In this age of climate change, warm vintages are becoming both warmer and more frequent, and conditions that would have appeared extraordinary a mere generation ago have now become commonplace. The 2015 vintage is remembered for its high ripeness and dry, hot weather, although there were some problems with rain before and during the harvest.
The growing season began with a wet and relatively mild winter, save for a brief cold spell in early February. The spring progressed well up until mid-May, when the weather turned exceptionally dry, staying that way for ten whole weeks. This was unprecedented in the Champagne region, with total rainfall less than 40 percent of the norm, and this was accompanied by high temperatures and abundant sunshine, on a level equal to that of 2003, which led to concerns about water stress. Fortunately, the chalky soils had absorbed large quantities of water from the winter, which helped the vines cope with the lack of rain. When the rain did return, it came down in quantity: the first portion of August remained hot and dry, but between the 12th of August and 1st of September the region received between 60 and 100mm of rain, depending on the sector. This slowed the development of the grapes, although it didn’t really result in widespread botrytis, as after the 1st the conditions became ideal for harvest, with warm, sunny days and cool nights. Between the 1st and the 12th of September the weather was superb, and growers in the warmest terroirs, where ripening was further advanced, were able to harvest under beautifully sunny skies. In many areas, though, growers needed to wait for flavors to develop, and unfortunately it began to rain again on the 12th, continuing through most of the rest of the harvest. This didn’t necessarily damage the grapes or cause excessive dilution, though, and even many of those who harvested in the rain were satisfied with their crop.
Initial impressions of 2015 were highly positive, and despite the late rains, the mood was generally upbeat at harvest time, with many producers happy about the high ripeness. In the spring, too, the vins clairs were largely attractive and compelling, analytically similar to 2003 but with a better balance of sugar and acidity, and none of the roasted and overblown flavors of that vintage. (To hear more about the opinions of 2015 at the time, see this article and video, from the spring of 2016.) It wasn’t until the wines began appearing in bottle that I and others began to have concerns about the vintage, beginning with the non-vintage champagnes based on 2015. While the wines certainly felt ripe, both in body and in fruit flavor, there was a certain vegetalness that often marked the finish, subtle in some wines and more pronounced in others. By the time that vintage cuvées from 2015 began to be released in 2019, this character had intensified, becoming pervasive enough to be considered an identifying trait of the vintage.
Initially producers attributed this to a lack of phenolic ripeness, which is something that has become more and more common in Champagne with climate change as warm weather causes sugar levels to rise faster than flavors can develop. This was clearly the case in 2015, as while sugar levels were high, growers often had to wait longer than expected to achieve flavor maturation, and the rains complicated this further by causing acidities to fall, which influenced some people to pick earlier than they should have. When tasting vins clairs in 2016, I had noted unripeness in some wines, particularly chardonnay, even sometimes in wines that were picked at high degrees of potential alcohol. However, this unripeness of flavor manifests itself as a green note (literally like that of unripe fruit, which of course it is), and it tends to be absorbed into a champagne over time, especially with the second fermentation and lees aging. The vegetal character of 2015 is something different, much more along the lines of 2011 and in many cases identical to it, with flavors ranging from green bean and asparagus to peanut shells and an ash-like smokiness. It seems that the two vintages are related somehow, and while many Champenois continue to insist that in both cases it’s simply the result of picking too early, I remain unsatisfied by this explanation. It could very well be the case that this is related to a lack of phenolic ripeness, yet there seems to be a more complex phenomenon going on here than merely the date of picking, and as the Champenois have never really solved the riddle of 2011, they appear in danger of repeating the same results until they do. The latest theory that is quietly circulating in viticultural circles is that it’s linked to drought and water stress resulting from the extended dry periods in both of these vintages—this seems intriguing and plausible to me, and I would like to explore this further. In the meantime, the 2015s continue to be variable, marked to a greater or lesser degree by this peculiar vegetal character. This doesn’t mean that you should avoid the vintage—there are some excellent wines, and a greater number of outright successes than there were in 2011, but as always, it’s important to taste carefully.