For many French winegrowers, 2013 has been a catalogue of anguish. Unhelpful flowering weather meant a generally poor fruitset, and brutal summer hailstorms cut swathes through a number of vineyard regions (notably the Central Loire, Cahors and the Côte de Beaune). That disappointing spring suggested the 2013 harvest was always going to be late; a muted summer confirmed it. The risk, then, was that the weather would break prior to or during harvest.
Sure enough, it often did, in many parts of France, including Alsace, Bordeaux and Burgundy, with rot putting growers through a nightmare of sorting. After a small 2010 harvest, a generally ordinary set of wines from 2011 and a tiny 2012 harvest, 2013 feels like a kick in the teeth. Even the Agriculture Ministry’s initial predictions of a 44 million hl crop were revised downwards once the rot horror became evident, to 42.3 million hl.
You might, therefore, think that a gathering of wine folk, on a day of heavy rain last week in the middle of the Languedoc vineyards west of Béziers, would be a glum affair. And you’d be wrong.
Half way through a merry lunch at the beautifully restored former ‘château pinardier’ (a ‘plonk palace’, initially built in the Languedoc’s pre-phylloxera heyday) of Ch. Les Carrasses, now a luxury hotel, Jean-Philippe Granier turned to me, his eyes shining, and said “C’est notre année!” (it’s our year).
I first met the fast-talking, curly-haired, endearingly informal Granier towards the end of the last century; he was passionate about his region then, and the intervening years (despite the bureaucratic attrition which must weigh on the technical director of the Languedoc and Coteaux du Languedoc AOPs) have done nothing to dim his fire. I don’t know if it will happen, but he’s all up for charging round the entire region gathering ‘a thousand testimonies’ from wine-growers north and south, east and west as to just how good 2013 is looking. It’s always difficult for a ‘non-classic region’ to get a good vintage message across in what is generally a poor vintage for the big French names. You need to shout.
On my other side sat veteran grower Jean Lacugue of Ch Milhau-Lacugue in St Chinian (who arrived wearing the biggest beret I’ve ever seen: obviously the rainy-day version, depositing drips on the shoulders and not down the neck). “It’s certainly the best vintage since 2001, and in style rather like 1996 – but we picked too soon back then.” Lacugue was enraptured by the aromatic complexity he had found in the fermenting musts this year. Granier agreed that it was as good as the best vintages of the 80s and the 90s, “but back then yields were higher, and there was much more Carignan planted.”
Both stressed that 2013 would be a contrast in style to the recent rich norm following vintages like 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010. Summer was cooler than usual here as elsewhere — but there were none of the wild-weather disasters which befell other regions, and (being Languedoc) even a cool summer brings plenty of warm sunny days .September and October 2013, meanwhile, has been the bikini autumn in the Languedoc, with glorious late-season sunshine and warmth.
“We can’t really judge until the malolactics are over in January and February,” enthused Granier, “but we’ll certainly have much fresher wines than in 2009 and 2010. The Carignan is in fact the best I’ve ever seen, and the Syrah is super this year, whereas it can suffer in the hot years. The maturity came wonderfully slowly this year, but because of the late season sunshine, no one had to hurry.” The vintage, too, looks set to be every bit as good for whites – a category of ever-growing excitement down here – as for reds. Overall the Languedoc crop is up 13 per cent on 2012, though it was still a modest crop of small berries by historical standards.
That elusive ‘Languedoc breakthrough’ has often been promised in the past. Maybe 2013 will finally do the trick. I’d be very surprised if we didn’t see most fine-wine buyers for France making a fishing trip south over the next two or three years.
Written by Andrew Jefford