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2008 Vintage Report Card: Part 2

A first look at vintage conditions in French wine regions, with eyewitness reports from growers and winemakers

Posted: December 11, 2008

Every year, vintners learn a crucial lesson—no two vintages are the same. In 2008, much of France faced a hard slog in the vineyards. A wet, cold spring was just the start of a season that demanded hard work by vignerons and winemakers. But plenty report they managed to salvage the vintage. 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. A better picture will become clear once they've had the chance to taste the wines from barrel or bottle.


Alsace
Bordeaux
Burgundy
Champagne
Loire Valley
Rhône Valley

France

Region: Alsace
Grade: A

Last year in Alsace, it seemed producers couldn't ask for anything more. Well then, how about two great vintages in a row? Winemakers are comparing 2008 to 2007 in terms of similar high quality, but with higher acidity and more of the classic style of Alsatian wines from 10 or 15 years ago, before average temperatures began to creep up.

Describing the start of the season, Jean Trimbach of Maison Trimbach said, "The vine cycle was back to a classic cycle." April was cool, and for most growers budbreak occurred toward the end of the month—as much as 10 days later than recent, warmer years. But May was very warm and dry, spurring good vegetative growth and helping vines prepare for flowering, according to Olivier Humbrecht, winemaker at Zind-Humbrecht.

Flowering began anywhere from the first week of June through the middle of the month, slightly earlier than previous years, and lasted about two to three weeks for most producers—longer than normal—thanks to what Marc Hugel of Hugel & Fils called "chaotic and changeable weather." Cool weather struck certain vineyards, causing coulure (a condition where some berries don't set and drop off not long after flowering). This affected the highly susceptible Muscat Ottonel vines in particular, and most producers ended up with very low yields of Muscat.

The end of June and all of July were relatively warm with regular rainfall, raising the dangers of both mildew and overly vigorous growth. Luckily, most growers were able to keep the mildew in check, and cool weather in August slowed the vegetative growth, focusing the vines on ripening the grapes.

The August cool weather also promoted high acidity levels in the grapes. "On Aug. 25, sugar levels for the different grapes were at the same level of the 2002 vintage, but with much higher acidities," said Maurice Barthelmé of Domaine Albert Mann.

The start of September brought some rain, but most producers throughout the region enjoyed five weeks of dry, sunny and windy weather during harvest. Both Laurence Faller, winemaker at Domaine Weinbach, and Hugel called the weather a dream. The weather allowed producers to wait for full ripeness and grapes came in healthy. Domaine Weinbach harvested "beautiful and pure fruit, with good richness, and high but ripe acidities," said Faller.

It all adds up to an excellent vintage across the board. All of the region's grape varieties performed well, and the type of acidity being reported by growers should help Riesling in particular. Thanks to an Indian summer in October, there should be outstanding late-harvest (vendanges tardives) and dessert wines (sélection de grains nobles) as well.

The one thorn in the side of Alsatian wine lovers is that yields are reported to range from "ridiculously small" to "just below average." It's a vintage of quality, not quantity.

Alison Napjus

Region: Bordeaux
Grade: B-

It was a déjà vu vintage in Bordeaux in 2008, as the region had a replay of 2007. Challenging weather and the threat of disease during most of the growing season produced wines with the potential to be good to outstanding, but only in the best vineyards and only where producers spent long hours working. The same was true in 2007, though this year July was much warmer and sunnier and grape yields were smaller, meaning better quality was possible.

Some châteaus already believe their 2008s could be better than their 2007s. "The reds at both Pichon and Petit Village are significantly better than the 2007s, though yields are very low in both cases," said Christian Seeley, who heads châteaus Pichon-Longueville-Baron in Pauillac and Petit Village in Pomerol, among other properties, for the French insurance group AXA.

Yields were very low due to bad flowering during cold, wet weather in May and June. The bad climate continued for most of the summer, with the exception of warm and sunny July. In Bordeaux the weather was gray and wet in early September. Many of the grapes suffered from mildew and ripening was incredibly uneven. Honest grapegrowers admitted they were ready for a disaster.

"The quality of the harvest is already compromised," said one grower in Pomerol, as he held a bunch of Merlot that still had a few green grapes in the cluster. "We could never make anything near 2005 in quality."

Yet, the weather changed the second week of September and stayed mostly sunny and warm the rest of the month. Châteaus could end up with ripe grapes in their tanks as long as they removed unripe or damaged grapes in the vineyards or on the sorting tables before crush and fermentation. Only wineries with the resources to work extremely hard in their vineyards and select the best grapes at the harvest will make good wine in 2008.

