Typical of a decade that has seemed to be full of dramatic growing seasons, 2016 was a rollercoaster of a vintage that saw it all, from record-breaking rainfall to virulent frosts to a late heat wave that accelerated ripening but that also provoked water stress and sunburned the developing grapes.
The season began inauspiciously: while the winter was relatively mild, the cool temperatures remained through the spring, particularly in April which saw some significant and widespread frosts that persisted late into the season. Certain sectors of the Aube were especially hammered by frost, just as their neighbors to the south were in Chablis this year. In addition, the beginning of the year was unusually wet, with a record amount of rainfall: the Champagne region received 513 mm of rain over the first six months of 2016 (compared to an average of 316 mm), representing a 62 percent increase over normal and surpassing the previous high of 491 mm set in 1995. This created difficulties during flowering, provoking both coulure (shatter, or failure of fruit set) and millerandage (shot berries, or irregular fruit set), and resulted of course in widespread problems of mildew, further reducing the yield of the potential crop. As if that weren’t enough, late hailstorms arrived in the first half of June, battering parcels that had already suffered damage from frost.
As has become typical in this era of climate change, though, the weather changed abruptly in the month of July. Following the absolute deluge over the first half of the year, the summer was the driest since 1994, with 40 percent less rain than average, which ironically led to incidences of water stress in the vines. August in particular was sunny and hot, accelerating ripeness but also causing some damage: during a particularly intense heat spell from the 23rd to 28th, the temperatures reached up to 36 degrees C (97 degrees F), resulting in some sunburned grapes. The weather remained mostly favorable through September, although there was some scattered rain in the middle of the month that slowed the ripening. Late September, though, was virtually ideal, with warm, dry days and cool, breezy nights.
Harvest began on the 12th of September in certain villages of the Aube, with some warm terroirs in the Marne authorized to start picking by the 14th. Due to the uneven flowering, though, as well as uneven ripening over the growing season, there was a pronounced difference in harvesting dates across the region, with some villages not even starting to pick until the 26th. Qualitatively speaking, many growers told me that it was particularly difficult this year to decide when to harvest, as not only were different vineyards showing radically different rates of maturity, but even different vines within the same parcel. Some growers picked their ripest parcels at the beginning of harvest and then stopped, waiting for the other vineyards to develop, and in some cases this lasted until mid-October. At Pierre Gimonnet, for example, Didier Gimonnet harvested his old vines in Cramant on September 21 at 11.8 degrees of potential alcohol, yet his last parcels in the neighboring village of Cuis didn’t reach 10.5 degrees until October 11, demonstrating how uneven the rates of ripening were in different terroirs.
While most of the high-quality growers that I spoke to in the Côte des Blancs were satisfied with their results, it was the opinion of many across the region that chardonnay was the most challenging variety in 2016, due to its late and uneven ripening. Pinot noir benefited from the late burst of sunshine, and in many cases the wines are generous and ample in body, feeling unexpectedly rich for a vintage remembered for so much rain. It’s a vintage that rewarded conscientious work in the vines, and while the quality across the region is a little uneven, the best champagnes demonstrate a forward, luscious charm and expressive definition of terroir.