Jefford on Monday: Glut’s End

We’ve done our bit for the 2012 harvest. Virgile Joly, one of the Languedoc’s most convivial growers, organizes a ‘Journée Sécateurs’ every year for incompetent but wine-friendly families; he let us all loose, about a month ago, on a parcel of Cinsault. To my surprise, we all came home with our fingers intact. It was sticky business, though.

Children eating grapes

[picture credit: Journee Secateurs - Ken Payton]

The Cinsault produces monster bunches of blobby grapes which it likes to wrap tightly around trellis wires, tendrils and stalks, and we were soon dripping not just with sweat but with grape juice, too. Given the ratio of juice to skins, I now understand why they call it ‘the rosé grape’. Nebbiolo it isn’t.

A little later in the month, I got a chance to sample some mid-ferment wines with the Jeanjean team of oenologist Iain Munson and purchasing director Gilles Gally over at one of the most successful Languedoc cooperatives, Les Trois Grappes at Le Pouget. I’m no expert at this specialized art, but I was genuinely impressed by the freshness and liveliness of this year’s musts. (Delicious Languedoc Sauvignon Blanc? That shows you how unusual a season it is.)  

Freshness was the word from Pic St Loup, too, when we called in at the lonely La Gravette cooperative, hurrying to beat the forecast rain in late September. Yves Orliac at Domaine de l’Hortus, surely the Languedoc’s most picturesquely sited wine estate, wedged between the crag of the Pic and the cliffs of Hortus itself, says that 2012 will produce unusually ‘digestible’ wines with ‘reasonable’ alcohol levels. After the sometimes super-sized Languedoc cru 2009s and 2010s, that may come as a relief.

Further north, of course, the outcome of this difficult, tetchy season is looking less happy. Full marks to the BIVB for its honesty in describing a “chaotic spring” which was “very trying for the nerves and brought winegrowers out in a cold sweat”. Frost, hail, sunburn, mildew, rot … you name it, the burgundians have had it this year. Naturally, a little professional optimism is in order (hey everyone, it was the driest August in Chablis since 1976!), but late September hardly covered itself in glory, and many harvesters had a very different experience to our half-day St Saturnin frolic. The Domaine de la Vougeraie harvesters, I learned from its excellent bulletin, were “dashed by the rain, whipped by the wind and chilled by the cold … [and] finished the day soaked to the skin and splattered with mud” on September 26th, as they harvested the Clos de Thorey in Nuits.

Greater Burgundy perhaps had the worst of it, but no French region has had an easy time this year; that professional optimism sounds least unfeigned from the Southern Rhône. In a year like this, though, any judgement on quality before you have a finished sample in a glass in front of you is premature.

The one absolute certainty is that quantity is down. Way down: France will have its smallest harvest since 1991, with just 42.9 million hl expected (that’s 15.7% down on last year). The story is the same in every region, but the reasons are multiple. A patchy, extended flowering was a major cause; frost, hail and disease have taken their toll; the August heatwave reduced yields further. Beaujolais as a whole has harvested just half of its potential crop, as did some domains in Muscadet. Both regions were already crisis-stricken, so this loss of quantity is doubly brutal.

Great news, in other words, for France’s rivals? Not really. There are few bumper crops around this year. Spanish production, after a summer drought, looks set to drop by a third, to an estimated 33 million hl. Italy is even further adrift of its long-term average (it will probably only produce 36 million hl this year in place of the hoped-for 50 million hl, drought being the main culprit there too), and Austria is another nation where one-third of the wine grapes went AWOL in 2012. The southern hemisphere post-harvest totals for 2012 are in general down on 2011, though South Australia has managed a slight increase. Argentina’s 2012 production is 22 per cent down on the 2011 figure. California seems almost alone in contemplating a generous harvest (the state evaded the mid-western drought which has slashed US grain production), but it still won’t be enough to meet the US’s rising shortage of grapes.

That, of course, is the sunny side: the overproduction of the past few years is over. If you’ve lost between 15 and 50 per cent of your 2012 harvest, though, a few more cents or centimes per kilo is poor recompense. 

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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