Harvest hits full swing in Château Léoville Barton's vineyards in St.-Julien.

"The grapes were harvested very late this year, with extremely low yields and very high alcohol and a balance of good acidity," said Jean-Guillaume Prats, head of Cos-d'Estournel in St.-Estephe. "At Cos, it is the smallest yield per hectare ever (apart from 1991, a frost vintage). This vintage could be a blend of 2002 and 1988."

White wine producers were optimistic about quality in 2008, particularly sweet wine makers. The harvest was one of the latest in memory for Sauternes, with some estates finishing picking in mid-November. But the grapes that were picked at the right time carried plenty of noble rot, assuring rich and spicy young sweet wines. Whether the small production will be better than, or at least match, the excellent 2007s remains to be seen.

Besides the quality of the 2008s in the cellars, the economic meltdown was on everyone's minds. The wine trade and critics will review Bordeaux's fledgling vintage next spring during annual barrel tastings in the region. "We were rather pessimistic about the vintage until the middle of August," said Anthony Barton, owner of Leoville Barton and Langoa Barton. "After that, the end of the season was excellent and we are surprised by the quality of the wine we have in the cellar. We just hope there are still people out there with money to buy it!"

James Suckling

Region: Burgundy
Grade: Whites (B-); Reds (C+)

The 2008 harvest in Burgundy was nothing short of a miracle. Growers breathed a collective sigh of relief after picking enough healthy Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to save what looked initially like a complete disaster.

The challenges in the vineyard were multiple. Coulure, millerandage (small, seedless berries, leading to uneven bunches), mildew, oïdium, botrytis and even hail in some vineyards kept vintners on their toes throughout the growing season. Finally, in mid-September, a change in weather brought a north wind, with cool temperatures. The conditions dried the vines and helped increase sugar levels while keeping acidity levels high. Along with diligent sorting, this allowed domaines and houses to put decent grapes into the fermenting vats.

"This vintage was really a miracle," said Romain Taupenot of Domaine Taupenot-Merme in Morey-St.-Denis. "Meticulous work in the vineyard and painstaking attention to detail were the key factors for success."

Cold and rainy weather extended the flowering in June to as long as three weeks. This resulted in a natural reduction of yields due to coulure and millerandage. It also led to uneven development and ripening of grapes from parcel to parcel, making it necessary to adapt the vinifications according to the quality of grapes from each site.

Mildew pressure in June and an outbreak of oïdium in July prompted spraying to protect leaves and developing grape clusters. "We sprayed 12 times from mid-May to mid-August, once a week," said Claude de Nicolay-Drouhin, co-owner of Domaine Chandon de Briailles in Savigny-lès-Beaune. "For two years now we have decided to leave grass in the middle [of the rows] and just plough between each vine. I think it was a good decision because the grass is a perfect sponge when it's raining."

Hail, a common problem in Burgundy, created isolated damage in Meursault, Volnay, Marsannay and the southern part of the Mâconnais, around Pouilly-Fuissé. "At the bottom of the slope, in the Bourgogne vineyards on the Volnay side, we suffered significant hail damage, up to 70 percent, depending on the parcel," said Jean-Marc Roulot, winemaker at Domaine Roulot in Meursault.

Harvest was delayed until September's sunny and dry conditions quickly ripened the grapes. "We could see the sugar increasing almost every day and the fruit getting more and more concentrated thanks to dehydration, yet still with good acidity because of the cold weather," said Nicolaÿ-Drouhin.

The hail and dehydration reduced the volume of the harvest anywhere from 30 to 50 percent in some places compared with 2007. Furthermore, the cool conditions during the growing season and harvest left grapes with high levels of malic acid. The wines will change dramatically after malolactic fermentation.

Early reports suggest Chardonnay is more successful than Pinot Noir. The white grapes were healthier and the botrytis-affected Pinot Noir required diligent sorting. However, 2008 is a year where generalizations won't apply and the results will vary not only from grower to grower, but also from parcel to parcel.

Chablis may have benefited the most from the north wind. Christian Moreau of Domaine Christian Moreau Père & Fils reported that spraying kept vineyard diseases at bay, while the picking was done under nice, if cool weather. "With the good natural degree and the good acidity I really believe at this moment that 2008 will be a very rich vintage with higher acidity if you compare it to '05 or '06," he said. Volume was 10 to 20 percent less than an average year.

Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes Lafon, who makes wine from several vineyards in the Mâconnais, was pleased with the results there. Despite the presence of mildew and oïdium, the grapes in general were healthy. Unfortunately, the drying north wind and late harvest dates resulted in 30 percent less volume than 2007.

Like any difficult vintage, those who did the work in the vineyards will be rewarded, but overall results will be variable. "In the end, I'm quite happy," said Carel Voorhuis, estate manager at Domaine d'Ardhuy. "It certainly won't be the vintage of the century, but it all looks better than average."

—Bruce Sanderson

Region: Champagne
Grade: B+

Part of making wine is waiting to see what cards Mother Nature will deal. The 2008 vintage in Champagne was very nearly a bust, until an ace was dealt in September and two weeks of beautiful weather at harvest provided a winning hand. It was not an easy vintage, but producers are optimistic overall.

The growing season got off to a rocky start in spring, with cool and wet weather that promoted the spread of parasites and mildew. Some producers were constantly on watch for mildew but avoided it. Others were dogged by it. Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon of Louis Roederer Champagne called 2008 "The battle between man and mold, [requiring] almost superhuman effort on the part of the growers" to stamp it out.

The weather in June also caused problems with flowering. "June was hot and cold, oscillating between 90° F and 55° F," said Jean-Baptiste Cristini, of Champagnes Salon and Delamotte. "This caused fragile flowering and fertility." As a result, yields were slightly lower than recent years, particularly in Pinot Noir, and clusters were generally smaller, with thicker skins.

July and August brought cool and cloudy weather, with some rain increasing the risk of mildew again. "The lack of sun inhibited the maturity of the grapes somewhat," said Stanislas Henriot of Champagne Henriot. Producers were worried as harvest approached. Fortunately, things quickly changed for the better. "We witnessed a minor miracle," said Henriot. "Incredible weather returned on the eve of harvest and stayed with us throughout."

Harvest began around Sept. 15 for most growers and was marked by dry, sunny and windy days combined with cool nights. Hervé Deschamps of Perrier-Jouët reported that the sunny and windy daytime weather helped concentrate the sugars and promote physiological maturity in the grapes, while the cool nights provided good protection for the natural acidity necessary for high quality Champagne.

Although this year was a challenge for many producers, it saw a return to a growing season and weather more typical of a northern winegrowing region. Yields vary from village to village within the region, but average 14,000 kilograms per hectare (roughly 5.57 tons per acre). Growers and houses that made more than the maximum 12,400 kilograms per hectare (4.94 tons per acre) are allowed to keep the additional yield—as much as 1,600 kilograms per hectare more—as a reserve for use in future vintages.

As always, producers are hesitant to say whether or not 2008 will be a vintage year, as most will not begin tasting their vin claires until early next year. But in general, there's a sense of optimism. Even if it is not a vintage year for every house, it is sure to be a solid contribution to non-vintage Champagne for several years to come.

A.N.

Region: Loire Valley
Grade: B-

In 2008 the Loire Valley, a sprawling region known for value and diversity, with dozens of appellations and numerous grape varieties, struggled with erratic weather during both the growing season and harvest for the third straight year.

At the far western end of the valley, centered around the Muscadet appellation, growers dealt with a severe frost in April that reduced yields by as much as 50 percent. A cool and rainy August led to low maturity in the grapes, and producers had to reduce yields even more to ensure ripening. Picking extended into late September, unusual for this early harvesting area.

"We harvested later in September in order to get more concentration and alcohol," said Bernard Chéreau, owner of Chéreau-Carré. "Quantity is half normal, even from the non-frosted vineyards. The Muscadets will be clean, fresh, fruity and crisp—wines to be drunk young."

In the middle of the valley, around the towns of Tours and Anjou, Chenin Blanc is the lead white variety and Cabernet Franc the lead red grape. Variable weather marked the season. A humid spring was followed by a cloudy summer, resulting in low grape maturities. Growers reported increased amounts of leaf-pulling and crop thinning to ensure even ripening. Again, harvest stretched into October, with some Indian summer weather helping save the vintage.

"The vintage is very fresh, with good acidity," said Thierry Germain, one of the top red wine producers, located in Saumur. "The danger of the vintage was not to extract too quickly in order to keep the freshness and purity through the fermentations."

With the harvest so late, Chenin Blanc producers focused more on off-dry and sweet wines in 2008.

"At Huët, the crop will mainly give wines with a demi-sec style, about 60 percent of the crop," said Noël Pinguet, winemaker and co-owner at S.A. Huët, a top Vouvray producer. "Quality should be good, but with very small quantity and very high acidity."

