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2010 Vintage Report: France

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

Posted: November 18, 2010

In 2010, French vignerons enjoyed the best of times and some so-so times. In Bordeaux, château owners are trying to hide their glee over a second potentially classic (and potentially expensive) vintage in a row. In Burgundy, quality varied from vineyard to vineyard on the Côte d'Or, thanks to rain and hail. Other regions enjoyed good quality, but a cool spring and heavy rain lowered quantity.


Alsace
Bordeaux
Burgundy
Champagne
Loire Valley
Rhône Valley

France

Alsace

A late, cool harvest in 2010 may result in another great vintage for Alsace, one of several in the past decade. While it's typical for one of the wine world's most northern climates to produce vintages of distinct character, 2010 stands out, delivering some of the lowest yields in the last 30 years, extremely high acidity levels and healthy fruit harvested at high ripeness levels.

The cards were dealt for low yields back in 2009, when December temperatures dropped as low as –4° F. The winter was long and cold through mid-March, with a low of 10° F one week. But only a week later the temperature was up to 70° F. These temperature swings marked the growing season until August, with on and off rainy periods and humidity too.

The conditions affected each stage of the vine's development, from bud burst to flowering to fruit set. "The transformation of flowers into fruit usually takes 10 days. This year it lasted for a month, which resulted in fruit set failure," says Thomas Schlumberger of Domaines Schlumberger. He added that while this is a frequent problem for Alsace's Gewürztraminer and Muscat, it was "unique to see Riesling and Pinot Blanc suffer too."

Several producers also reported problems with millerandage—grape clusters with berries of different size and maturity—thanks to the cooler spring weather. While July was hot, cool and rainy days in August had producers fearing they would be unable to ripen the grapes fully, not to mention a rapid spread of mold similar to 2006.

But Alsace received a well-timed wild card in September. "Like in 2007, the last weeks [of harvest] saved the quality," says Mélanie Pfister of Domaine Pfister. The weather was dry and sunny throughout September and October, a good breeze dried out the vines and the warm days fully ripened the grapes while cool nights preserved acidity. The conditions were good for the development of botrytis, or noble rot, and there should be some fine examples of the region's late-harvest wines, vendanges tardives, and dessert wines, sélection de grains nobles.

Vintners credit the favorable conditions before and during harvest for the potential success of the vintage, but also cite the reduced crop. "Yields are down 40 percent compared to 2009," says Catherine Faller of Domaine Weinbach. "Which at the end of the day proved to be good news as it allowed the grapes to ripen despite the difficult weather conditions."

Like Faller, most producers reported lower yields, usually in the range of 30 to 35 percent below average. And some were cautious on the quality. "It's really a vintage that will need the year of aging in the cellar to give a good description," says Mathieu Deiss, winemaker at Marcel Deiss.

But despite the season's challenges, many seem optimistic. "We come back to a classic vintage with good acidity because of the cold season, ripeness [that developed] later than most recent vintages and means more finesse and aromatic details, and low yields to insure good concentration," says André Ostertag of Domaine Ostertag. "The elevage will be an important part of the final result, but I'm very confident in the potential of 2010."

—Alison Napjus

Bordeaux

Bordeaux appears to have another superb vintage on its hands following the 2010 harvest. “I’d never thought I would see 2009 again in my professional career,” says Paul Pontallier, technical director at Château Margaux, comparing the vintage to the classic-quality previous vintage.

With warm, dry weather persisting throughout the region for much of the growing season, producers reported that their vats were full of young wines with intense color, strong tannins and higher-than-usual alcohol levels. While many producers were effusive in their praise, they were also careful to note that it is still early to make a final judgment. “Of course, I would like to taste the young wines after malo, but nevertheless I can say these are very good wines with strong structure due to the drought, [but] not as much aromatic expression as ’09,” says Christian Moueix of Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix, which includes numerous high-profile Right Bank properties in Pomerol and St.-Emilion, including Pétrus, Trotanoy, La Fleur Pétrus and Hosanna.

“We had a very dry summer and almost no rain in August. The result is a low crop, small berries and very thick skins,” says Thomas Duroux, managing director of Château Palmer in Margaux. “We were a little concerned about the drought but the rains came on time at the start of September to make sure the phenolic maturity completed.”

Many producers reported widespread coulure, or shatter, on the Merlot vines, which further reduced the small crop. Coulure occurs during fruit set, when some of the new small berries fall off. Yields were down 20 to 30 percent across the region, with Merlot-dependent Right Bank properties particularly affected.

