Will Champagne producers ride the storm?

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Wind, rain and hail has ravaged the Champagne region, with the loss of 10% of the 2000 crop. Giles Fallowfield assesses the damage.

A week after the terrible hailstorm hit the Vallée de la Marne and Montagne de Reims, destroying some 1,500 hectares of vineyard and damaging a larger chunk, perhaps another 3,000 hectares, it is still difficult to analyse the effects on supply and demand within the market.

In the first place it looks like being several more weeks, perhaps right up to the harvest in September, before the true extent of the damage can be accurately assessed.

In the week following the storm, further bad weather and heavy rain meant growers could not physically get tractors into the damaged vineyards to spray broken vines and protect them against disease like mildew. "In the vineyards where vines are broken you need to use a sulphur spray to help the injury recover as soon as possible," says Bruno Paillard.

"If you can't protect them immediately there are two major risks: mildew which was a bigger danger because of the humidity and botrytis. It was extremely wet after the hailstorm on Monday and Tuesday of last week, and on Friday morning it grew so dark it looked like we were having another eclipse and it rained cats and dogs. The extent of the volume of grapes lost is difficult to estimate accurately today," says Paillard.

The damage will certainly effect some houses more than others and certain growers, particularly in villages like Verzy, Verzenay, Germaine and Chézy sur Marne may have very few or even no grapes from the 2000 harvest. However, because even growers who only have land in one village tend to have several plots in different places it is believed, at this stage, few will lose everything.

Bruno Paillard, who has contracts to buy fruit in four of the villages badly hit by the storm - Verzy, Mailly, Rilly-la-Montagne and Chigny-les-Roses - says "it is a major concern". The Moet Hennessy group, with probably the biggest vineyard holdings in the worst effected area in the Montagne de Reims (spread between brands Moet & Chandon, Veuve Cliquot and Pommery) has, according to director Yves Benard, lost 30% of its potential crop of 1,400 hectares. There will be some significant players in the market looking to secure additional parcels of grapes, particularly high quality Pinot Noir, to make up their non-vintage blends.

It is fortunate that the Côte de Bar, which is the other major source of Pinot Noir in Champagne, was not effected by the hailstorm at all. Nor was the entire Côtes des Blancs or the areas immediately to the west and north-west of Reims. The fact that the viticultural cycle for the 2000 vintage started well, even flowering, and the likelihood of a large harvest is another positive factor. Yves Benard, in his capacity as President de l'Union des Maisons de Champagne, also points out that some of the shortfall in grapes will be made up by 'wine/vin clair' put into the 'qualitative reserve' from the bumper 1999 vintage. So when the yield level for the whole appellation is set in September (likely to be over 11,000 kilos per hectare), producers who are well below the agreed level because of the hailstorm, will be able to make up some of their own shortfall from these reserves.

However, in the short term, it would not be a surprise to see trade Champagne buying prices at the lower end of the market start to rise again. In the first half of 2000, the high stock levels in all parts of the trade in key markets like the UK, has meant that prices have fallen from the very high levels at the end of 1999. But it is understood that very little business has been transacted. With the major UK supermarkets placing few orders so far in 2000 and a good deal of resistance to the Champenois efforts to raise the retail selling prices on most major brands it will be interesting to see how things develop over the summer.

Having widely over bought prior to the end of 1999 will the UK grocers run the risk of going short of wine this Christmas and New Year?

Giles Fallowfield

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