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, it's time to see what nature delivered. On the West Coast in 2013, most vintners are reporting a great year, a twin to the promising 2012. In many parts of Europe, however, it's another year of challenging conditions and low yields.
In the third of five 2013 vintage reports, vignerons across France report a brutal year. A cool, wet spring delayed everything, and hailstorms savaged several regions. In some areas, harvest came soon enough to avoid autumn rains. In others, not so much. As for final quality in the bottle, it's too early to know, but here's a sneak peek.
• Loire Valley
• Rhône Valley
The good news: Very warm, dry and sunny weather in July and early August helped kick start vines’ development after cool and rainy conditions in spring delayed flowering.
The bad news: A serious hailstorm in early August knocked out 10 to 40 percent of the crop in some areas, and an intense rainstorm in early October affected any grapes that had not been picked yet. Yields in 2013 are down about 25 to 30 percent and Alsace’s famed late-harvest (vendanges tardives) and dessert-style (sélection de grains nobles) wines will be few.
Picking started: Sept. 30 for most varieties; Oct. 7 for Gewürztraminer and Riesling.
Promising grapes: Most Pinot Gris was harvested prior to the rainstorm in early October. Yields were tiny, the grapes clean and healthy, physiologically mature and consistent.
Challenging grapes: No big loser; sugar levels in Riesling were slow to develop, but ultimately not a concern.
Analysis: Despite the conditions in spring that delayed budbreak, Alsace probably would have had a home run if it wasn’t for cool and rainy weather during harvest that commenced with a rainstorm on Oct. 7. Grapes harvested prior to that and just after came in ripe and healthy, and with naturally low yields—among the lowest in the last 20 years.
After the rain, cool temperatures prevented sugar levels from rising. Ripening was stalled to a certain extent, unsanitary botrytis was a threat as some remaining grapes began to split, and the beneficial botrytis that affects healthy grapes and slowly dries them out, concentrating flavor and making late-harvest and dessert wines possible, was unlikely to occur.
“My feeling is that 90 percent of the wines—especially those harvested during the first two weeks—will be excellent due to a very tiny crop, excellent conditions of soundness and maturity, and perfect acidity,” said Marc Hugel, winemaker at his family’s eponymous estate.
The good news: If you like Sauternes and Barsac, you'll like 2013.
The bad news: Everything else. 2013 is the most difficult vintage for Bordeaux dry reds in some time.
Promising grapes: Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc in sweet wine areas.
Challenging grapes: Everything else, particularly the later ripening Cabernet Sauvignon in the Médoc.
Analysis: “2013 has been one of the hardest vintages, or perhaps even the most complicated in the last 30 years,” said Jean-Christophe Mau, owner of Château Brown in Pessac-Léognan. A cold and very rainy spring led to late and uneven flowering and set vines’ timing back several weeks. From there on it was a race to catch up, but rainy weather returned in September, making it a very difficult year.
“Summer was nice but not warm enough to accelerate the ripening process. Weather took a turn for the worse in September with rain almost every day. Not a lot, but enough to help our best friend, botrytis,” said Thomas Duroux, general director of Château Palmer in Margaux, with a hint of sarcasm. “We started the 27th of September to harvest the young Merlot and then sped up [as the weather deteriorated]. Sunday the 29th we harvested [25 acres] in one day!” Producers on the Left Bank reported Merlot was relatively ripe, in the 12.5 potential alcohol range, while Cabernet, which ripens later, struggled.
The Right Bank also dealt with a rainy harvest, but some terroirs performed better than others. “September was too rainy, so on the sandy plots the berries become botrytized and diluted,” said Pierre-Olivier Clouet, technical director at Château Cheval-Blanc. “But clay and gravel resisted the water so the concentration is OK—the roots can't absorb water on clay and gravel drains better.”
Meanwhile, with wet weather spurring botrytis, one area seems to have excelled, Barsac and Sauternes. “The warm and misty October, nearly tropical, was highly favorable for the rapid spread of noble rot,” said Denis Dubourdieu, owner of Château Doisy Daëne in Barsac. “The harvest was short and fast, just two or three passes [for picking grapes at various stages of botrytis development]. It was much easier than last year. Fermentations are just finished, but I am enthusiastic with the first barrel tastings, which show richness, freshness, good acidity.”
Harvesting ripe Merlot in the Northern Médoc at Château Maison Blanche.
The good news: Top producers harvested clean, ripe fruit in both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The bad news: Low yields due to a wet spring, poor flowering, hail in the Côte de Beaune from Pernand-Vergelesses to Meursault and fungal diseases in August
Picking started: End of September
Promising grapes: Pinot Noir in the Côte de Nuits; Chardonnay in the Côte de Beaune and Chablis
Challenging areas: The Côte de Beaune, especially the vineyards devastated by the hail on July 23
Analysis: Spring was wet and cool in Burgundy, particularly during the vines’ flowering. There was pressure from fungal diseases, but a stretch of dry weather in August helped. September was also fairly dry and sunny, but cool.
Picking began at the end of September and finished quickly because of the small crop. “It should be noted that there were a great number of people who criticized this vintage two months before the harvest,” said Charles Ballot of Domaine Ballot-Millot in Meursault. “But we have a vintage of extremely fresh wine and beautiful ripeness with a long maturity that reflects a great balance in the wine. This will certainly be a vintage to age.”
