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2007 Vintage Report Card: Part 2

A preliminary look at quality in the wine regions of Austria and France

Posted: December 19, 2007

The 2007 harvest is over, to the delight of some, the relief of others—and the dismay of an unlucky few. Though it's too early to assess overall wine quality, Wine Spectator's editors have analyzed the season's conditions in key regions and given each a preliminary grade.

Austria
Alsace
Bordeaux
Burgundy
Champagne
Loire Valley
Rhône Valley

Austria

Grade: B

Hot summer weather was followed by a wet period in September, leaving Austrian vintners faced with challenging conditions. Among the top white varieties, Grüner Veltliner fared better than Riesling, which was affected by botrytis rot in top regions such as the Wachau.

Fortunately the rain, which coincided with the start of harvest, was followed by drying winds that limited disease among the ripening grape bunches, primarily the white varieties. Still, many top vineyards were not picked until early November.

Among red varieties, growers reported problems with their Zweigelt, as berries ruptured due to the excessive moisture. The thicker-skinned Blaufränkisch escaped relatively unscathed in the regions south of Vienna, where it excels. On the bright side, in the Burgenland region, the rain and humidity spurred beneficial botrytis, which is required for the production of the region's famed sweet wines.

"The harvest has a little more quantity than average, but it left mixed impressions [in terms of quality]," said Willi Klinger, head of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. "It will be good for Federspiel wines [those with lighter bodies], and the cool, rainy weather provoked higher acidity in the wines," he added. "We felt it was the warmest vintage on record and then the rainy weather complicated things."

—Kim Marcus

France

Region: Alsace
Grade: A

Alsatian producers are very enthusiastic about the 2007 vintage, although the year epitomizes the expression, "It's not over until the fat lady sings." Challenging weather during spring and summer had many producers worried, but two months of near ideal conditions during harvest saved the day, and the resulting wines are of potentially high quality.

Séverine Schlumberger of Domaines Schlumberger described 2007 as "a vintage where we feared during spring time, where we panicked in summer, where we came back to large smiles and relief in autumn and where winter has more serenity." April was the warmest and driest on record, resulting in early and rapid flowering of the vines in May.

Then in mid-June, many growers suffered damage to their vineyards due to a hailstorm. The area just north of the town of Colmar was particularly hard hit, with some domaines showing an 80 percent total loss of production in certain vineyards. But the storm damage was localized, and most estates reported slightly higher-than-average yields.

Later in the summer the conditions shifted, with gray skies and cool temperatures throughout July and August. Luckily, however, the region experienced exceptional weather during September and October, which Laurence Faller, winemaker at Domaine Weinbach, described as, "all an Alsace grower can wish for." Bright and sunny days were punctuated by light winds and cool nights, weather that promoted a long, slow final development of the grapes. Such conditions "are beneficial to the finesse and complexity of the aromas of our grapes and wines," she added.

Fans of Alsace's late-harvest and dessert-style wines, vendanges tardives (VTs) and sélections de grains nobles (SGNs), should also be excited. Producers indicated that grapes harvested at the end of the season showed extraordinarily pure botrytis, particularly for Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.

Overall, wine lovers seeking the elegance and balance that typifies classic Alsatian wines should be pleased with 2007. The vintage, said, Etienne Hugel of Hugel & Fils, "ended up with one of the longest harvesting times in recent years [and] with overall longest hang time from blossoming to picking. Just what the doctor ordered. [It] should turn out to be a great classic vintage for us in Alsace."

—Alison Napjus

Region: Bordeaux
Grade: C+

Bordeaux's leading wine producers were relatively optimistic about the quality of their wines, despite one of the most difficult growing seasons in memory. The 2007 harvest could have been a complete washout if it hadn't been for a warm and clear September. It was gray and wet for most of the summer, so producers more or less scraped by. But even though many whites and some sweet wines will be successful, the inconsistency of the reds—and the low quality of the poor ones—makes 2007 a mediocre harvest.

