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Jefford on Monday: Dodging The Bullets

Bizarre is perhaps the word which best sums up the 2014 growing season in the Northern Hemisphere. Earthquake, hail, flood, fog, fungal diseases, exotic insect pests: this has been a summer rich in hazards.

Picture taken of the September floods in the Langeudoc; credit: Basile Guibert, Mas de Daumas Gassac

At the grandest scale, there seems little chance of returning to the glut years the wine world experienced almost half a decade ago. The southern hemisphere harvest was below average; California’s drought will shave its harvest total; and Europe, too, looks as if it will be 10 to 15 per cent down on the 2013 figures. France has improved on its generally dismal 2013 crop (the current prediction is for 47 million hectolitres in place of 42 million last year), but Italy and Portugal are both tractoring in smaller crops than last year, while Spain looks set for a 26% harvest drop. (No bad thing, considering that the Spaniards had to send four million hectolitres off for unsubsidised distillation in July this year.) Summer was inglorious in both Germany and Austria.

Classic fanfare
Like it or not, much of the noise about any vintage is generated in France’s emblematic regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy. “Optimism is back,” wrote Christian Moueix to me towards the end of June, and he pointedly repeated the phrase under the golden sunshine and balmy warmth of early September. For all that, it’s been a far-from-perfect year: difficult, languid flowering and a stormy summer contrived to dissipate the two-week advance with which the growing season opened. By late August, the berries were around 15 per cent bigger than normal, positioned in extravagant canopies which bore the scars of repeated fungal skirmishes. Further rain at that point would have been catastrophic. The weather changed spectacularly with the new moon on August 25th, and the warmest first half of September recorded in the twenty-first century then followed, and a fair end to the month, too. There will be a lot of rosé produced in Bordeaux this year as growers resort to saignées (‘bleeding’ of the vats in order to increase concentration), but many châteaux are reporting encouraging analyses.

Most Burgundy growers, too, harvested in beautiful sunshine – though not the unfortunate owners of the 6,000 ha which were hail-trashed back in June (this included a hit for the third year running in Beaune, Pommard and Volnay). Despite the hail, there is huge relief in the region that quantities are closer to normal after three short or very short harvests, and some growers in the region (from Durup in Chablis down to Piron in Morgon) are reporting ‘ideal’ balances in the musts. We’ll see. August was notably cloudy and wet here, so there must be a question mark over the level and style of ripeness and density of fruit, particularly for red wines from less well-positioned sites.

The libidinous pest
Burgundy, too, is one of the regions where Drosophila suzukii, an invasive vinegar fly, first identified in Japan, is making its presence felt in France (it’s now widespread in western USA, and has caused considerable damage this year in Germany, Switzerland and Northern Italy). Its habit of piercing healthy skins to lay its eggs surreptitiously inside fruit makes it more threatening than most vinegar flies, which prefer broken or rotting fruit. The maggots quickly hatch, and can bring about sour rot in grapes which to the naked eye barely look compromised; the fly is, moreover, libidinous enough to produce up to 13 generations per season. The problem is worse for strawberry and cherry growers than for wine growers (Drosophila suzukii prefers red fruit). It also likes shady, damp conditions, especially those found in pergola vines, so 2014 was the ideal summer for it to consolidate its European foothold.

Cool smiles
The biggest French harvest smiles this year tend to be found in the highest latitudes – growers in Champagne and Muscadet are very satisfied with the way summer has turned out, and the Loire’s Sauvignon-producing regions have harvested lots of crunchy, aromatic fruit too. The picture in the Rhône is more mixed, with some major storms in the south during the second half of September (luckily the hail which fell on September 15th mainly affected the town of Avignon, not the vineyards). Cahors, to take just one example from the vineyards of the South West, was saved by the generous September sun after a summer spent battling mildew (the biodynamic Ch de Chambert had to spray 14 times rather than the usual 9 or 10), but the harvest for those who worked their vineyards assiduously is promising.

