Champagne producers, who just finished picking their vineyards this month, said this year's bumper crop may set an all-time record for sheer quantity. The final totals are not yet in, but some producers estimate that the 2004 harvest was twice as big as a typical crop.
The vintage "is probably the largest in Champagne history," said Bruno Paillard of Champagne Bruno Paillard in Reims. He believes that 2004 may be even larger than 1982 and 1983 -- two huge harvests.
Champagne growers have petitioned the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, which governs France's wine regions, to approve an increase in the amount of grapes that could be picked. They are seeking a limit of 14,000 kilograms per hectare (about 6.2 tons per acre), up from last year's 13,000 kilograms per hectare (about 5.8 tons per acre).
However, producers do not expect quality to suffer. "Not only [is] the maturity there, at a level we would never have hoped in August after a relatively cold summer, but also the acidity is high, which is a great necessity for us in Champagne," Paillard said. He believes that 2004 is definitely vintage quality, "although it is a little early to determine for what kind of cuvées."
The 2004 growing season was a stark contrast from the 2003 vintage, during which a frost in April, followed by summer heat wave, severely limited the size of the crop.
"The frost from last year caused the vines to reserve its energy for this year," said Pierre Larmandier, who estimated that Vertus-based Champagne Larmandier-Bernier brought in roughly four times more than it did in 2003. "You will get really nice quality following such a frost -- really nice quality."
This year, the Champagne region suffered no major spring frosts, and the cool summer was followed by warm, sunny weather in September that produced healthy grapes and ripened the Chardonnay beautifully. Along with good acidity, "We have nice, satisfactory sugar and alcohol levels," said Philippe Court, director general of Taittinger.
Moët & Chandon's enology director, Phillippe Coulon, said a perfect blossoming period and the subsequent good weather produced a crop that has vintage potential and "is definitely among the largest, alongside 1983 and 1999, both of which turned out to be great vintages." He expects the quality of his Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier to be good to outstanding, but said the Pinot Noir berries ripened unevenly, "although there are large quantities of high quality grapes."
Court also noted inconsistent ripening of Pinot Noir grapes within the bunches. "They were beautifully black where they faced the sun, but on the inside, they were less ripe," he said, so they told the pickers "that each bunch also had to be sorted through in order to take the best grapes only."
Other French wine regions are bringing in extra-large crops this year, prompting fears that the country will produce too much wine when it already faces an oversupply crisis. But the Champagne producers were not worried about this. "In Champagne, we can put what is left in reserve, to keep for further vintages and later selling," Court said.
Paillard even called 2004 "compensation given [to us] by Mother Nature after a very small 2003 harvest. It shows how we must be humble when it comes to nature."
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