Every vintage is different, but all mark the culmination of an entire year’s labours and are expected to be the most frantic few weeks of the season. This year was the exception. An unusual calm descended on the vineyards, which were blessed with ideal conditions throughout the harvest and yielded a bumper vintage of quite remarkable quality. The sugar-to-acid ratio was unprecedented since records began in 1950, and average yields of 10,332 kg/ha (equivalent to 270 million bottles) came close to this year’s maximum allowed for AOC production (10,400 kg/ha, from a productive area of 30,717 hectares). With demand for Champagne set to grow over the next four years, not least because of the impending Millennium celebrations, the extra volume was warmly welcomed by the industry.
The 1996 growing season was marked by see-saw weather that appeared to favour the growth of a uniform grape crop, helped by an ever-present north wind that minimised frost damage. A mild and unusually sunny January was followed by an icy February that saw temperatures plummet to minus double figures. Light frosts also occurred in March but April enjoyed record sunshine with temperatures as high as 26 degrees Celsius. The cold returned in May, bringing frost that affected 250 hectares of vines to varying degrees, followed by thundery rain and outbreaks of hail that damaged the new growth.
Warm weather in June then triggered bloom but the sharp drop in temperatures on the 19th of the month hampered progress. Some vines had already set their fruit while others were barely in flower. Summer saw alternating sunny spells and overcast skies, with drought giving way to heavy rain and hailstorms that favoured botrytis and powdery mildew infections. Growers responded as necessary, helped by the ever-present north wind. By late August the berries had completed veraison so the rain that immediately preceded the harvest was particularly unwelcome. Thankfully the strong wind and sharp drop in temperature (just 10 degrees Celsius recorded on two consecutive nights) helped to dry out the vineyards and keep the berries in peak condition.
The harvest start dates were spread between 14 September and the end of the month, with the weather remaining mostly dry for the duration of picking. Sugar content meanwhile accelerated to an astonishing degree, almost certainly due to the reduced crop load — cluster thinning improves the quality of the remaining berries. As a consequence, potential alcohol levels were significantly higher than the 20-year average, comparable to 1990 (10.6% ABV) and 1989 (10.1% ABV), but lower than in earlier years (1976, 1969, 1966 and 1961) when average yields did not exceed 8,500 kg/ha — a point worth noting. Acidity was also distinctly above average (cf 1986, 10.1 g/l and 1980, 9.9 g/l), hence this year’s exceptional sugar-to-acid ratio. Comparisons were drawn with the 1928 vintage, considered by many as one of the top vintages of the 20th Century, and producers were confident that their best bottles would bear the vintage date. Given enough time, the 1996 vintage might even take its place in the Champagne Hall of Fame, alongside the iconic 1928 and its august predecessors, the 1911, 1904, 1893, 1870 and 1811.
CIVC Bulletin Number 199, Fourth Quarter 1996
Analysis conducted by the AVC-CIVC technical and oenological services