The 1988 vintage was another very respectable performance from Champagne. Yields of 9,650 kg/ha exceeded the 10-year average of 9,200 kg/ha, amounting to a total output of 820,000 pièces or 224 million bottles. A good result certainly, particularly considering the unpromising weather conditions, but not enough to replenish reserves following sales of 237 million bottles in 1988. The resulting shortfall of 13 million bottles highlighted what many regarded as an unsustainable annual growth rate — 9% or more than twice what was deemed realistic even allowing for the steady expansion of the vineyard area.
By the year 2000 the Champagne production region would total some 30,000 hectares — a threefold increase in area since the 1950s. The productive area for this vintage was 26,171 hectares, or some 500 additional hectares compared to the previous year. Against this must however be set the 614 hectares of vines uprooted in the same period, which is the normal rate of uprooting in Champagne.
This was a harvest more than ever at the whims of Nature: a mild winter, followed by spring frosts; an unseasonably warm April then a month of May battered by rain and hail; and a hot summer that eventually gave way to violent thunderstorms. It was clear from May onwards that the limited number of clusters per vine, millerandage and hail damage ruled out any possibility of a bumper harvest, as in the two preceding years. Added to this was the disappointing increase in cluster weight in the weeks leading up to the harvest — the Pinot Meunier actually decreased in weight. On the upside, the vines escaped a good many ills, such as grey mould that tends to lie dormant in the fruit until it begins to ripen.
By September growers were anticipating a crop equivalent to 690,000-775,000 pièces. The most optimistic growers put the figure as high as 900,000 pièces and the maximum yield per hectare was set at 10,500 kilos, revisable upwards by 20% in special circumstances. The commencement of the harvest was staggered from 26 September to 2 October, with work then progressing at different rates depending on the vineyard plot in question (grape variety, rootstock, lieu-dit, vine age and crop load). Some plots were harvested again following a few days’ pause to allow the grapes time to reach optimum ripeness — a patience that was handsomely rewarded.
The grapes reached 9.2 % ABV with acidity of 9.4 g/l H2S04 — a slightly higher acidity than usual, promising long-lived wines akin to the 1969 vintage. It was accordingly decided that the very best cuvees would be released as single-vintage Champagne wines (on average 10-15% of total production).
CIVC Bulletin Number 167, Fourth Quarter 1988
Analysis conducted by the AVC-CIVC technical and oenological services