“Vieux-Château-Certan for example, should produce at least 30 percent less compared to last year,” says François Thienpont, whose family owns Vieux-Château-Certan and several other Right Bank estates. "The Médoc will be in much better shape about volume because of the Cabernet Sauvignon."

Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc performed very well and look to be the star varieties of the vintage. “It’s going to be a strong Cab year on the Left Bank,” said David Launay of Château Gruaud-Larose in St.-Julien.

“The Cabernet Sauvignon was up to our expectations in a dry vintage like this,” says Jean-Charles Cazes of Domaine Jean-Michel Cazes, which includes Lynch-Bages and Ormes de Pez. “But our Cabernet Franc at Lynch-Bages is the best we tasted in a long time, with exceptional richness and maturity. It seems to be a very tannic vintage, with higher potential alcohol than ’09 and higher acidity as well.”

The abundant tannins look to be the vintage’s defining characteristic, and managing those tannins during vinification will be key. “We did much less pumping over than usual but we macerated longer, between four and five weeks,” says Duroux. “We found that this way of extraction was more appropriate to this very dense and concentrated vintage. The wines show an incredible density of tannins, but with a very interesting acidity. At this stage I am very impressed by them even if they look a little bit austere.”

The vintage was also strong in the outer appellations as well. “The 2010 vintage should give wines with good concentration, really refined tannins and nice balance, which should help the wine keep freshness for years,” says Brigitte Roullier-Loussert of Château Dalem and Château de la Huste in Fronsac.

The region’s sweet wines also look promising. In Sauternes, picking began at the end of September and continued through the end of October as botrytis slowly and steadily spread on the Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. “The second generation of botrytis is always more complex, so the owners who were patient made really great wines with the end of the crop,” says Olivier Castéja of Château Doisy-Védrines. "The ’10s are rich, deep and very concentrated."

The next big question will no doubt be pricing. American consumers are weary of high prices following the most expensive vintage in history, 2009, which came in the midst of a severe recession. But with quality high and quantity low, and increasing demand in other markets such as Asia, upward pricing seems almost assured for the 2010s. At this point, no producers want to speculate on what the en primeur campaign in the spring will bring. “Please don’t ask me to predict prices,” says Anthony Barton of Château Léoville-Barton in St.-Julien, who was very pleased with the vintage but not sure yet if it could be considered better than ’09.

“Bordeaux seems silent with, however, a big smile,” says Thienpont. “Maybe we don’t want to look arrogant after the success of 2009.”

—James Molesworth

Burgundy

Burgundy is no stranger to challenging growing seasons. Ripeness and yields at harvest can vary from vineyard to vineyard. This year was no exception, but the challenges faced by growers were of a different nature than usual.

Extreme cold on the evening of Dec. 21, 2009, inflicted severe damage to the vines, which were not dormant for winter yet. That may have affected budding in the spring, because the crop was already smaller by flowering. Cold, wet weather during flowering further reduced yields and resulted in a lot of millerandage, a condition where some berries are normal while others are tiny and seedless. Chardonnay was particularly affected. In the end, the thick skins and lower berry weights contributed to less volume.

Areas that flowered later under better weather conditions, including some parts of the basic Bourgogne appellation and the northern part of Côte de Nuits, had more average yields. So the size of the crop ranges from average yields to as much as 50 percent less, depending on the village and parcel.

August and the beginning of September were cold and wet, delaying ripeness and increasing the risk of fungal diseases. On Sept. 12, a violent thunderstorm dumped rain and hail on the southern part of the Côte de Beaune. Developing rot forced growers there to move the harvest up several days before the quality of the fruit degraded. “It was quite amazing to see, even in the spots with no hail, how fast the rot developed on the Chardonnay after that storm,” says Pascal Marchand, who makes the wines at Domaine Jean Féry. “This was especially true in the southern part of Meursault and in Puligny. The grands crus sites seemed to be less affected though.”

At Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, co-director Aubert de Villaine reports that he felt the Pinot Noir in the domaine's Vosne-Romanée vineyards was physiologically ripe by the 20th, but decided to wait longer since the sun was shining. Picking took place between Sept. 24 and Oct. 2.

The whites are fruity and balanced, with high levels of acidity, especially malic acid, which is close to the high levels of 2008. Sorting was necessary to eliminate any rot in the Chardonnay, but the grapes ripened quickly due to the heat in September and the small crop.

