The 1969 harvest was the smallest in 11 years: barely 6,000 kg/ha, compared to the 10-year average of 7,500 kg/ha. Crop yields of 333,000 205-litre pièces (or 684.000 hectolitres) fell short of predictions by nearly 10% — a particularly disappointing result considering the increase in the Champagne vineyard area since 1958. Experts pointed out however that since 1955, low yields had consistently followed high yields despite improvements in vineyard technology. This year was no exception, following on from the bumper harvest in 1967 and presumably heralding another bumper harvest in 1970.
This year’s performance came as no surprise to winegrowers.The growing season had more than its fair share of difficulties: unsettled weather from start to finish; poor bud development; a disrupted flowering and fruit-set process; and a summer plagued by hailstorms and fungal disease. However, on the eve of the harvest, the industry was still banking on cuidage - industry jargon for a harvest that exceeds forecasts, in this case by an estimated 30,000 pieces. As it turned out, those expectations were thwarted by exceptionally dry late-season weather: just 18 mm of rain between September and October, compared with an average of 10 cm in normal years. On the upside, the dry conditions warded off disease and promoted optimal ripening.
The harvest commenced late (1 October) to allow the grapes to reach the legal minimum ABV of 9.4%. Picking took less than two weeks, working under sunny skies from start to finish. The grape musts had a potential alcohol content of 10.2% ABV, with a relatively high acidity of 9.4 g/l H²SO4 — a consequence of good weather but no extreme heat. Commentators observed that all the signs pointed to a vintage very like 1955. Judging by the musts, the 1969s would share much the same structure.
This was a small but first-rate vintage and it illustrated some key trends in Champagne. Chief among these were the persistent gap between supply and demand (this year left the négoce with a shortfall of 15-30%); and the restrictions on productivity represented by the existing Champagne-growing region. While the obvious solution was to expand the area under vine by a few thousand hectares (so boosting productivity by 20-25%) experts cautioned against ignoring the natural pattern of fluctuating yields. On the contrary, they felt it was more important than ever to take into account the alternating pattern of highs and lows and make crop forecasts accordingly.
CIVC Bulletin Number 91, Fourth Quarter 1969
Analysis conducted by the AVC-CIVC technical and oenological services.