Earlier this month the French Ministry of Agriculture published its current estimate of the country’s wine production this year. At 42.3 million hectolitres, it looks like 2013 will narrowly surpass the historically low harvest of 2012 but fall short, by seven percent, of the five-year average of 45.4 million hectolitres.
The ministry’s monthly downward revisions from an initial estimate of 46.6 million hectolitres in July have told the story of a vintage challenged by weather conditions from the start of its growing season to the end.
Unusually cool and wet weather in April, May and June made an impact across the country’s diverse wine regions and climates. Vines were late to bud and flower, delayed by up to three weeks, but critically for growers from Languedoc to Champagne flowering often coincided with poor conditions, reducing the success of fruit-set and thus a vine’s potential crop. Certain grape varieties are more vulnerable at flowering and this year Grenache, Merlot and Chardonnay had particular trouble, notably lowering yields in the Rhône, Bordeaux and Burgundy, Languedoc and Champagne.
By pushing back the growth cycle the late spring also risked a late harvest in potentially poor autumn weather. Across France a summer of high temperatures and sunshine brought hope of reprieve. Provence, Beaujolais, Languedoc-Roussillon and Champagne saw their harvests come in without the health or ripeness of their berries compromised. Elsewhere, however, episodes of rain coupled with cool or warm temperatures in September and October brought serious challenges. Without doubt a producer’s luck, patience or resources at picking will have played an important part in his or her success in 2013. The strict sorting of bunches and berries infected by rot will also have been a safeguard of quality, albeit at the cost of losing quantity. The onset of rot was widely reported to have reduced yields in Burgundy and Bordeaux, as well as the Loire and South-West.
But the headline-grabbing news of the vintage came in June and late July/early August when dramatic storms hit some of France’s most famous wine appellations. In Burgundy’s prime Côte de Beaune at least 1350 hectares were affected, with up to 90% losses reported. In Bordeaux as many as 7000 hectares saw at least 80% losses, the difference here being that the vineyards were not in high-ranking appellations but in the Entre-Deux-Mers, an area of standard Bordeaux AOP production. Among others hit by hailstorms were Vouvray in the Loire, the Côte des Blancs in Champagne, Crozes-Hermitage in the northern Rhône, Turkheim in Alsace and Cahors in the South-West.
The 2013 vintage for France’s grape and wine producers was a varied one: challenging for many, catastrophic for some, rewarding in the end for others. So far the weather has defined the story of the vintage however the eventual quality and character of its wines will be determined by the resources, talent and decisions of individual producers.
Considerations of quality and vintage assessment aside, the major problem affecting most regions and all levels of the industry will be the harvest’s disappointing size, particularly after the small 2012. The financial strain on those afflicted by crop losses cannot be underestimated. Neither can the pressure on producers, be they small domaines or big volume brands, who must try not to lose their footing in a global market because of this year’s reduced volumes and higher costs.
A rainy and cool spring saw budburst, flowering and fruit-set disrupted and delayed by up to three weeks across the region. Merlot vines were particularly vulnerable to the weather, being more precocious than the Cabernets, and gave growers the first indication of low yields to come when their uneven fruit-set resulted in ‘millerandage’ (when bunches combine both normal and tiny seedless ‘aborted’ berries) and ‘coulure’ (smaller bunches with reduced numbers of berries).
A humid June that encouraged mildew and grey rot was followed by escalating temperatures in the first three weeks of July. In the early hours of 27th July violent winds of up to 165 km/hour whipped through northern Pauillac, causing little damage in the vineyards but, memorably, felling some of the willow trees that veil Chateau Lafite-Rothschild from intrusive eyes at her gate. More serious, though, was the hail that the storm brought across the Garonne river, through the Entre-Deux-Mers district and on towards the Dordogne river and the town of Libourne on its right bank.
Only a few days later, on 2nd August, a second hailstorm struck Bordeaux. Again the prime chateaux and appellations of the Left and Right Banks were spared, whilst producers in the fork of the Garonne and Dordogne, the Entre-Deux-Mers, and the Cotes de Castillon further east were punished. In less than half an hour the storm swept in from the south-west across a 10 km front, stripping vines of their vegetation, ruining their immature fruit as well as wounding their trunks and stems. Some 350 growers lost at least 80% of their crop on approximately 7000 hectares of the 24,000 said to have been affected.
This is a region that doesn’t command premium prices; although known for its self-titled dry white AOC, most of its production is red (often Merlot) qualifying for straight Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur AOCs and selling per bottle for an average of 7 euros or 2 euros on the bulk market. The value of the crop lost to the hailstorm has been put in excess of 70 million euros. However, it needs to be remembered that coming in August the storm also wrote off the money and labour already invested in the vineyards throughout the year. Only a small percentage of properties in the region are understood to have been insured against hail, as few as 15-20%. Significant losses to hail in 2009 are understood to have pushed premiums prohibitively high.