The reds show plenty of fruit and good colors, with balanced acidity. Romain Taupenot reports good natural ripeness in the premiers and grands crus wines, but lower levels in the village wines, especially from the Côte de Beaune. De Villaine notes good tannic structure that should allow the reds to age.

According to Alex Gambal, a négociant in Beaune, the sugar ripeness was low and chaptalization of half to one degree of potential alcohol is likely. “The fermentations went very well, actually quite easily, after all the hassles of the growing season and the harvest,” he says.

—Bruce Sanderson

Champagne

Growers and producers are describing the 2010 growing season as a dramatic vintage that had the Champenoise fearing they’d never see rain at one moment, awash in it the next and harvesting fast and furiously when the time came. For those who were quick on their feet and practiced severe sorting and selection in certain cases, the results look promising. But there’s certainly a wait-and-see attitude as producers look toward their winter tastings after the first fermentation.

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, technical director at Louis Roederer, describes 2010 as, “A year of contrasts, if ever there was one.” That reflects both the ever-changing weather and the different approach needed for Chardonnay versus the Pinots (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).

The year began with a very cold winter and cool spring, followed by dry and warm weather in the early summer—conditions favorable for healthy development of the grapes. But as the summer continued without any rain, some vines began to suffer from hydric stress, stopping the fruit's maturation.

Then the skies opened up on Aug. 14, and the region received, “About three months of summer water in three days,” says Jean-Remy Rapeneau of Champagne Charles de Cazanove. That kick-started the maturation process. Berries grew rapidly, and some burst, triggering the development of botrytis in some cases. The rain also continued on and off until the start of harvest on Sept. 13. “It was a race against time to bring the grapes to peak ripeness before they spoiled on the vine,” says Lécaillon. Harvest began with pickers racing to bring fruit in, selecting only the healthy fruit, when necessary, with additional sorting later.

“The watchword for this harvest was sorting,” says Benoît Gouez, chef de cave at Moët & Chandon. “Fortunately, weather conditions improved, for a full week of gloriously dry, cool and windy days. The evolution of botrytis stopped, the bunches affected had been dried, and the maturation continued to progress at a fairly high speed.”

The sorting and selection reported by many growers was mostly limited to the Pinots—Pinot Noir, a thin-skinned grape, and Pinot Meunier, a grape with tight clusters—both attributes that make the grapes more susceptible to botrytis. Pinot Noir fared better than Meunier, but overall yields for both were down considerably, as much as 50 percent by some reports.

The success story of 2010 is clearly Chardonnay, a grape that holds its own against botrytis. Didier Gimonnet of Champagne Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, whose vines are 98 percent Chardonnay, happily reported that they left only 10 percent of the harvest behind in the vineyards due to selection. “I am really confident about the 2010 wines,” says Gimonnet. “I think 2010 could be like 1995.”

For Chardonnay, this may be the case. But for the Pinots it will be a matter of blending parcels in order to find balance, or relying on a higher amount of Chardonnay to add ripeness to this vintage’s crisper Meunier. “The blending and the talent of the winemakers are the key elements to produce Champagne at its best [in 2010],” says Rapeneau.

—A.N.

Loire Valley

France’s Loire Valley, a sprawling, diverse 600-mile stretch that encompasses dozens of appellations and several key grape varieties, now looks to have rare back-to-back strong vintages in the pipeline. The 2010 harvest appears to be a potentially outstanding follow-up to the excellent 2009 vintage. Both the western and eastern ends of the valley had dry, warm seasons following a cold spring, while the middle of the valley, around Tours and Anjou, had more pockets of rain that led to some inconsistencies.

“Quality is similar to ’09, with a little more acidity and good alcohol content,” says Bernard Chéreau of Chéreau-Carré, a top Muscadet producer located at the western end of the valley, near the Atlantic coast.

Like much of France in 2010, vineyards in the Loire got off to a late start following a very cold winter that pushed budbreak back into the second week of April. Spring brought normal rainfall, but the season turned dry from May through August. Welcome rains fell at the beginning of September, and ripening kicked into high gear, allowing growers to pick into the first week of October.

“Harvest wound up on time. We had three [passes through the vineyards] and finished on Oct. 20,” says Nicolas Joly, a leading Savennières producer. “2010 was not as big a heat as ’09, but with a similar spread of day and night temperature. Quality is high.”

