During one of the most eagerly anticipated and debated Champagne harvests, who better to speak to than Chef de Cave of Champagne Lanson, Hervé Dantan.
“We are celebrating 260 years of Champagne Lanson – I have been here 7 years, so it is nothing really. But I arrived at the right moment as the House was doing many new investments; a new winery, oak casks for the ageing of reserve wine and a new way to follow our growers in the vineyards”
The winery at Champagne Lanson in the centre of Reims now has a capacity of over 100,000 hectolitres and features more than 400 tanks of stainless steel, concrete and wood.
Hervé features in the latest Lanson campaign ‘Crafted with Care’
“I love this campaign. I think it is really the identity of Lanson. To take care of the people of Lanson, to care about the growers, our clients. I think it is really a strong idea of the Lanson identity.
“I think it is a new way of talking about the House; I feel we talk more about humanity. There is a real kindness in Lanson. It is not just a marketing point of view; I have been here for seven years and it is really what you feel when you arrive in the House. Even with the growers and many of our clients. It’s a strong value that is at the heart of all we do at Lanson”
The campaign was created before the COVID-19 crisis, but the attachment to humanity and compassion is so relevant for today.
The earliest Harvest on record
Coming through the last six months has been challenging everywhere. For Lanson it meant a complete closure for 15 days during the French lockdown, which began on March 17th. Shipments began immediately afterwards, but disgorging, labelling and bottling did not re-start until the middle of May.
“In the vineyards work continued, because we had a very early season. As soon as lockdown began, the sun came! A very wet winter and the beginning of Spring was wet, but then the beginning of March was sunny and hot. The vines grew very quickly creating a lot of work in the vineyards”
“We decided to take some people from the cellars to the vineyards. There was a lot to do”
In 2018 the earliest harvest ever was declared on 21st August. In 2020 the conditions Hervé described with a warm Spring and continued heat through the Summer have matured the grapes even quicker and picking was allowed to start on 17th August in the south of the region.
I spoke to Hervé the day that the harvest began for Lanson in the Cote des Bar, in the south of the region, having taken the decision to delay harvest from the declared start date by 4 days.
“After continuing to take samples we decided to allow further maturity. So, the harvest starts in the [Cote des] Bar today and will start in the Marne [Valley] on Monday [24th August].
“All three grape varieties are maturing well with a great balance of sugar and acidity.”
Each year since 2006, Lanson has made a parcel from their own 1-hectare Grand Cru clos (walled vineyard) in the centre of Reims, next to the winery. This year will be no different;
“Picking in the Clos Lanson will take place between 29th and 31st of August but, for sure, it will be a little different.”
Usually this event is celebrated by a party of many of Hervé’s Lanson colleagues, including from some International markets, helping with the harvest and sharing food.
“This year we don’t know how we will do it, because of COVID. There will still be a very friendly event, but the same things will apply as they do in the vineyard. In the vineyard there are fewer people; only one person per rank and people are not to be closer than 1 metre. At the end of the rank you have to respect distance and wash hands and hand sanitiser is available.
“There will still be an event in the Clos, and it will be very special, but we will have to be very careful”
Now working his 8th harvest for Lanson and having started his career in 1991, Hervé understands the importance of the harmonious synergies between the Houses, Négociants and Growers to make sure the prestige of Champagne is preserved.
“When my career started there was a big crisis following the Gulf War, but decisions were made not to lower the yield but to continue with a full harvest in 1991. Sales didn’t increase, they continued to decrease and by 1993 there was too much wine in the cellars and the price of Champagne collapsed.”
Lanson, along with other Houses, is represented by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) also known as Comité Champagne. The CIVC act as intermediary between the Houses and the Growers to agree regulations in Champagne. The recent, high profile negotiations over the 2020 harvest yields have been among the longest drawn out but most important ever.
“Many people talk about the ‘war’ between the Houses and the Growers, because the ‘bad Houses’ and Négociants wanted lower yields and finally this week they decided to have 8,000kg per hectare. It is a good level; it is the least-worst outcome for everybody.
“The experience shows that you cannot wait, you need to cut [the yield] immediately. The risk is the Houses are not able to buy grapes in the next harvest. It is hard for the Growers today, but it could be harder in the future by thinking that the crisis will only last one year.
“We know it will be complicated with 8,000kg for Growers because the cost of producing grapes in Champagne is very high. We spend a lot of time in the vineyard in Champagne and it costs a lot of money.
“I think the Comité Champagne preserved the unity of Champagne by choosing something that is not good for Growers and not good for Négociants but is good for the future of Champagne.”
With 85% of grapes sourced through long term contracts with growers, Hervé and Lanson rely on great partnerships and they work closely with their grower partners throughout the year.
“You can choose conventional viticulture, sustainable or biodynamic. We think the future of Champagne is to have organic and certified sustainable viticulture. You need someone to check all your practices are sustainable and this is why we are so close to our growers.
“Our relationships with growers in a normal year starts around flowering in June, to see the evolution of the vineyard.”
The reduced yields provide the opportunity to be even more scrupulous this year. When the year’s climate had already provided expectations of an outstanding vintage, 2020 appears to be delivering on the early promise.
When the industry is discussing yields, Hervé would rather focus on the potential of the wine.
“The quality is very good and should be outstanding. We are very pleased with the level of maturity and the health is very good with no botrytis. The level of sugar and acidity is very good, and you can say that this is rare to have three consecutive very good vintages.
“We are very optimistic that it will be a famous trilogy; 2018, 2019 and 2020. Similar to 1988, 1989 and 1990. Quality will always make vintage Champagne special and the decisions we make now give us strong roots for a sustainable future”