premium sparkling wine in the coming three years, they said.

In the vineyards of Champagne, producer Nicolas Maillart's harvest was well under way this week with a team of seasonal pickers -- mostly from Spain and Portugal -- racing down the rows of vines snipping off bunches of grapes, some showing severe damage.

The crop experienced severe frosts in the spring, followed by heavy rainfall that led to severe attacks of mildew fungus. Then a heatwave in late August and early September scorched some of the remaining grapes, Maillart said.

"I have never known a year like this, and there has never been as much rain in Champagne in living memory," he said.

But the Champagne region, situated around 150 km (90 miles) northeast of Paris, has a long-standing system in place to cope with capricious weather. Wine makers are allowed to mix output from the last harvest with the best quality wines kept in reserve from prior vintages.

"This means that when the harvest is bad we can even improve quality," Richard Desvignes, producer of champagne Lacourte-Godbillon, said as he showed off large metal drums of vintage reserves. "We are extremely lucky."   Continued...

An employee serves a glass of Champagne during the traditional wine harvest at the Champagne house Deutz in Ay, France, September 22, 2016.   REUTERS/Benoit Tessier