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Harvest Limps to a Start in France

Vintners strive to make the best of a difficult season plagued by wet weather through much of the summer

Diana Macle
Posted: August 30, 2007

2007 will be remembered by French winegrowers as one of the most hectic years on record. Initial forecasts predicted that the harvest would kick off earlier than usual, but this wasn't the case for everyone, as cool weather and a lack of sunshine in August slowed down the ripening of grapes in most areas. Even though the harvest debuted in Roussillon on Aug. 2, the earliest date ever, the vast majority of growers in France struggled through uncooperative weather until the end of August to start picking their fruit. And others are still waiting, hoping the skies will clear.

"We are a bit annoyed by the weather. We hope that high pressure comes back," said Pierre Lurton, president of Château Cheval-Blanc and Château d'Yquem, both in Bordeaux. "We can't say yet, but it has been difficult. We have to wait and see. We are still optimistic at this point, but it has not been easy."

French producers weathered the hottest April in the past 30 years, provoking the early flowering of vineyards. But that was followed by dreadful wet weather in May, June, July and August throughout most of France. According to the French Ministry of Agriculture, these conditions have combined to produce shattering and widespread vine mildew of varying intensity in the Loire Valley, Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Champagne and as far down as Languedoc-Roussillon, a region rarely concerned by such problems.

Jacques Fanet, director of the AOC Coteaux du Languedoc Wine Syndicate, said he believes that 2007 is a year that will distinguish the better winegrowers from the rest. At Domaine de Bachellery, near Béziers, extensive effort was undertaken to protect the vines from mildew, but other properties may not have had the resources to be as vigilant. "Some nearby vineyards have been left to rot, as their owners didn't react in time and the cost to treat them would have been higher than the return on investment," explained Bachellery winemaker Bernard Julien, who had to treat his vineyard five times.

There is one bright spot, however. According to Marc Perrin, director of Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the merchant house Perrin et Fils, the 2007 vintage in the Southern Rhône Valley looks promising since the area benefited from a hot, dry summer, unlike the other parts of France. "As usual, we will start harvesting our white grape varieties this week, and aren't expecting a downturn in volume," said Perrin.

The Northern Rhône is also looking strong, with harvest running only a couple days ahead of schedule. "We will start picking the grapes to make white Crozes-Hermitage on Sept. 5," said Alain Bourgeois, quality control director for Cave de Tain l'Hermitage.

Though optimism may be running high in the Rhône, it seems to be the exception to the rule in France this year. While harvest started last week in Alsace, Beaujolais, Burgundy and Champagne (the latter of which got underway more or less a fortnight earlier than normal), producers are scratching their heads over what wine quality will be like. "I feel like a beginner who has to learn all about vine growing from scratch," said Michel Drappier, CEO of Champagne Drappier. "The Chardonnay is late this year, when it's normally the first to ripen. [But] we're going to benefit from the type of good acidity that we haven't seen for ages," he added, since cool weather tends to keep acid levels high.

Bordeaux has seen even more of a rough ride. The region was one of the hardest hit by vine mildew, translating to an estimated drop in yields of up to 17 percent compared to an average year, according to the French Ministry of Agriculture. While some estates have started to pick their white varieties, the harvest of reds should start around Sept. 20. "We plan to be ready for the harvest around the middle of September. Whether we pick then or not, we don't know now," said John Kolasa, managing director of second-growth Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux and Château Canon in St.-Emilion. He said that conditions have been even worse in St.-Emilion, where the clay soils have retained the rainwater.

"This year has been costly, as we've dedicated a lot of time to green harvesting, to foliage trimming, and to frequently treating against mildew," said Michèle Bechet of Château Fougas in Côtes de Bourg. She added that 2007 wouldn't be an exceptional year like 2005, and to expect a vintage reflecting the efforts made by individual winemakers.

"It's not going to be the vintage of the century, that is clear," said Jean-Charles Cazes, president of Domaine Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of Lynch-Bages. "In Bordeaux, you are never satisfied with the weather, but this is a tricky one. Not an easy vintage at all, but we keep hoping. If we get storms for the next week, it could be a sorry tale, but it's too early just now for vintage predictions."

The weather over the next couple of weeks will largely determine the quality of this year's harvest in Bordeaux, sorely in need of warm and dry conditions. "There's an old saying in Bordeaux, which says, "Wait until the last grapes are in before making any formal judgment," said Cazes. Nevertheless, the race is now on between the all-important ripening phase and a potential outburst of bunch rot.

"The grapes are big, engorged from the rain over the last few months. They are still healthy, but we just need sun now to take off some of the water weight," added Kolasa. "The worst case scenario is that we have to pick early. At a certain point, nature takes over and you are left with no choice."

—Additional reporting by Jo Cooke and James Suckling

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