Harvest. For winemakers, no other word is loaded with so much potential and anticipation. After a long growing season of endless work in the vineyards, harvest means pencils down, time's up. And no matter how hard you have labored all year, at the end of the day, nature usually has the last word.
In the third of five 2012 vintage reports, vignerons in France are reporting a tough year. Spring was wet in most regions, producing low yields. After a summer reprieve, the rains returned in September, forcing overtime work at winery sorting tables. The Rhône Valley had it easier. Elsewhere, only hard work and smart winemaking could turnaround a rough season. As for final quality in the bottle—it's too early to know. But here's a sneak peek.
The good news: Vines bounced back after a rough start to the growing season.
The bad news: Lots of rain and violent weather during the spring and early summer affected flowering and the health of the vines.
Picking started: Sept. 24
Promising grapes: Pinot Gris and, to a lesser extent, Riesling
Challenging grapes: Gewürztraminer
Analysis: In Alsace, the 2012 growing season didn’t start off well. Lots of rain delayed and slowed flowering, resulting in less fruit and creating a lot of work in the vineyard. Violent storms and hail in some parts of the region also took their toll. And though yields are lower than usual for many estates in Alsace, Etienne Hugel, of his family’s eponymous estate, recognizes that Alsace fared better than most of the country’s wine producers. “Like the rest of France, our yields are down, but only 15 to 20 percent in Alsace,” he said.
Fortunately, things turned around through the second part of the growing season and into the harvest. “What was great in the summer was a lot of sun—not madly hot—but just perfect for the maturation of the grapes,” said Séverine Schlumberger of Domaines Schlumberger. While Pinot Gris and Riesling ripened under those conditions, the battle against mildew meant that Gewürztraminer didn’t fair as well. “[It] is the most fragile grape and suffers first whenever there is difficult weather,” said Schlumberger.
Picking Gewürztraminer in Alsace for Domaine Zind Humbrecht.
The good news: If producers kept yields low, worked in their vineyards to offset humid conditions late in the season and sorted out bad fruit, they could produce decent wines.
The bad news: If they didn't manage their vineyards well, underripe grapes and some mildew and rot will result in poor wines.
Picking started: Sept. 4 for whites; Sept. 28 for reds
Promising grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc
Challenging grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon
Analysis: Bordeaux vintners had their second straight difficult year in 2012. The season started wet and cool, leading to an uneven flowering and reduced crop. Then, a long dry stretch stressed vines and led to uneven ripening. “We had more than 100mm of rain in April, but then only 30mm between July 15 and Sept. 15,” said Frédéric Engerer, director at Château Latour, the Pauillac first-growth. "This contrast—wet start and severe drought—led to a very heterogenous veraison. Some green and pink berries could be seen up until early September, and the grapes have very thick skins."
Following the dry stretch, heavy rains fell in late September through late October, creating some disease pressure and forcing some growers to pick under wet conditions. Producers mostly reported wines with moderate alcohol levels and sometimes firmer tannins. “The main agricultural decision was to cut in July and August all the late clusters, about one-third of the crop—even though the vintage was already small—in order to even out the maturity,” said Christian Moueix, owner of Right Bank châteaus Trotanoy, La Fleur-Pétrus and Bélair-Monange. Despite the challenges, Stephan von Neipperg, owner of Canon-La Gaffelière and La Mondotte, both in St.-Emilion, thinks some Right Bank vineyards produced very good Merlots.
Producers in the sweet-wine producing areas of Sauternes and Barsac were much happier with the vintage as the late rains helped spur Botrytis cinerea growth, shriveling Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes, concentrating their sugars.
Ripe red grapes are ready for harvest at Château Maison Blanche in the Northern Médoc.
The good news: Quality appears to be very good (Côte de Beaune) to outstanding (Côte de Nuits) with no botrytis problems.
The bad news: Everything that could go wrong went wrong, with the exception of rot: frost, hail, poor flowering, mildew, oïdium, at times excess rain and heat (sunburned grapes). The quantity is reduced by 30 percent (Côte de Nuits) to 50 percent (Côte de Beaune) and even more in some vineyards. Expect higher prices.
Picking started: Sept. 13
Promising grapes: Pinot Noir (Côte de Nuits)
Challenging grapes: Chardonnay (Côte de Beaune), due to below-average acidity and small crop
Analysis: While Burgundy is often challenged during the growing season, it is rare that nature lays down a gauntlet of maladies like it did in 2012. “This is my 24th harvest and I think it was the most difficult,” said Meursault grower Jean-Marc Roulot. Whether you farmed conventionally, organically or biodynamically, there was no advantage. As usual, the conscientious growers did what it took to achieve ripe, healthy grapes. In some cases that meant spraying with backpacks because it was impossible to get machines into muddy vineyard rows.
But the small crop saved the day. Because of the natural thinning due to frost, poor flowering, mildew and the removal of sunburned berries, the grapes left on the vine were ripe. “This was the factor that favored quality,” said Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. On the other hand, the small crop and global demand for Burgundy’s wines, not to mention the expenses incurred farming the vineyards, will inevitably translate to higher prices for the 2012s.