Producers reported good conditions for botrytis, as some picked into November. "About 80 percent botrytis this year for Quarts de Chaume," said Florent Baumard, of Domaine des Baumard. "Too early to judge really, as fermentations are moving slowly. But the vintage reminds me of 1993 and 1998, with hints of 2002."

Quality should be better in the eastern end of the valley, where Sauvignon Blanc holds sway. The appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé did not escape the season unscathed however, as a major hailstorm ravaged the area in June, hitting over 1,000 acres of vines, mainly in the smaller Pouilly-Fumé appellation.

"But in early September we got great weather with cool temperatures and not too much humidity, which assured a very good level of acidity and excellent maturation of the grapes," said Pascal Jolivet, whose eponymous domaine produces wines from both appellations.

"[2008 is] among the latest of all harvests during the past 10 years," said Jean-Marie Bourgeois of Henri Bourgeois. "Thanks to a fresh but dry summer and an extremely beautiful late season that dried down the fruit for surprising concentration."

James Molesworth

Region: Rhône Valley
Grade: Southern Rhône (B); Northern Rhône (B-)

The Southern Rhône's string of outstanding vintages since 1998 (save for 2002) may have come to an end in 2008, a difficult growing season marked by cool, rainy weather and a very small crop.

"The year was quite rainy," said Louis Barruol of Château de St.-Cosme in Gigondas. "The total amount of water is close to 1992 and 2002. But the alcohol level is the same as '98, which shows clearly that ripening was not so bad."

The season proved difficult from the outset, with cool, wet weather hampering spring flowering, particularly for Grenache, the Southern Rhône's most important red variety. Summer turned humid and grey, adding to disease pressures in the vineyard.

By the time August rolled around, growers were faced with a very small crop that was struggling to ripen. As the month wore on, temperatures rose into more normal ranges and the mistral, the strong north wind that blows through the valley, helped freshen the vineyards and concentrate the berries. Harvest wound up stretching into mid-October, as vignerons waited as long as possible to achieve full maturity in their grapes.

"It was the year of the vigneron and patience," said Daniel Brunier, who owns both Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe and Domaine La Roquète in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, as well as Domaine Les Pallières in Gigondas. "In the vineyard we had to take risks and wait for the good ripening."

"The balance between alcohol and acidity is very good, the degree of alcohol normal and the concentration in tannins are lower than the powerful 2007," said Claire Michel, whose family owns and runs Le Vieux Donjon in Châteauneuf.

With so much moisture during the season, better-drained sites—particularly those with limestone soils—look to be the favored vineyards in 2008.

"The pure limestone soils did really well as they [drain] the water quickly and didn't have the usual hydric stress," said Barruol. "[But] some fantastic clay terroirs gave poor results this year."

Yields are markedly lower around the region, as crop set and berry size were small and quality-conscious growers performed rigorous bunch and berry selections during harvest.

"It is exceptionally low," said Cécile Dusserre of Domaine de Montvac in Vacqueyras. "It is just 27 hectoliters per hectare [less than 2 tons per acre] at my domaine."

In the Northern Rhône, which covers the 40-mile stretch of vineyards between Vienne and Valence, growers also dealt with a difficult season, similar to 2007. Cloudy, rainy weather extended from June through August, and growers feared the worst as September approached. Grapes were fending off disease and lacked maturity.

"Coming back from our summer holidays, we were quite pessimistic," said Philippe Guigal, of E. Guigal, the region's most dominant producer, based in Côte-Rôtie. "We saw incredible rainfalls early September and we almost lost everything."

After the rain during the first week of September, the weather cleared and the mistral blew through mid-October, a four week stretch of good weather that helped save the vintage. Still, producers had to practice severe triage on their grapes to ensure quality.

"Many grapes were rotten and the potential alcohol very low," said Pierre-Jean Villa, who oversees production at Les Vins de Vienne, a top-quality micronégociant in Vienne. "We made a hard, selective picking. It looks like 2007—nice fruit but without big tannins."

Echoing the thoughts of their colleagues in the south, producers noted that those who did hard work in the vineyards were able to make some good wines, but the vintage will be a heterogeneous one. "[2008] will be very good for the best wines. But the differences between cuvées and producers will probably be much more important than the last three vintages," said Albéric Mazoyer of Domaine Alain Voge in Cornas.

While the vintage looks to be lighter-bodied in style, some producers were looking forward to the results. "It's an old-timer vintage," said Éric Texier, a négociant based in Charnay, who is known for producing elegantly styled wines. "No huge degrees [of alcohol], no over ripeness."

J.M.

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