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The 2002 harvest in Alsace officially kicked off yesterday, with producers feeling lucky that they have so far dodged the bad weather that has dogged vineyards in southern France and Austria.
"We are expecting an abundant crop and, so far, the sanitary state of our vineyards is exemplary," said Etienne Hugel of Hugel & Fils." We are fully conscious just how privileged we are once more, after the bad weather damage that our colleagues in the south of France have endured."
The year began with an extremely cold January, according to Hugel, and spring was alternately sunny and rainy, with no frost. The summer was divided between periods of cloudy and rainy days that were offset by warm, sunny spells through July and September.
The first grape bunches began rolling into area wineries on Sept. 30, and producers will be bringing in the region's best-known white varieties -- Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Riesling -- over the coming days. The picking schedule depends largely on vineyard location, with the best, coolest sites usually picked last.
However, if the current sunny, warm weather goes south in the next two weeks, the overall harvest outlook may not stay as rosy.
"Desired maturity is not yet there, but with good weather in the next 15 days, we should return a satisfactory harvest," said Bernard Sparr of Domaine Pierre Sparr. While he has seen some gray rot in his vineyards, he said that, for now, his grapes have a good level of acidity and the "hygienic state of the grapes is satisfactory, especially when one makes a selective sorting of the grapes."
According to Jean Trimbach, selection in the vineyards this year is of the utmost importance. Like Sparr, Trimbach is experiencing varying levels of gray rot throughout his vineyards, so he has instructed harvest workers to be extra careful and avoid picking grapes that show any sign of the condition. Gray rot attacks grapes before they are ripe, breaking down skins and causing off odors.
"July and August were not the best months we ever had; some days were overcast and rainy. So the grapes continue to mature now, with the sunny [77 to 82.5 degrees Fahrenheit] afternoons, which is a nice surprise," Trimbach said. "But there is also rot, so we have to be careful in the selection process."
As a result of this selection process, many producers will experience lower yields this year than in 2001. And, unlike Hugel, some vintners do not describe their 2002 crops as abundant. Sparr said the "severe sorting" in his vineyards this year is required to pull off a good vintage, even if it means less wine to go around.
At René Muré, the vineyards have also been thinned, and the grapes are showing signs of rot of the good variety. "We have observed some grapes with botrytis," said spokeswoman Anne Charles. "If we continue to have good weather, there will be an evolution in the direction of noble rot." Noble rot, or Botrytis cinerea, shrivels grapes, concentrating their sugars, and is essential for Alsace's rare late-harvest dessert wine, sélections des grains nobles, and is preferred for production of vendanges tardives.
Since it is still early, producers are cautious about labeling the vintage as a good one, although some remain confident. For 2002, Trimbach has concluded that he will have "no problem making great wines from our best vineyards."
But some other vintners are keeping their eyes on the sky and their feet on the ground as they pray for two more weeks of sun.
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