Following the rich, concentrated ripeness of 2012, 2013 in Champagne is almost its exact opposite: elegant, introverted and lithe, it reveals itself slowly and quietly, thriving on finesse rather than power. It has produced champagnes of exceptional purity and transparency of expression, and as the wines develop, this is turning out to be one of my favorite vintages of the past twenty years.
In a sense, 2013 was a retro vintage, a throwback to the conditions of the last century, and in this age of global warming it is increasingly unlikely that we will see vintages resembling this in the future. Prior to the temperature increase across Europe (and indeed, the world) that began in the 1980s, the harvest in Champagne typically began in October, and everyone in Champagne over the age of 35 or 40 remembers this well. When I began coming to Champagne in the mid-1990s, it was already customary to harvest in mid- to late September, and today the harvest often begins in early September. Up until 2013 there have been three harvests in Champagne that have begun in August, and all of them have occurred within the last ten years: 2003, 2007 and 2011. In 2013 the situation was reversed, and while some areas of precocious ripeness began picking in late September, most villages in the Marne (and most quality-minded producers) didn’t start the harvest until October.
The primary reason for the late harvest was cool and rainy weather in the spring, which delayed flowering until June or even early July, depending on the area. The cool temperatures continued, particularly at night, which caused flowering to develop slowly, with notable coulure and millerandage. Wet weather into July threatened the spread of mildew, and yet all signs pointed to an abundant crop, which was welcome news after the reduced yields of 2012. The weather in July and August turned exceptionally hot and dry, promoting rapid maturity in the grapes, and in the latter part of the month, the growing bunches were gaining up to 10 to 15 grams of weight per week.
While there was some heavy rain in September (and even some localized hail, which damaged some vines along the Marne), the ripening proceeded relatively smoothly. Picking began in some villages in the Aube as early as September 24, and in Cumières on September 25, but many villages in the Marne didn’t start until October. This was often related to flowering: those sectors which experienced early flowering under wet conditions were lower in yield and ripened earlier; in contrast, later sectors that flowered in the warmer weather of July were notably higher in yield, and these grapes sometimes struggled to ripen in the cooler temperatures and shorter days of October. Some areas had to be picked due to the onset of botrytis, although most vineyards were free of rot, allowing producers to wait longer and maximize hang time for optimal maturity.
The word classique can sometimes have negative connotations, or at the very least sound like a backhanded compliment, yet at its best, 2013 is classical in the most positive way, feeling ripe without any trace of excess. The wines tend to be elongated and svelte, energized by a healthy backbone of acidity, and they express their terroirs clearly and precisely. The vintage isn’t entirely homogeneous, though, and there can be wines of contrasting characters due to the two distinct periods of flowering: those parcels that flowered earlier often produced more concentrated wines due to the lower yields, and these can be more complex and complete as well; late-flowering parcels such as those in the northern Montagne de Reims produced cooler, quieter wines.
The two areas that excelled above all were the southern Côte des Blancs, around Le Mesnil and Oger, and the south-facing slope of the Grande Vallée and southern Montagne de Reims, from Aÿ to Bouzy and Ambonnay. Of course, high-quality wines can be found in all sectors of the appellation, and much depended on the diligence of vineyard work among individual producers. The area that suffered the most from rain was the Aube, which received double the normal amount of rainfall between January and June, as well as another period of heavy rain in August and September. This created widespread problems with mildew, damaging much of the crop, although most producers were pleased with the quality they obtained, even if quantities were exceptionally low.
For more detailed thoughts on 2013, as well as a video featuring producers describing their own experiences with the vintage, see this vintage profile.