“We are very satisfied with 2010,” says Charlotte Dagueneau, of Domaine Didier Dagueneau in Pouilly-Fumé. “We have not too high alcohol degrees and very nice acidities. We have suffered from hail on 2007, 2008 and 2009, so it's nice to have good yields on 2010.”

Cabernet Franc producers in the middle of the valley didn’t start picking until early October as the season ran late, but the grapes were small, healthy and concentrated. “Alcohols are running between 12.8 degrees from parcels on sandy soils, and 14.5 on the clay and limestone,” says Rodolphe Raffault of Domaine Jean-Maurice Raffault in Chinon. “But the acidity is better than ’09, so the fermentations didn’t struggle with the higher degree. Lots of black fruit aromas and flavors.”

Chenin Blanc producers had a slightly more difficult time though, with bouts of rain throughout the season, which led to some small amounts of rot. Quality seems to vary from Vouvray to the sweet wines of the Coteaux du Layon. “We had less rain in Rochefort and its effect was delayed which gave us time to pick with precision,” says Florent Baumard of Domaine de Baumard. “Before botrytis arrived, we already had concentrated grapes. Then, in about four days, the whole vineyard was completely invaded by botrytis, in a very homogeneous way, which I had never seen before. Picking was simple, fast, with tremendous quality.”

—J.M.

Rhône Valley

With the 2010 harvest completed, France's Rhône Valley now has back-to-back potentially outstanding vintages in both the northern and southern portions of the valley, following the difficult 2008 season. The only downside consumers may have to deal with is low quantities of wine. “Historically low yields,” says Michel Chapoutier, whose Tain-based winery produces some of the region’s best white and red wines.

In the Northern Rhône, April and May were cool and wet, leading to coulure, or shatter, and a small flowering. From there, the summer months brought a hot July, offset by a more moderate August that helped the grapes to ripen well while retaining acidity. September temperatures shot up again, though, and the vines threatened to shut down their ripening due to the heat and drought, when a freshening rain fell between Sept. 20 and 25, allowing the grapes to hang into early October.

“I had only 25 hectoliters per hectare on my Chaillot parcel. And that’s the young vines,” says Franck Balthazar, a small producer based in Cornas. Younger vine parcels generally yield more fruit than older vines.

“The quality is amazing but the quantities are small, only 28 hectoliters per hectare,” says Erin-Cannon Chave, of Domaine J.L. Chave in Hermitage. “The growing season was beautiful, which gave beautiful, supple round fruit and tannins.” Growers throughout the north describe wines with dark colors, powerful tannins and alcohols in the 13 to 13.8 percent range for the most part. It’s the yields though that may put increased demand on the vintage.

White wines also look strong in 2010, though some growers reported more uneven ripening between their young- and old-vine parcels. “I think because the young vines didn’t have as much coulure as the older vines, their ripening was a bit behind,” says Paul Amsellem of Domaine Georges Vernay in Condrieu. “But we had maturity in the end, about 14.5 percent [potential alcohol]."

In the Southern Rhône, vintners were equally enthusiastic about the potential for 2010. Harvest was pushed late as the southern stretch of the valley experienced a similar weather pattern, marked by a cool and windy start that lead to drastically reduced yields, primarily with Grenache, the lead red grape in the south.

“2010 will be an exceptional vintage for the quality, which could be the highest ever made,” says Christophe Delorme, vigneron at Domaine de la Mordorée, which produces Tavel and Lirac as well as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. “But I’m not so glad for the quantity, which could be the lowest ever made.”

“The grapes were slow to ripen and I didn’t start harvesting the Grenache in my early-maturing parcels until Sept. 28,” says Isabel Ferrando of Domaine St.-Préfert and Domaine Colombis. “The color of the Grenache is far superior to anything I’ve seen in the last eight years and the Mourvèdre is equally sumptuous. We are expecting wines with superb freshness and balance.”

Many growers waited into October to pick, following heavy rain that fell Sept. 8 and additional light rain Sept. 24. But the region’s natural defense against the rain—the mistral winds—came blowing through, drying up excess moisture and allowing the grapes to hang through an Indian summer, ideal for slow ripening. Growers throughout the vast Southern Rhône were extremely pleased.

—J.M.

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  November 19, 2010 6:27pm ET
OH BROTHER, another "vintage of the century" in Bor-dough. Call me stupid, but I refused to participate in the 2009 madness because it seems like Armaggedon will come before they have a bad vintage (or lower their freaking prices!).

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