Besides the catastrophic storm at its start, August’s hot and sunny days gave good conditions for véraison (the change in a grape’s skin colour) across Bordeaux. Night time drops in temperature from 30 to 10/12 °C encouraged the development of aromatic character whilst retaining freshness.
Going into September the battle against powdery mildew and grey rot (the undesirable kind of botrytis) was widespread. A clear run of sunshine and warm days was needed but humidity turned into rainfall by the end of the month. Producers had to judge when to pick, balancing the need to allow grapes to reach optimal phenolic ripeness and sugar levels with forecasts of poor weather and then rain itself over 27/8/9th of September and October 3/4th. The risk of losing fruit to ‘la pourriture’ in a crop already reduced in size was too high for some and it was common to see parcels of Merlot and some ideally later-ripening Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon being picked late September, early October.
Given the challenges of the growing season and harvest this year, the quality of a producer’s 2013 will in large part be decided by his choices and efforts to make wine from grapes neither damaged, rotten nor immature. As has been regularly said of Bordeaux, those with the money to sort good from bad (be it in the vineyard or winery, by hand or infra-red optical sensor) are also the ones who can withstand lower volumes of production and will be able to command higher prices to compensate.
For producers in the southern communes of Barsac and Sauternes whose sweet wines are the result of meticulous selection of berries infected by the noble botrytis rot, 2013 has proven to be a positive year. Whilst the Sauvignon, Semillon and Muscadelle vines suffered the region’s delayed spring, they largely escaped its impact on flowering and fruit-set. Good warmth and humidity through the summer brought plentiful botrytis and allowed a triumphant first picking in late September. Showers and damp conditions in October brought some dilution and slower development, but by the completion of harvest producers were very happy with both its quality and volume, particularly after the disappointments of 2012.
Bernard Farges, President of the CIVB, speaking in early October, suggested that 2013 could be the smallest harvest since 1991 (a miserly 2.58 million hectolitres). The latest figures confirm that a combination of the difficult spring, summer hailstorms and autumn rots lowered Bordeaux AOP production to 4.07 million hectolitres, or 543 million bottles – a 24% drop on the average yields of the past five years.
A cold, overcast and wet spring saw localised flooding in areas around Beaune and Savigny where the water table was already well-replenished by a wet winter. The vines’ growth cycle was delayed the start. Budburst came late and flowering had to contend with rain and wind, resulting in fewer bunches and berries reduced in size by coulure and millerandage. Producers knew that 2013’s crop would not be an overly abundant one, and could only hope that a long, dry and sunny summer would ensure its quality.
After a cool start to July, temperatures did rise to the late 20s/early 30s. However, humidity in tandem with the heat meant growers had to remain vigilant in the vineyards throughout the summer. As September came, so temperatures dropped, and hopes for an Indian summer that would bring bunches to an even and full ripeness without risk of autumn rains and rot were thwarted. “We thought we had it,” explains Mark Haisma, vineyard owner and micro-négociant, “when by mid-September the sun was out and the temperatures were holding. We had rot in the vineyards but we felt we could risk waiting to get good natural sugars.” But rain, cloud and some warm nights intervened and rot quickly developed, particularly in the heavier clay-rich soils of the lower appellations. For Haisma picking was slow and muddy. His decision to hold out meant a lot of fruit was lost at the sorting table, “but” he says, “I did get some very good ripe Pinot Noir!” The cost of his holding out for ripeness has been a significant reduction in production, for instance his Nuits St Georges La Charmotte only filled 5 of the normal 6 barrels, a loss of some 290 bottles.
For many producers harvest was completed under pressure, parcel by parcel, as grapes approached or crossed the line between being viable and vulnerable. With poor weather forecast much of the Chardonnay in the Côte de Beaune was picked earlier than expected, however a few Meursault producers bravely waited till early October. In Chablis, the difficult spring had also pushed harvest through to October where it was met by warm and wet conditions. Despite the pressure to pick, the crop was generally healthy and had been able to reach good levels of sugar and ripeness.
Unfortunately, Burgundy did not escape being victim to the calamitous storms of the summer. On 23 July high winds, hail and flood waters passed through northern Côte de Beaune, destroying as much as 90% of the crop in the worst-hit communes of Savigny-les-Beaune, Beaune, Pommard and Volnay. Premier cru vineyards mid-slope on the Côte were particularly affected, Le Clos-des-Mouches in Beaune and Les Epenots and Les Charmots in Pommard suffering major damage. The total area affected was variously reported as being 1,350 hectares (by the CIVB) up to 2,000 hectares, stretching down to Chassagne-Montrachet in the south and up to the border with the Côte de Nuits at Aloxe-Corton (where hard rain but no hail fell).
