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Champagne-How Much To Harvest?

Jiles Halling,
UK’s leading Champagne host

I read a few days ago that some of the larger champagne houses are announcing some quite substantial increases in champagne sales compared to a year ago.

On the face of it this seems quite encouraging and already one or two people in the business are raising their glasses and declaring that the slump is over and that champagne sales are back on the high road.

Not so fast...

When you look more closely at the figures there are some very mixed signs and as far as the forthcoming harvest is concerned the picture is even more unclear than last year.

First let's look at the figures, then we'll come back to the harvest.

Sales in the first 4 months of this year were 18.6% up on the same period last year.(Source La Champagne Viticole) Good news certainly but there are several reasons not to get too carried away:

1) Sales in the early months of 2009 were pretty dire so it's not difficult for this year's sales to look good compared with 2009. In fact, on an annual basis, sales are running at 304 million bottles, that's the same as in 2005. If things stay like that you could say that 5 years have been 'lost' as a result of the slump of the last 18 months.

2) No one yet knows whether the upturn in sales is due simply to wholesalers and importers around the world having finally sold the stock that had on their hands from last year and beginning to re-order again.

If this is the case, and it will be a few months before we can tell, then there will have been no real increase in actual consumption by the end user and THAT'S what everyone in Champagne really wants to see.

3) Sales volume may be up, but the prices aren't that bubbly and that's not great for the image of champagne in the long run.

4) This year's improvement is definitely not evenly spread;, neither across countries, not across brands.

The big name brands are indeed seeing some good growth, so too are the cooperatives, but sales of the smaller brands, often referred to as 'Grower champagnes, have actually fallen by 6.7% this year compared to last.

Still, Grower Champagnes fared relatively better last year than their bigger colleagues, so perhaps their sales aren't too bad after all?

Confusing isn't it? and if you're wondering what on earth the real picture is then spare a thought for thepeople in Champagne who have to decide, in a matter of a few short weeks, what limit to put on this year's harvest.

You see, it's never just a case of picking all the grapes on the vines and seeing how much you've got at the end.

Every year a maximum limit is agreed before the harvest so that supply of grapes is kept in alignment with the demand for the finished product in the marketplace. It's a system that has been used for years and years and on the whole it's kept everyone happy.

However Last year there was a battle royal between, on the one hand, the Negociants (the big houses) who wanted a small harvest because they were already overstocked, and on the other hand, the grape growers (the vignerons) whose livelihood depends on selling the maximum amount of grapes that they can to the negociants.

Mind you, last year everyone knew full well that sales were in a bad way and perhaps the vignerons were that little bit more willing to accept a reduced harvest. This year they may well seize upon the recent sales figures as a reasons to press for a larger harvest.

If so, expect another conflict because the big brands are still way overstocked with champagne even if their sales are up a little bit, so the last thing they want is tons more grapes .

The decision about the cap on the harvest wouldn't be so difficult if the sales picture were clear, but, as we saw above, it's about as clear as mud at the moment.

So fireworks ahead. Watch this space for more news from Champagne as it happens in early September. Still, you can relax for the next few weeks because, this being France, everyone's off on holiday in August, crisis or no crisis!

Feel free to contact Jiles directly for more information about anything related to Champagne and staying in the Champagne area.
Champagne region – France
Tel : 00 33 (0)3 26 48 20 52

Follow Jiles on Twittter

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