The novel coronavirus pandemic has come for mighty Champagne.
On August 18, the Comité Champagne, an organization of small and large winemakers, announced that the permissible yield for the 2020 harvest is 8,000 kilograms of grapes per hectare. This is a stark contrast from last year’s yield of 10,200 kilograms, or the average of 11,745 kilograms over the past 20 years. It’s also the lowest yield since 1975’s 7,500 kilograms per hectare.
Limited production is business as usual in Champagne. Every year, the Comité Champagne decides just how much Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and other approved grapes can be harvested for France’s most famous sparkling wine.
However, 2020 is a year like none other. Bars and restaurants in France had to close for months due to the pandemic, and export sales plummeted. Some 100 million bottles of sparkling wine remain unsold, contributing to an estimated loss of 1.7 billion euros ($1.99 billion), according to France3.
“Champagne is certainly the most affected region in terms of lowered sales, simply because it’s linked to celebration,” says Jean-Marie Barillère, president of the Union des Maisons de Champagne. “When we’re talking about a health crisis, the last thing you want to do is celebrate.”
Antoine Malassagne, fourth-generation winemaker at family-run A.R. Lenoble, recalls similar difficulties in the recessions of the early 1990s and in 2008. But this year’s struggle, he says, is different. “Some people saw those recessions coming. But such a brutal health crisis? No one was prepared. No one.”
These conditions heighten existing tensions in the region.
“We can clearly see the effects of climate change over the past few years,” says Fanny Heucq, daughter of winemaker André Heucq and owner of Dilettantes, a Champagne cellar and tasting bar in Paris.
Underscoring these shifts, the 2020 Champagne harvest began on August 17. Fifty years ago, it opened on September 27.
“Such a brutal health crisis? No one was prepared. No one.” —Antoine Malassagne, winemaker, A.R. Lenoble
Additionally, the 2020 yield announcement came almost a month later than planned because of disagreements between the Comité’s two major deciding bodies. Independent winemakers and growers asserted that yields lower than 10,000 kilograms per hectare would be detrimental to their livelihoods, while larger Champagne houses feared too large a harvest could mean reduced value and market price. As a result of these delays, some winemakers picked their first grapes before they even knew how much they could vinify.
“I keep hearing people say that we’re limiting yields to artificially maintain prices,” says Heucq, who asserts this is far from the case.
On the contrary, some wine professionals believe these yield restrictions will ultimately benefit what ends up in the bottle.
“Limiting yields allows us to sort the harvest more rigorously,” says Barillère. “So, overall, it will give you an excellent product.”
It’s an enormous sacrifice for those who worked all year to grow grapes to see them languish in the vines. But according to Heucq and Malassagne, this challenging year could bring positive changes to Champagne.
“Some who haven’t yet understood that we need to evolve our viticulture are still bringing in huge yields,” says Malassagne, whose Champagne earned Haute Valeur Environnementale status, the highest possible environmental certification in France, 20 years ago. “They’re not losing just ten percent [like I am]. They’re losing half or a third.”
Both he and Heucq, who is currently working on an organic Champagne, hope these circumstances will lead those still using industrial methods, including chemical herbicides, to question their efficacy. They believe this could pave the way to more sustainable viticultural practices throughout the region.