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Languedoc-Roussillon: Optimism Despite Hail Damage
By Helena Bachmann
Although a freak hailstorm that hit southern France's Languedoc-Roussillon region in the first week of September damaged many vineyards, most winemakers' hopes for a good end-of-the-century harvest were realized.
In the Coteaux du Languedoc, one of the best Languedoc appellations, Jean-Claude Le Brun, co-owner of Prieuré St.-Jean de Bébian, said that although hail destroyed 20 percent of his grapes, it turned out to be a high-quality harvest. "The red wines are comparable to the 1996 vintage: elegant, balanced and fruity rather than powerful," said Le Brun, whose plantings include Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache. "For the whites, it will be an exceptional year, with floral wines hinting of an aromatic, slightly herbal flavor."
Pierre Clavel of Domaine Clavel said that three weeks of rain and fog made it a difficult harvest in the La Méjanelle district of Coteaux du Languedoc. "But our efforts were well-compensated," said the vintner, who is best known for his Syrah-Mourvèdre and Syrah-Grenache blends. "The wines we tasted have incredible finesse, depth and color."
"It was a very interesting harvest, with more finesse than last year," said Jack Boutin of Château La Roque, whose top wines include a Mourvèdre and a Syrah blend from the Pic St.-Loup district of the Coteaux du Languedoc. "The wines will be ripe and fruity with high acidity and smooth tannins."
For Philippe Tolloret, head enologist at Fortant de France, which produces varietally labeled Vin de Pays d'Oc wines from more than 17,000 acres of Languedoc vineyards, the 1999 vintage is characterized by "well-rounded wines with excellent aromatic expression."
Although France's largest vineyard region usually has a warm, dry climate, Fortant de France reported humid conditions, which caused some rot on the grapes, and rain that disrupted the grapes' maturation; in some zones, torrential rains abruptly ended the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest. Tolleret said extra care needed to be taken in selecting the grapes, but consumers can look forward to fruity Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs "with an excellent acid background that provides freshness and vivacity to the wine." As for the reds, he said the Syrahs and Merlots were "supple and velvety."
However, at least one winemaker, Marlene Soria, founder of Domaine Peyre Rose, a top estate in Coteaux du Languedoc, is not optimistic about this year's vintage. Soria owns two plots -- Clos des Leone and Clos de Cistes -- mainly planted to Syrah on the Saint-Pargoire plateau, and the worst hailstorm to hit the region in 40 years destroyed 50 percent of her crops. "The grapes were damaged before ripening and we lost a big part of the harvest," she said. "It is not easy for a small operation such as ours."