The 1998 Champagne vintage was the most productive year to date, with an AOC marketable output of 332 million bottles. It was also the fourth bumper vintage in a row, despite an unpromising growing season characterized by roller-coaster weather from start to finish. The harvest was ultimately saved by the return of the sun in September, yielding an abundant crop of excellent quality — welcome news at a time when the industry needed to build up its reserves in the run-up to the Millennium celebrations. Average yields of 12,926 kg/ha were the third highest on record, (cf 15,006 kg/ha in 1983 and 14,071 kg/ha in 1982) from a productive area of 30,216 hectares. This was also the first year that the base yield was set at the maximum since the passing of the decree limiting AOC production to 13,000 kg/ha.
The winter months, January, February and March, were generally mild, sunny and dry except for certain nights when temperatures plummeted into double minus figures (- 13°C) bringing frost, snow and cold damp weather. March in particular saw temperatures swings of 30 degrees, from - 8°C to + 23°C. April then brought wind and rain followed by sub-zero temperatures that destroyed the newly emerged buds, wiping out two per cent of total plantings. In May and June the weather alternated between hot and cold (32°C on 13 May dipping into minus figures on 23rd of the month), with a dry, sunny spell preceding bloom but followed by rain just as the vines were coming into flower. Flowering stretched over 12 days as a consequence, but thanks to the return of the sun the vines achieved good fruit set with no incidence of coulure or millerandage.
July and August were respectively the rainiest and the hottest months in more than 30 years, with the inevitable outbreaks of botrytis and oïdium followed by sunscald as August temperatures hit 40°C. Overall yield losses from sunscald were estimated at 5-10%, with the most spectacular damage occurring on the full south-facing slopes. However the remaining grapes ripened well in the dry conditions and with only two weeks to go before the harvest the prospects looked good. It was then that the heavens opened, bringing downpours in September that swelled the berries and promoted botrytis blight at the expense of sugar accumulation. Thankfully the rain ended on 14 September, two days into the harvest, which continued thereafter under sunny skies. Botrytis blight was halted in its tracks and sugar levels increased by 1.5% ABV in the period 19-26 September. The resulting grapes were richer in sugar than the 20-year average: 9.8% ABV, or enough sugar to make chaptalisation largely unnecessary. Acidity meanwhile reached 8.1 g/l, which was about average compared to the past 20 years.
Preliminary tastings indicated clean, honest, upfront wines with a striking acid-sugar balance — not the best on record (cf 1996, 1995 and 1990) but certainly as good as the 1997, 1992 and 1991 vintages. Producers were confident that their best bottlings would bear the vintage date and looked forward to releasing the 1998 vintage in the first decade of the New Millennium.
CIVC Special Bulletin — "La Vendange en Champagne 1998"
Analysis conducted by the AVC-CIVC technical and oenological services