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Sancerre 2021 vintage: Frost, mildew and storms fail to dent spirits

Sancerre winemakers have faced tough challenges in the vineyard nearly every day in 2021, but there is hope for the quality of grapes at harvest and a determination to adapt, reports Dona J. Stewart.

Harvest has finally arrived for the Sancerre 2021 vintage, following a growing season described as ‘complicated’ and even ‘catastrophic’ at times.

The final harvest reports for 2021 will not be available until November, but the general estimate is yields will be around 50% of a normal year. There is, however, wide variation across vineyard parcels.

France as a whole is facing one of its smallest wine harvests in recent memory, after a year of weather-related difficulties – especially severe spring frost and mildew outbreaks.

Exhausted vignerons in Sancerre say quality could still very good for the grapes that made it, but they are eager to put this year behind them.

For Adélaïde Grall, co-owner of Vincent Grall vineyards, 2021 was a year that proved the local adage ‘Année en 1, année de rien‘, or ‘A year with a one is a year of nothing’.

Frost impact on Sancerre 2021 vintage

In early April, Sancerre, like Champagne, Burgundy and many other regions, was hit with a devastating frost.

Multiple factors increased its impact. Just days before the frost, Sancerre experienced uncharacteristically warm weather. Bourges, the regional capital, reached a record 24.9°C (76.8°F), the highest recorded since record-keeping began in 1913.

Temperatures then plunged to -5° to -7°C, (19.4-23°F). Worse, the low temperatures held for three consecutive nights.

Many feared the damage would rival that of 1991, when a hard frost reduced production by 60%.

An estimated 30% of all buds in the region froze, according to field surveys by SICAVAC (Service Interprofessional de Conseil Agronomique, de Vinifications et d’Analayses du Centre), the technical support organisation for the vineyards of Central Loire.

But the extent of damage varied considerably by parcel, with some winegrowers experiencing losses of 80% or greater.

Pinot Noir, which had already started bud-break, was particularly hard-hit. Used to make Sancerre red and Sancerre rosé, Pinot Noir is already rare – making up less than 20% of overall production.

Summer brought additional challenges, especially rain and high humidity, creating the perfect conditions for mildew.

Temperatures vacillated quickly between very warm and unseasonably cool, and strong storms rolled through the area just before harvest.

Fewer Clusters but high quality

While the situation is clearly difficult for all the winegrowers, it poses unique challenges for smaller-scale wine producers.

Vincent and Adélaïde Grall are among Sancerre’s smallest-scale winemakers. Their vines, both Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, consist of 4.5 hectares (11 acres), scattered across multiple sites in the AOC.

Unusual for the region, the soil contributing to their terroir includes 80% silex (flint). Overall, less than 15% of Sancerre is flint.

Silex in Sancerre

Silex in Sancerre…Photo supplied by Dona J. Stewart.

More common is limestone, including chalky Kimmeridgian marl, known as ‘terres blanches’ because it turns white when dry, as well as ‘caillottes’ – limestone pebbles mixed with clay. Each soil type imparts different characteristics; but it is silex that gives a Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc a distinctive minerality.

Though it has been a tough year, the Gralls consider themselves fortunate that their main plot in the north of Sancerre, which was harder hit than the south, had been pruned late in the season.

As a result, many buds were still closed in April and avoided frost damage. Though anticipating a loss of 50%, the results are better than expected. Adélaïde Grall said, ‘The rain just before harvest turned the grapes into juice. The plots that had not frozen produce normal yields. The quality is good! It might be a “mineral” vintage, which we like. Nature is amazing!’

Despite the challenges, this year’s fruit is of high quality. The berries, many more green than golden in colour, have less sugar than recent warmer years.

This should result in lower alcohol wines, more akin to a ‘traditional’ cool-climate Sancerre, with good acidity. But the berries are fragile, plump from the rain and thin-skinned, making the harvest more difficult, especially by mechanical means.

Small-scale winemakers usually sell everything they produce each year, the majority of it sold locally and direct to visitors. This is both because of economic necessity plus lack of space to store wine.

Due to the pandemic, some vignerons do have a little stock in reserve to fall back on. It will likely be needed, because this small harvest comes just after Sancerre was named ‘The Most Preferred Village in France’ in a national contest. The award is already driving an increase in tourism that is likely to surge as travel picks up.

Is this the new normal for Sancerre?

Is this 2021 growing season example of a ’new normal’, characterized by increasing variability in weather and climate?

If so, Sancerre’s winemakers are ready to turn to innovation. While acknowledging the strong role of tradition in French winemaking, Adélaïde Grall said, ‘Innovation has always occurred in the wine industry. How we make wine today is different than how we made it 20 or 30 years ago.’

Indeed, all of France adapted to conquer phylloxera in the late 19th century. At the same time, Sancerre shifted its focus to Sauvignon Blanc.

But these climate challenges will drive the need for more precision agricultural techniques, including calibration of management practices during the growing season and when making harvest decisions.

Previously, acid and sugar levels, and their interaction, was the primary focus for winemakers. According to Benoît Roumet, former director of the Central Loire wine bureau (BIVC), this is no longer enough. ‘In the last 10 years more and more winemakers monitor many more characteristics, such as the maturity of the pips and the character of the skin,’ he said.

As harvest approaches growers may do multiple assessments each day to hit that precise moment when the berry pulp transforms to juice ready for pressing.

Winemaking techniques may change, in fact they are already adapting as chaptalisation, commonly used a decade ago, is now rarely needed.

Despite the difficult year, 2021 will produce very nice wine. But the vignerons of Sancerre are already looking forward to 2022, a year without a ‘one’.

Related articles: 

France faces historically small 2021 vintage

Champagne 2021 harvest: Picking nears end as growers weigh losses

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