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Published:  23 July, 2008

By Giles Fallowfield

The Champagne harvest began at the start of this week after a dry weekend across the appellation. With warmer and drier weather forecast there are hopes that quality will be better than expected, after the wettest year in the region since records began, in 1873. There is not a volume problem, with more than twice the permitted yield of 11,000 kilos per hectare in some areas, and grapes swollen to a record size. It rained heavily for most of the first three weeks of September and wet, humid conditions at the start of the month gave rise to botrytis problems. The spread of rot was, however, checked by a cold spell last week, but this also brought ripening to a standstill. Sugar levels are well down on last year and it looks unlikely that much vintage Champagne will be made. Mot & Chandon's head winemaker Georges Blanck is pleased at the prospect of warmer weather, although it's likely to help botrytis spread. "There are plenty of grapes to select the best from," he said, "but picking will have to be done very carefully and selectively." Blanck expects Pinot Meunier, which is looking ripest, to provide the best fruit. "Pinot Noir, particularly in the villages of the Montagne de Reims, like Mailly, Ambonnay and Bouzy, has quite limited ripeness potential, and picking there won't start until the end of the week. Pinot Meunier is much better. Generally, we expect average sugar levels to reach around 9 - 1 less than last year," says Blanck. Ghislain de Montgolfier of Champagne Bollinger is also broadly optimistic: "We've had the worst possible weather in the week before harvest. But the difference between this harvest and years like 1978 and '81 is that in those years there was a small crop as well as disease. The huge quantity of grapes this year gives us a big chance."