The good news: On the heels of the excellent 2012 vintage, 2013 doesn’t compete in overall quality but it’s solid; technical analysis—acid, sugar and potential alcohol levels—suggests that vintage wine, or at the least a high-quality addition to non-vintage bottlings, will be possible.
The bad news: The entire vegetative cycle and harvest was about two weeks behind the past decade’s norm because 2013’s cool and rainy spring delayed budbreak and flowering. That slow start caused multiple challenges.
Picking started: Sept. 24
Promising grapes: Chardonnay was the healthiest of Champagne’s three grapes in 2013, and early tastings suggest structure that can support quality wines with the ability to age. In some areas, Chardonnay yields were down about 15 to 20 percent versus last year’s crop—a result of millerandage and/or hailstorms early in the season—but the loss of berries early on meant that the vines had more nutrients and energy to give to the remaining fruit.
Challenging grapes: Although neither was a disaster, both Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier proved more difficult. Because harvest began later, it went through October and into cooler conditions, making selection necessary in parts of Champagne to sort out mildewed Pinot grapes.
Analysis: Champagne’s 2013 was defined by a cool and rainy spring, which saw vines flowering in late June and early July instead of the more typical timing of early- to mid-June. This left vines in a more fragile state when heavy rains and hailstorms struck during the summer months in some parts of the region. Significant crop loss occurred in these areas, with estimates of as much as 30 percent in the Côte de Blancs.
Cool weather during flowering also promoted millerandage, where grape bunches develop berries of varying sizes and maturity, making it more difficult to harvest whole bunches with full physiological maturity. And with one of the latest start dates for harvest in the past 20 years, determining when to pick was a critical decision. Depending on location, certain grape varieties required more time to reach maturity, but as the harvest went on the threat of cooler temperatures, more rain and mildew was greater.
Blanc de blancs made entirely from Chardonnay and Chardonnay-based blends will be the safest bet in 2013, and although producers are not exclaiming for 2013 as they did for the outstanding 2008 or 2012 vintages, most seem pleased with the overall results. “Compared to the rest of France, someone must be watching us upstairs,” said Frédéric Panaiotis, chef de cave of Ruinart Champagne.
Harvesters climb a hillside vineyard in Alsace for Domaine Schlumberger.
The good news: Muscadet recovered from a tough 2012, returning to a near-normal crop size; botrytis developed well for dessert wines; and most winemakers achieved desired ripeness and acidity levels despite the challenges of the vintage.
The bad news: Spring and fall rains caused problems with flowering and rot; Vouvray and parts of Chinon were blasted by a historically bad hailstorm in June, losing huge amounts of grapes.
Picking started: Harvest began on Sept. 23 in Muscadet and ended Nov. 6 for late-harvest botrytized grapes in the Chaume area.
Promising grapes: Mélon de Bourgogne in Muscadet, dry and sweet Chenin Blanc throughout the rest of the Loire
Challenging grapes: Chenin Blanc quality is good but yields were way down in Vouvray; Cabernet Franc struggled to ripen in Chinon, Saumur and Anjou.
Analysis: "It has been a quite strange and very interesting vintage," said Philippe Germain of Château de la Roulerie in the Côteaux du Layon region of the central Loire Valley. Depending on the subregion and the grape, 2013 marked a vintage that ranged from "good—better than average" in the Muscadet appellation in the west to near-catastrophic in central Vouvray, which was pummeled by a brutal hailstorm in June, with some growers losing 90 percent of their crop. "This event will mark our spirits forever," said Sarah Hwang, an owner of Domaine Huët. The vines will take years to recover.
"The winter of 2013 was extremely long; the start of the growing season was one of the latest of the past 40 years," said Pascal Jolivet, working in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in the east. This pattern affected most of the region, with vintners battling rain and rot into June. Then July, August and part of September were dry but not terribly hot, making ripening difficult, especially for Cabernet Franc. Rains in September and October forced many growers to make the difficult call of losing grapes to rot or hanging on and waiting for full maturity.
It was a vintage in which modern viticulture proved helpful: "What is amazing is that most of the Loire producers took the same risk to wait for good ripeness, which was unthinkable 20 years ago," said Matthieu Baudry of Domaine Bernard Baudry in Chinon.
In a wet year, sorting was crucial for good red wines in Bordeaux.
The good news: Quality in the Northern Rhône could be excellent.
The bad news: The south is a bit more variable, and quantities are low everywhere.
Promising grapes: Syrah in the north; Mourvèdre and Syrah in the south
Challenging grapes: Grenache in the south and Viognier in the north were hit hard by coulure and had the most variable results.
Analysis: The 2013 season was a tricky one, with a cold spring that resulted in a difficult flowering and delayed the eventual harvest, among the latest ever. Mildew pressure was heavy early in June, though drier, warmer weather prevailed over the second half of the season, allowing producers to get healthy grapes. An early October rain triggered most of the picking though and with forecasts for more rain a week later, few producers took any additional risks.
“In 2013 we never stopped the harvest,” said Philippe Guigal of E. Guigal in Ampuis, the region's most prominent Côte-Rôtie producer. “We were always picking something, because you had to move fast at the end. Usually you pick some whites, stop, pick some reds and so on, but not in 2013. We went fast, got everything in before the second rain in October, and we're very happy.”
“It was a very strange year,” said Marc Perrin of Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. “We picked our Mourvèdre before Grenache and that rarely happens. Yields are really low, but if you did a good selection you brought in very healthy fruit.”