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Champagne: Restocking for the New Millennium
By Julia Mann
Champagne has been blessed by a series of very good vintages since 1995, and 1999 is no exception. The combination of abundant yields and top-quality grapes is just what growers needed to restore their rather depleted stocks after all the big millennium celebrations.
"This year is one of the highest yields of the century," said Jean-Pierre Vincent, cellar master for Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne. In fact, a number of Champagne houses exceeded the maximum harvest amount permitted per hectare and had to distill the excess grape juice. But unlike red wine regions where growers look for concentrated wines, high yields are not as much of a concern in Champagne, where producers use lighter wines for their base wine. "It is a characteristic of the Champagne region that high yields equals high quality, "said Jean-Marc Pottiez, director general for Nicolas Feuillatte.
Despite the rain that hit the region in early September, alternating with periods of sunshine throughout the harvest, the grapes were in good condition. Rain on the weekend of September 19 blocked the ripening process, according to Richard Geoffroy, head winemaker at Moët & Chandon. "We had to wait a few days for the vines to absorb the rain, but despite this the grapes are very healthy," he said.
However, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, two of the three grape varieties used to make Champagne, showed lower potential alcohol levels because of the rain. "The acidity levels are quite low and fairly round," said Geoffroy. "The wines are pure, with a good concentration, but are a little soft and lacking in dynamism."
Chardonnay, the third grape variety in Champagne, produced excellent results in 1999, partly because it was the first to ripen and thus avoided most of the rain. "The Chardonnays are of a very high quality, equal to 1995, which was the best vintage since 1990," said Claude Taittinger, CEO of Champagne Taittinger. "The Pinot Noirs suffered due to the bad weather. Last year, the Pinots were better, and this year it is the opposite," added Taittinger, who also presides over the Association Viticole Champenoise, the regulating body in Champagne that sets the harvest date.
Although it is too early to say yet whether 1999 will be declared a vintage year, as the houses rarely begin to taste the wines before January, many Champagne makers are optimistic.
"We will certainly make our superior-quality wines this year," said Taittinger, who confirmed that the house will produce its vintage-dated prestige cuvée, Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne. "But it is too early to say yet if the Pinots will make a vintage year."
Hubert de Billy, commercial director at Pol Roger, predicted that "1999 will be a good vintage like 1993, but not a vintage to lay down. There are high chances that it will be a vintage year."
At Nicolas Feuillatte, the decision is more clear-cut. "1998 and 1999 will both be vintage years," stated Pottiez. "It is a rare that a cellar master will give his verdict before January, but he already has."
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