"It was a strategic year," said Pierre Lurton, president of St.-Emilion's famous Château Cheval-Blanc and the great sweet-wine estate of Château d'Yquem. The latter produced an exceptional wine, like many estates in Sauternes. (I tasted samples of the 2007 d'Yquem in December, and the wines resembled a cross between the great 2001 and excellent 2003.)

The dry whites are also said to be very good, even excellent in 2007. Fabien Teitgen, the technical director of Smith Haut-Lafitte, said his 2007 white is fresh and fruity, with bright acidity and a clean palate.

However, it may be difficult to find many great red wines in 2007. The growing season was one of extremes, with the spring unseasonably hot and the summer cold and wet. The strange weather conditions also enhanced the development of diseases in the vineyard, mildew in particular. And although the top estates had the knowledge and financial means to combat such problems, most of the small estates did not, meaning general wine quality for 2007 Bordeaux could be low.

There are always exceptions to the rule, however. "I think we made some excellent wines at certain estates that worked very hard in their vineyard and selected the best grapes," said Stéphane Derenoncourt, a well-known consulting enologist working in Bordeaux, among other regions. He recently started working for Pomerol's Petit Village, and he thinks that he may have made the best wine there in years.

"It's still early days," said Bordeaux wine merchant Franck Mähler-Besse. His family firm not only sells extensive stocks of classified-growth wines but also owns a number of estates, including properties in St.-Estephe and St.-Emilion. "There will be some good wines made. That is for sure."

Unfortunately, just not as many as in a normal year.

—James Suckling

Region: Burgundy
Grade: B

By May 2007 in Burgundy, it looked like the region was headed for a repeat of 2003. Vine development was 3 weeks ahead of schedule and growers were looking at a mid- to late-August harvest. Then gloomy, cool and wet weather arrived in the middle of May and gripped the region until the last week of August. Finally, it warmed up, the north wind dried the vines and the sugars began concentrating as temperatures rose.

With the wet weather came mildew and rot problems. It was so wet during my visit to the region June 10—16 that some growers considered having their parcels sprayed by helicopter because tractors would otherwise get stuck in the rows of vines. Continued vigilance and spraying was necessary until the weather broke in August.

Despite the early start to the vegetation, the cool, cloudy summer slowed the photosynthesis and maturation, so when the favorable weather returned, growers had to be patient to achieve not only adequate sugar levels, but mature tannins. Some picked too early.

"We harvested our Bourgogne Pinot Noir on Aug. 31," reported Jean-Michel Chartron, proprietor of Domaine Jean Chartron in Puligny-Montrachet. "For Chardonnay, it was a bit more difficult as maturity was not reached at that point, and maturity was different from one vineyard to another."

Beaune-based négociant Alex Gambal noted that the sunny, dry weather allowed for an increase of about 1 degree of potential alcohol per week. "This was the first year anyone can remember where the white grapes were ripe much later then the reds," he said. "Therefore, those who could pick 7 to 10 days between colors were the real winners."

In the end, the quality of the 2007 red and white Burgundies will depend on the individual terroirs and growers who made the right decisions in the vineyards (controlling mildew and rot, picking at the right time, strict selection) and cellars, where it was necessary to sort—especially the Pinot Noir. The sorting resulted in a smaller crop, from 10 percent to as much as 30 percent less than the average yield.

—Bruce Sanderson

Region: Champagne
Grade: B-

If growers were able to take advantage of the maximum yield permitted by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, France's winemaking governing body, 2007 will be the largest Champagne crop ever. But with wine, as other things, size doesn't always matter. It was a difficult growing season with hot weather early on, followed by an extended stretch of rain, ultimately ending with an early harvest. So the relatively good wine quality—with relatively big volumes—that producers are now anticipating comes as more of a surprise than an expectation.