The CIVB estimates the 2013 vintage at 1.4 million hectolitres or 186 million bottles, 8 to 10% lower than the ten year average. There is some improvement on 2012, a year that challenged with similarly bad weather at critical points in the season and produced only 1.26 million hectolitres.
The vineyards of Champagne got off to a mixed start this year. As elsewhere, spring was delayed, pushing back the growth cycle. Rain in June triggered millerandage in the Côte des Blancs (particularly amongst its prized Chardonnay) yet further north in the Montagne de Reims area, vines enjoyed perfect conditions during a late-flowering in early July. Importantly, the region avoided the spring frosts and fungal disease that reduced crops in 2012.
The season was not without incident, however. Over 20th and 21st June high winds and hailstones damaged vineyards in the most southerly growing area, the Côte des Bars, also known as the Aube. An important if often unsung source of fruit for many houses, growers in the Bars suffered losses for the second year in a row. More widely reported were the storms of late July that passed through central Champagne affecting 3,000 hectares of vineyard with several days of wind, flooding and hail. The most concentrated losses were in 300 hectares of the Côte des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne, notably the prime villages of Cramant, Chouilly, Avize, Mancy and Hautvilliers.
For the majority of growers the journey to harvest proceeded with growing confidence. August saw dry heat and record sunshine, and although ‘late’ compared to the trend of recent decades, the harvest completed in mid-October without major threat from rain and with grapes showing good balance of sugar, acidity and ripeness. Houses already publicising the potential for Vintage wines to be produced from this year’s crop (alongside their standard Non-Vintage cuvees that combine older wines with new) are Henriot, Cattier and Louis Roederer.
Despite the season’s challenges production in the region made a significant leap past the volumes of 2012, increasing by an estimated 42% to 2.56 million hectolitres. This represents a welcome return to the past five years’ average. However, it is important to remember that yields in Champagne are defined two ways and those 2.56 million hectolitres do not represent the volume of wines produced or marketed from this year’s crop. Each year the CIVC declares a ‘rendement butoir’ negotiated between the region’s 20,000 growers (who harvest 90% of the crop) and 350 producing houses (who own little land but account for two thirds of actual Champagne sales, including 87% of exports). Taking into account the potential harvest, but also producers’ stocks and forecasts for global sales, the CIVC caps the amount that growers may sell/producers may press per hectare – this year 10,000 kg – but also dictates how much those who produce may press for reserve still wines kept for blending in future years – a further 3,100 kg/hectare, provided total reserves do not then exceed 10,000 kg/ha. To this year’s wines producers have been told they may supplement up to 500 kg/ha from their reserves. Any production in excess of these yields must be sent for distillation.
Particularly since the economic crash of 2008 the Champagne industry has used this capping of production and reserve wine levels as a mechanism to balance supply against wavering demand. Sales last year were 20 million short of the record 328.7 million bottles sold in 2007 and the first half of this year was slightly down on the same period in 2012. An oversupply of bottles, whether sitting in producers’ cellars or on the market, risks price-cutting and loss of prestige, something the Champagne brands know they can ill afford.
Harvest for many in the southern Rhône was a tense affair, as rainfall and forecasts of more prompted some to start picking by the end of September, while others who were able waited to harvest through October. This concluded a vintage that challenged from the start; not only the cold and wet spring but the delayed impact of February 2012’s frosts meant vines, in particular Grenache, bore a smaller crop that in some cases struggled to reach optimal phenolic ripeness despite high temperatures through summer.
Grenache is the most planted variety in the southern Rhône and the backbone of its red blends, so producers will be looking to other grapes, Syrah and Mouvèdre especially, to drive quality and quantity. Charles Blagden, wine broker and owner of 1.7 hectares in Châteauneuf du Pape, saw yields of just 9hl/ha from his Grenache vines. Looking more widely, he reports that while volumes are down (and market prices already going up) there is the potential for very good wine “but it will be more variable, dependent on when producers decided to pick”.
In the northern Rhône appellations, producers are also generally positive about the quality of the vintage, whilst reporting lower volumes. Millerandage and coulure among some Syrah and Viognier vines bore proof of the difficult spring. In the second week of July hail over southern parts of Crozes-Hermitage and St Joseph, across the river Rhône, brought losses of between 10 and 100%. For the majority, damage was below the threshold for insurance.
Harvest came two to three weeks later than last year, with different sites and parcels of vines reaching maturity at different times thanks, again, to the delays of spring. With pickers out in the vineyards till mid/late October, when normally it is the northern appellations that complete harvest before the south, it was a topsy-turvy end to a vintage out of synch from the start.
