Two key weather events shaped the 2003 vintage in Champagne, resulting in an atypical harvest and affecting quality and quantity. While the base wines for nonvintage blends should be of good to excellent quality, consumers can expect to see only small amounts of vintage-dated wines.
Widespread frost in April damaged the vines -- particularly the early-budding Chardonnay -- and reduced the size of the region's crop by half on average. Then extreme heat in June, July and August resulted in rapid ripening and the earliest harvest since 1822, according to the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC).
The hot, dry summer weather led to healthy grapes with greater maturity than usual, but lower acidity levels. Based on the CIVC vintage report, the average potential alcohol of the grapes is above 10.5 degrees, much higher than the average of 9.8 degrees for the harvests from 1990 through 2000. The European Union granted the region's producers permission to add acid (up to a maximum of 1.5 grams per liter) to try to balance out the wines.
Despite the frost damage and heat, the growers and houses contacted reported very good quality. At Chartogne-Taillet, the harvest began on Aug. 27, but lasted longer than usual. "The difference in maturity was significant between the Chardonnay [vines] affected by frost and the Pinot Noir [vines] that were unaffected," said Elisabeth Chartogne. Rather than add acid to the wines, Chartogne-Taillet chose to avoid malolactic fermentation. It plans to make a vintage wine, but in very small quantities.
Frédéric Panaiotis, one of Veuve Clicquot's winemakers, said their first impression is of very good quality overall. "The Pinot Noir appears to be the most promising variety, which is good news for Veuve Clicquot as it is the base of our assemblage." Pinot Meunier also shows good quality, he added, but the Chardonnay was less successful, lacking its typical freshness and crispness.
Veuve Clicquot's base wines had almost completed their malolactic fermentations by the third week of November. "We may or may not decide to acidify the blend once it has been made, but the decision won't be made before early next year," said Panaiotis. He is confident about the quality of the nonvintage wine because the success of Pinot Noir suits the house style. Veuve Clicquot is likely to bottle small amounts of vintage brut and rosé.
At G.H. Mumm, chef de caves Dominique Demarville was less optimistic, citing the low acidity, quick ripening of the grapes, fast development of the young wines and lack of overall balance. "Due to the limited potential for aging, most of the wines from the 2003 harvest will be used for blending," he reported.
Because of the small harvest, estimated at 3.1 tons per acre on average, the CIVC has released wines blocked from the 1998, 1999 and 2000 harvests to growers who declared yields of less than 4.6 tons per acre. Blocked wines are those that were made in excess of the region's maximum allowable yield of 5.1 tons per acre and have been stored as reserves.
The nonvintage blends containing 2003 base wines and reserve wines will arrive in the United States in 2006. The vintage wines, which are aged longer, will appear in stores from 2007 on.