The weather in April was unseasonably hot. As a result, flowering occurred in May, about a month early, yet it was heterogeneous from one region to the next, and even from parcel to parcel within the same village. That was followed, however, by a cold, wet summer. There were several hailstorms mid-July, affecting more than 2,000 acres with 100 percent damage in parts of the Vallée de la Marne and Côtes des Bar. The lack of sunshine during the summer months set a record for Champagne. But on Aug. 24, good weather returned, along with a drying east wind. Many houses started picking by the end of August and finished by the third week of September.

"We had a fairly good harvest, at least unexpected after the poor summer we had. Globally, both quantity and quality were met," said Olivier Krug, director of Champagne Krug in Reims.

Yields across varieties were uneven as a result of the tough weather. The crop was very large for Chardonnay, but smaller for Pinot Meunier. The Chardonnay was affected least by the chaotic weather conditions, and was therefore the most consistent in terms of ripeness. The maturity of both Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir were more varied as the varieties suffered from attacks of mildew and botrytis in several spots.

Producers reported that the potential alcohol is slightly below the average since 2002, yet the acidity in the wines is higher than normal—but nothing to worry about. "At first the numbers look high, but the proportions of malic acid are rather high [above 50 percent], so the wines will soften significantly through malolactic fermentation," said Benoit Gouez, chef de cave at Moët & Chandon.

Many producers said that it is too early to determine whether vintage Champagnes would be made from the 2007 harvest. The process of tasting the vin clairs (base wines) began in October. Once the selections and final blends are made, the yeast and sugar will be added to begin the second fermentation in bottle.

"It has not been easy this year," reflected Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave at Moët & Chandon's Dom Pérignon. As a growing season, he called 2007 "very emotional."

—Bruce Sanderson

Region: Loire Valley
Grade: C+

The Loire Valley's 2007 vintage will be marked by inconsistency. With an early flowering caused by unseasonably warm spring temperatures, the grape set was early and copious. The growing season was then marked by a cool summer, through mid-August, which led to uneven ripening in many areas. Green harvesting to reduce yields and canopy management to help aid ripeness were critical to achieving success.

August rains were then followed by hot temperatures, which brought new headaches.

"The pressure of fungal disease was the highest in 25 years," said Nicolas Joly, whose eponymous estate in Savennières produces some the of the region's most idiosyncratic whites.

Vignerons at the far western end of the valley experienced the same problems. Thierry Michon, vigneron of Domaine St.-Nicolas, located in Fief Vendeens, described the humid weather pattern and disease pressures as unlike anything vignerons had seen in 50 years.

Though the growing season was generally cooler than normal, it turned warm and dry for a nearly six-week stretch from September through October. While Cabernet Franc will be more variable, Chenin Blanc seems to have benefited from the stretch of mild weather late in the season. Sweet white wines could be a delicious exception in 2007.

"[There is] very little red wine for us this year, as maturity was not at all homogeneous," said Florent Baumard, owner and winemaker of Domaine des Baumard. "[But] for Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume, we picked regularly as botrytis was progressing up to the first week of November." Baumard added that more than three-quarters of his crop of late-harvest Chenin Blanc grapes had botrytis.

Thierry Germain, owner and winemaker of Domaine des Roches Neuves in Saumur-Champigny, echoed Baumard's comments, noting that he considered 2007 "a great vintage for both dry whites and moelleux—the moelleux are magnificent thanks to the Indian summer."

Unfortunately, "the quantity is very low," said winemaker Philippe Delesvaux, regarding the yields for '07 sweet wines. "Many berries were lost because of the mildew in June and July."

At the eastern end of the valley, Sauvignon Blanc producers in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé reported similar woes during the growing season, but are happy with the final result.

"If you had asked me [about the vintage] on Aug. 15, I would have answered that I wasn't sure if I would harvest this year," said Pouilly-Fumé winemaker Didier Dagueneau. But with a similarly dry, warm spell through September, vignerons were able to harvest their grapes, though quality control was critical. "We did two sorts on each parcel," Dagueneau said.