The headline news of the vintage was the major damage incurred in Vouvray and, to a lesser extent, Montlouis on 17th June. A violent hailstorm destroyed over two-thirds of the former’s 2,200 hectares in a matter of minutes, stripping and damaging its Chenin Blanc vines just as they were breaking into flower. Some growers lost their entire crop and many, including top names Domaine Huët and Francois Chidaine will have drastically reduced volumes.
Government figures of 2.2 million hectolitres (293 million bottles) show a welcome bounce of 28% on last year’s poor harvest and place 2013 on a par with the average of the past five years. However, that is an average Loire producers would hope to surpass, as the past years have seen significant setbacks from severe frosts, hail and rot-inducing weather.
This year, again, rainfall in September (in Muscadet and central regions) and the prevalence of grey rot on fruit lowered yields. The legacy of last year’s frosts also played its part, with growers in Touraine reporting less juice from berries with thicker skins. Jean Pierre Savion of Grand Chais de France believes it is a vintage that has favoured the whites and rosés of the region: “It’s a Loire vintage; the aromatic quality is there but alcohols are generally lower and acidities a little higher”.
As elsewhere, Beaujolais made a late start to spring. But record sunshine over the summer and well-timed rainfall just before harvest ensured grapes that were fully-ripened and juicy enough to compensate for some of the losses to millerandage. In mid-July an isolated hailstorm affected just 100 of the region’s 19, 000 hectares.
Estimates of 700,000 hectolitres (93 million bottles) do not make 2013 abundant but show a substantial improvement on the historically low yields of 2012. The past year saw bulk prices for Beaujolais rise by up by 40% as producers’ stocks fell to their lowest levels in a decade.
Alsace didn’t escape the delayed budburst and flowering seen across France and official estimates of the region’s harvest show a drop to 955,000 hectolitres, down 14% on a recent average of 1.1 million and 16% on last year. In a summer noted for its bright, hot days, one isolated hailstorm in early August did, unfortunately, damage vineyards near Colmar in the heart of the region. Losses of up to 60% were reported by members of the Turckheim co-operative, mostly among vineyards on the valley floor.
The region enjoyed excellent conditions for healthy if slow ripening through to the start of harvest in the last week of September. From early October intermittent rainfall put pressure on some producers waiting for later-ripening sites and varieties. As elsewhere, work in the vineyard combined with the timing of harvest and sorting through of fruit proved all-important. Early reports suggest that there will only be small quantities of Vendange Tardive and Grains Nobles wines this year, due to cool temperatures in October hindering both the accumulation of high sugars and the evolution of desirable botrytis or ‘noble rot’.
An administrative grouping of France’s most southerly wine regions, Languedoc-Roussillon has the country’s largest area under vine. Despite its breadth of territory there is shared confidence about this year’s harvest and quality potential. The fact that spring was delayed by a fortnight did not mean producers suffered at harvest time as others did elsewhere. The majority of the harvest was brought in during October in weather conditions ideal for grape maturation and health. Hot days followed by cool nights through summer and autumn had slowed the pace of ripening whilst preserving aromatic freshness. The wet spring had also made sufficient water available for the vines to thrive in the heat.
For growers in the Languedoc departéments of the Gard and Aude there were concerns about coulure affecting Grenache, Carignan and Merlot vines, and thus potential yields. However, the overall picture in the Languedoc-Roussillon is of stable volumes this year, up 3% on 2012, and just 3% short of the last five years’ average.
Production has been estimated at 1,275 000 hectolitres (170 million bottles) making this an average year in Provence and a welcome 10% increase on volumes in 2012. The region experienced the delayed spring and its knock on effects to vine growth. In June in the Var departément, and in July/August further west around Aix-en-Provence, there were losses to hail. However, the pattern of storms and drying winds that characterises late summer and autumn in this Mediterranean climate allowed producers to harvest healthy and ripe grapes through September and early October.
Revised government figures this month lowered production estimates for the wine regions of south-western France to 4.07 million hectolitres, 23% below the five year average. Grey rot infection on bunches at harvest-time reduced final yields, compounding losses to problematic flowering and storm damage earlier in the year. On 23rd June some 250 hectares of vineyards in the Cahors region of the Lot had been destroyed by hail, whilst rain and storms that month had also reduced yields by up to 30% in Madiran and St Mont, and by 15-25% in vineyards producing the white IGP Côtes de Gascogne. Appellations that ‘satellite’ Bordeaux, such as Duras and Bergerac, also reported lower volumes, but will perhaps benefit from the pressures and bulk price increases affecting their famous neighbour.
Images © Norbert Hecht/Domaine Zind-Humbrecht (grapes) and Tim Atkin MW (Château Latour)