Of course, it’s still too early to evaluate the wines. For the whites, Frédéric Barnier, winemaker at Louis Jadot, said, “We have to finish the fermentations, but the acidity will be a key point, as always.” He was more enthusiastic about the reds. “The reds are really consistent, [with] good color, good concentration.”
The good news: Fair weather in late August and prior to harvest was the Hail Mary pass that gave this vintage a fighting chance.
The bad news: Yields for the year are down as much as 40 percent for some Champagne producers.
Picking started: Sept. 10
Promising grapes: Pinot Noir
Analysis: For the Champenois, 2012 reads like the trials of Job, with frost, hail and disease plaguing the region’s vines. “In July we were so gloomy," said Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave of Dom Pérignon. "Then the whole thing went, ‘Wow!’ We came from nowhere. [But] at the end of July I wouldn’t have bet a cent on [this vintage].”
The weather turned around in mid-August—warm sun allowed grapes to ripen, then cooler weather during harvest helped to preserve the health of the grapes. Ultimately, the frost and hail that reduced the crop earlier in the year meant the harvested grapes often showed better concentration. Although most producers report at least 20 percent lower yields—and often it’s 30 to 40 percent—the grapes that were harvested were generally healthy, with good levels of acidity balanced by ripe sugar content and flavors.
A worker carries bins of Pinot Meunier for Veuve Clicquot in Champagne.
The good news: What was saved tastes good. Winemakers are optimistic about the quality of dry whites despite extremely low yields. Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre, at the eastern limit of the valley, escaped much of the bad weather.
The bad news: A cold, rainy spring through mid-July, complete with April frosts, caused uneven ripening and wiped out yields. An October tropical storm forced difficult decisions in harvest timing; late-ripening varieties failed to reach maturity and noble rot on late-harvest wines turned to gray and black rot.
Picking started: Sept. 21 (Muscadet) to Oct. 29 (dessert Coteaux du Layon)
Promising grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, dry Chenin Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne
Challenging grapes: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, late-harvest Chenin Blanc
Analysis: All along the Loire, it was cold and rainy through mid-July. Flowering was awful, said Matthieu Baudry of Bernard Baudry in Chinon, with many clusters lost to coulure. Dry weather through August and September further stressed some grapes, and harvest began weeks later than in recent past vintages. Then the western and central Loire got 10 inches of rain in areas during October's harvest (30 inches is the norm for the whole year). "We have not had such wet weather in at least 30 years," said Florent Baumard of Domaine des Baumard in the Coteaux du Layon.
Vintners are optimistic about quality in their dry whites—"balanced, tasty and extremely vibrant," said Pascal Jolivet of his Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. But the wines that needed longer to mature suffered in the rain, thanks to gray and black rot. Cabernet Franc production was hurt, and most winemakers abandoned Cabernet Sauvignon entirely. Many bid adieu to sweet Chenin cuvées they normally make as well. "2012 was a year Mother Nature tested us," summed up Sarah Hwang of Vouvray's Domaine Huët.
Sorting Grenache at Domaine de Mourchon in the Southern Rhône Valley.
The good news: The Southern Rhône enjoyed a dry, sunny year; Northern Rhône vignerons who worked hard to fight mildew were rewarded.
The bad news: Some southern spots suffered from drought conditions; a wet spring in the north meant that not everyone won that mildew fight.
Picking started: Oct. 2 in the Southern Rhône; Sept. 17 in the Northern Rhône
Promising grapes: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Roussane, Viognier
Analysis: While most of France's major wine regions struggled in 2012, the Rhône stands apart. Vintners are positive after a growing season and harvest marked by dry, sunny weather and well-timed rains. “By end of August some spots were starting to show water deprivation. But a little rain at the beginning of September allowed the ripening process to conclude its course and harvest started at a normal, or maybe a tad late date,” said Michel Gassier, whose Château de Nages in Côstières de Nîmes produces a range of excellent value red and whites. Rhône vignerons have grown accustomed to a pattern of late harvests that stretch into October with good weather, allowing grapes to ripen fully even in tricky weather conditions.
In the Northern Rhône, conditions were slightly different following a particularly harsh winter. “The season has been long and difficult, as the winter was tough with a long period below freezing and very windy. Then the spring was rainy and the disease pressure on the vines very strong with lots of vegetative growth early,” said Matthieu Barret of Domaine du Coulet in Cornas. “But by the beginning of July it was dry until the end of August. Harvest time started on the 17th of September and ran to the 5th of October and it was mostly dry and sunny. It's early but the vintage seems to be elegant and juicy with intense aromas.”
Philippe Guigal, who produces wines from both halves of the valley, said, "The south is heterogenous and the crop is small. In the north, the volume is closer to normal. Both are very good, with Northern Rhône whites outstanding."
Pinot Noir awaits crushing in a basket press at a cellar in Reims, Champagne.