—James Molesworth

Region: Rhône Valley
Grade: South A; North B

Southern Rhône
Châteauneuf-du-Pape's vignerons are once again crowing about the quality of their harvest—the Southern Rhône once again looks strong.

In 2007, the southern Rhône was spared the viticultural difficulties spawned by poor weather in other French wine regions, including the northern Rhône and instead enjoyed a warm, dry growing season that mirrored other recent vintages, including 2003 and 2005. After a wet spring, with nearly four inches of rain during May, the season turned dry and warm—drier and warmer than 2004 through 2006.

"We didn't have any rain during a very hot and dry summer," said Isabel Ferrando, owner of Domaine St.-Préfert and Domaine Ferrando. "The grapes were very ripe and there were no green tannins—the tannins are really round."

There was less than 1.5 inches of rain between mid-June and mid-September, a dry spell that was broken by a brief, light shower on Sept. 16 that helped to freshen the vines. Growers also reported a stronger mistral—the fierce wind which blows through the region—than usual during the same period, which helps to offset disease pressures while the grapes' sugars continue to concentrate.

"The year was perfect for the king, Grenache, and Mourvèdre was also beautiful," said Guillaume Gonnet, owner of Etienne Gonnet located in Bédarrides, one of the five communes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, of the appellation's two most prominent red grape varieties.

Most growers reported that they performed a green harvest in early July to help reduce yields, a practice not needed during the drought-influenced vintages of 2003 through 2005. The vintage looks to be in the mold of the '98 harvest, with a large crop of ripe fruit that features high alcohol and low acidity.

"Despite the high levels of alcohol, we have a lot of finesse and roundness in the wines," said Philippe Cambie, a consulting enologist who works with a number of Châteauneuf domaines, including Tardieu-Laurent, Domaine Vacheron-Pouizin, Lucien & André Brunel and more.

The higher-than-usual yields in 2007 may be the only blemish on the vintage's potential quality, though there is a possible silver lining: With a larger crop, prices of the wines should ease somewhat.

North
In contrast to its southern counterpart, the Northern Rhône experienced a difficult growing season in 2007, one more typical of the country as a whole. Spring was more like summer in terms of temperature, and the vines flowered two to three weeks earlier than usual. The grape set was large, and growers who don't normally green harvest reported doing two passes through their vineyards to reduce crop levels.

In late June, Côte-Rôtie suffered a severe, but localized hailstorm that reduced the crop in the northern sector of the appellation. July and August were cool, gray and wet, with consistent sprinkles of rain. "Just one millimeter here, two millimeters there," said Jean-Michel Gerin, whose eponymous Côte-Rôtie domaine is among the appellation's elite. Despite the minimal amounts, however, the consistent rainfall produced enough moisture and humidity to provide a constant threat of rot. Vignerons were forced to apply rot-preventing sprays, a tedious and expensive procedure, on a regular basis.

Some quality-conscious vignerons skipped their usual August vacations to remain at home and wrestle with overzealous canopies that grew from the excess moisture. As the first of September rolled around, most vineyards were registering potential alcohols of only 10 or 11 degrees, and the vintage looked to be headed for disaster. But the first three weeks of the month brought sunny, warm, mistral-driven weather. The vineyards dried out, dissipating disease pressures, while grape sugars rose steadily into normal ranges. Picking began late in September, and when it was finished, vignerons found themselves with a surprisingly healthy crop that wound up getting 20 extra days of hang time than normal. At many domaines, 2007 was marked by high levels of malic acid and the malolactic fermentations went quickly, leaving behind soft, flattering wines that were moved quickly to barrel.

Vignerons are now counting their blessings. "Everyone is pleased compared to what [the quality] could've been—not what it is," said Jean-Louis Chave, owner and winemaker at Domaine Jean-Louis Chave in Hermitage.

—James Molesworth

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