Languedoc: it’s raining headlines
Languedoc illustrates just how difficult it is to generalise in a year like 2014. The heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced drenched the eastern Languedoc on September 29th, causing flood chaos in Montpellier, and this sub-region had already been flayed by heavy storms two weeks earlier. Some 148 mm of rain fell in 24 hours on September 17th at Domaine de l’Hortus, for example. On the 29th, 120 mm fell between 9am and midday at Mas de Daumas Gassac, with another 120 mm in just one hour, between midday and one pm. (Montpellier’s long-term average rainfall for the whole month of September is just 80 mm.) It’s still raining, by the way.

Daumas Gassac, though, had picked everything prior to both sets of storms, though the Guibert brothers would like to have waited a little longer with their Cabernets; Hortus, meanwhile, had picked 70 per cent prior to the first storms and everything prior to the second. Those who (often for reasons of altitude) had to pick later, though, found themselves with a colossal sorting task on their hands. The harvest account given me by Béatrice and Sébastien Fillon of Clos du Serres in Terrasses du Larzac is a true epic.

Video montage showing the Languedoc rainstorm in September; credit; Basile Guibert, Mas de Daumas Gassac

Despite the headlines, these storms were localised; Faugères, Minervois and regions further west escaped almost unscathed. Earlier in the summer, by contrast, parts of the west like La Clape and Malpère had been badly hit by hail, previously rare here (12,800 ha in total). Everywhere in the Languedoc has been mildew-prone during summer’s tropical second half, and the drought conditions which (paradoxically) prevailed prior to midsummer had already reduced yields by 30 to 40 per cent compared to 2013, which was a magnificent vintage here. So it’s a confused and chaotic picture – but there will still be some very good wines from this enormous region in 2014.  

The complications continue
Beyond French borders, Piedmont seemed catastrophic back in August, as the fogs seemed to be settling in early after a gloomy, disease-hit summer. The beautiful weather of late August and September helped matters, though it hasn’t held into October as Nebbiolo producers would, of course, have liked. According to local resident David Berry Green, the Italian buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd, Barbaresco may in fact prove to be better than Barolo this year, as it has had less than half Barolo’s total of growing-season rain.  

Friuli has had a very difficult vintage, and there is unlikely to be much Amarone with the date 2014 on it. In Tuscany, too, the picture is mixed: July and August were minor-key months here as elsewhere, but spring’s early start (after a frostless winter) put enough slack in the system for the fruit to catch up in the bright September sunshine — for those who could wait. Where the rot was too well-established, though, as in parts of Montalcino, growers had to pick earlier than they would have liked.  

For unqualified European optimism, you probably need to head to regions like Ribera del Duero, Toro and the Gredos zone in Spain, where August was a warm, dry month and where the whole growing season was both well supplied with early water and without excessive heat. Assiduous producers in Rioja should have made good wines, though in general the Riojan crop is almost alarmingly large and some wines may lack concentration as a consequence.

California: the sunny side
You might expect California’s current drought to have slashed its expected harvest – but you’d be wrong. This is partly because increased plantings are coming on stream (an extra 12,145 bearing acres since 2010, for example), and partly because drought in irrigated vineyards needn’t have the same dramatic effect on yields that it does in Europe’s non-irrigated zones. The current projection is for 3.9 million tons, down just eight per cent on 2013 and still the third largest crop on record.  

Napa’s harvest period got underway the wrong way — with an earthquake. The magnitude 6 quake struck close to Napa’s airport, and fortuitously at 3:20am on August 24th, rather than during the working day. This caused more than $80 million’s worth of damage – but the quality of the harvested fruit is proving analgesic, with many producers suggesting that 2014 could be the third outstanding Napa vintage in a row. Even dry farmers look pleased, since what little rain there was seems to have fallen at the right times. 2014 was bizarre to the last, though: the fruit had almost all been picked, but Southern Napa and Carneros fielded a hailstorm on September 29th which left drifts a foot deep and had children running for their sledges. You never know what’s coming next this year.  

Written by Andrew Jefford

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