What price champagne?

What price champagne?

Larry Walker

Like Bordeaux, the growers in Champagne were expecting an outstanding harvest this year. Like Bordeaux, the rains came too early. The first day of harvest in Champagne and the rains came at about the same time in mid-September and what had looked outstanding is now looking just so-so. But with prices down and sales up, the Champenois are singing in the rain.

The harvest ended September 29 and it rained most of the time. With warm weather as well, growers hurried to get the grapes in before serious rot took hold. The must has an average ethanol potential of 9.1 with an average acidity of 8.4 grams per liter. Not terrible numbers, for sure, but not as good as expected.

The maximum permitted yield this year was set at 9,600 kilos per hectare (one ha = 2.47 acres). Of that yield, 9,000 can be used immediately and 600 kilos must be put in reserve (biocage) and cannot be traded in the immediate future. According to Jean-Louis Carbonnier, head of the Champagne Information Bureau in New York City, the actual yield in 1994 is in the region of 12,000 kilos per hectare, which does give the growers room to pick and choose. A decade ago, the permitted yield was also about 12,000 kilos per hectare.

Lowering the maximum permitted yield is one of the steps the Champenois growers and producers put into effect in 1993 as part of a plan to strengthen the reputation of Champagne. Setting aside the biocage, which must be kept in vat and cannot be traded, vinified or bottled without official permission, is also part of the new quality control plan. This special reserve is designed to enable producers to compensate for poor harvests.

Other points include:

* Setting an annual maximum volume for bottling and commercial use, dependent on the quality of the harvest;

* Limitation of yield from pressing, which has been set at 160 kilos of grapes for every hectoliter;

* The development of a new communications campaign.

However, it is likely that the market for champagne responds more to price than to such difficult-to-understand measures. Shipments of champagne to the U.S. peaked in 1987 at 1.3 million cases, according to the Jobson Beverage Group in New York, and bottomed out at 964,000 cases in 1992. This decline coincided with annual price increases. Prices started dropping for Champagne in 1993 and the French bubbly scored a 3.2% shipment gain. According to Carbonnier, champagne shipments are up 7% through June of this year.

Ontario on Ice

The French may have Beaujolais Nouveau, which is rolled out with great fanfare every November, but never mind, Ontario has Icewine, which also gets a traditional November launch. The first week of November, Inniskillin winery unveiled its 1993 Icewine across Canada, Mexico and in the United Kingdom. About 20 Ontario wineries make Icewine in some quantity.

The 1993 Icewine is the 10th straight year that Karl Kaiser has made the wine at Inniskillin. According to Kaiser, the grapes for the wine were harvested during the last few days of December, 1993, and the first few days of January. The custom in Canada is to vintage-date Icewines with the year in which the grapes were grown, regardless of when they were picked.

On the first day of picking, December 26th, the temperature was so low (almost -18 [degrees] C.) that no juice could be extracted. During the following days the temperature hovered between -10 [degrees] and -14 [degrees] C.

Kaiser, believes the ’93 vintage from a very small crop will be an outstanding wine, with great concentration of fruit flavors.

Kaiser, who is vice president and winemaker at Inniskillin, said he has three criteria for ice wine grapes:

* The grape should have a high aromatic profile;

* The grape should have high acidity;

* The grape should have strong stems and a tough skin to withstand the long period spent on the vine.

“In theory, you could make Icewine from any grape, but in practice, we have had the best results from the Vidal grape,” he said.

Birds can be a problem, so Kaiser nets the vines every year. “If there is no snow, the birds will eat elsewhere, but since we never know it is safe to net,” he said. In 1983, for example, birds wiped out the entire crop of grapes for Icewine in one morning.

This year, Innskillin has made 2,200 cases of 375ml bottles, with a suggested retail price of about US$32 a bottle. Kaiser said as of mid-November the wines were already half-sold.

Also on the international front, Inniskillin wines–including the Late Harvest Riesling, Chardonnay Reserve, Riesling Reserve, Merlot, Pinot noir Reserve, proprietors’ Reserve and Brae Blanc, have also been introduced in India through the office of the Canadian High Commissioner in New Delhi.

Inniskillin wines also were spotlighted at two events in Mexico, the first at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza in Monterrey and the second at the Hotel Nikko in Mexico City. Those two events featured Inniskillin Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Icewine in combination with Canadian menu items such as wild bluberries, fiddleheads, bison, venison and smoked fish.

Lillet Reserve in U.S.

Lillet, the aperitif from Bordeaux, is bringing its vintage-dated wines into the U.S. through Premiere Wine Merchants, a division of Remy Amerique, Inc., in New York City. Lillet is made from AOC Bordeaux wines (85%) and a blend of ten different fruit liqueurs. They are priced from $14 to $25.

Lillet has been showing some success in a stagnant category, according to Robert Shack, director of wine sales for Premiere, which imports a number of high-end wines from France and Italy, including Antinori, Leon Beyer, Jaffelin and Domaine Laroche as well as the Macallan Single Malt Scotch, Mount Gay Barbados rums, Remy Martin cognacs and Cointreau.

“Lillet is already the best-selling French aperitif in the U.S. and I am confident that the Jean de Lillet Reserves will generate a lot of excitement,” he said.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Hiaring Company

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