It was an exceptional year in Champagne.
The weather was almost perfect, with lots of sun and rain falling just at the right time to give the vines the necessary punch. The grapes of this famous French region are full of hope for an early harvest.
But never in living memory have market conditions been so bad.
A billion bottles have remained unused in the cellars. Weddings and business parties have been called off due to the pandemic. Ultimately, who wants to celebrate when there’s a potential virus on the lip of every cut glass flute?
These factors have led to a drop in demand and triggered tensions in the hundreds of wine villages around Reims and Epernay of a type not seen since World War II.
“Covid turned everything upside down,” says Bernard Beaulieu, champagne producer and former director of the Champagne CGT winegrowers’ union. “The drop in sales is staring us in the face. This precipitated a crisis which, if you ask me, has been a long time coming.
These tensions are likely to peak at a meeting on August 18, at which a decision will have to be made on how many champagne grapes each of the roughly 15,000 growers are allowed to bring to market.
Only in French wine, the region of champagne follows a rule of “single yield”. This means that all producers, or winegrowers, agree to sell only a fixed quantity of grapes per hectare. Any excess is left to rot in the field or turned into a refrigerated “reserve” to use in case of future crop failures.
There is always haggling between winemakers and merchants – the 300 or so merchants who buy grapes for prestigious champagne houses such as Bollinger, Krug and Mumm.
But this year things came to a head.
On the one hand, the traders, represented by the Union des Maisons de Champagne, want a low yield of around 700 kg (1543lb) per hectare – around 200m of bottles – in order to avoid the cost of storing millions. additional liters of unsold sparkling wine.
But the vineyards want a higher yield of around 8,500 kg. The union that represents them says that this is the minimum amount that would allow producers to stay afloat financially. He is less worried about unsold inventory and says the current exceptional conditions are too good to be missed.
In the tense pre-harvest atmosphere, none of the unions give interviews. But observers are troubled by signals emerging before the Aug. 18 meeting.
For Mr. Beaulieu, the crisis has exposed flaws that have been standing for years.
“The demand crisis predates Covid,” he says. “In France, young people are drinking less and less wine and there is growing competition from prosecco and other candles.
“But the other crisis is the growing imbalance between the big houses and the small producers. By offering high prices, houses have increasingly attracted winegrowers by selling them all their grapes.
“As a result, there are fewer independent producers, and in times of tension like this, the rule of the big houses and their backers prevails.
Yves Couvreur, an independent producer, is depressed that the crisis will resolve anytime soon. “Far from finding an arrangement that everyone likes, it looks like they’re going to choose one that no one likes,” he says.
But despite all the gloom, in Champagne, a sense of historical perspective is still useful.
After all, the business has been booming for about 300 years. It’s survived wars, revolutions, and depressions – and it’s not as if today’s champagne has a serious rival as its liquid emblem of joy.
If only the world was a little happier.