As vignerons across France pick this year’s grape harvest, they can only wonder at what might have been if Mother Nature hadn't been so cruel. A year of chaotic weather across France has produced the nation’s smallest wine grape crop since 1945. But while volume suffered, winemakers remain optimistic about quality after an early start to the harvest.
"We've already finished with the Merlot and we're picking the Cabernet little by little," Sophie Schyler, a co-owner with her family of Château Kirwan in Margaux, told Wine Spectator. "The quality—the color, concentration and alcohol level—is very satisfying. The weather is stable, allowing us to pick at the optimal grape maturity."
Bordeaux was hard hit by April’s frost, unusual for this maritime region. Schyler said that the lower-altitude vineyard parcels used for Kirwan’s second wine suffered from the frost, but in general they escaped the bitter cold felt elsewhere. "We weren't hit hard—that's true in the Médoc. We were fortunate compared to other regions like the Graves, Sauternes and St.-Emilion."
Philippe Dambrine, CEO of Château Cantemerle in the Haut-Médoc and Château Grand Corbin in St.-Emilion, echoes that. "At Cantemerle only a few parcels were hit. It's too early to make a precise estimate [of losses]. Maybe 30 percent overall?” he said. “Our vineyard of Château Grand Corbin has been severely impacted by the frost. We expect 90 percent lost this year."
Dambrine is happy with quality. "The freshly crushed fruits smell very good in the cellar. It seems that we didn't lose much of the great potential of the vintage after the recent rains.”
Overall, Bordeaux's 2017 crop is half 2016's, according to the French Ministry of Agriculture. Allan Sichel, négociant and president of the CIVB, told Wine Spectator, "We have very small volumes—about 40 percent of the drop is due to frost. The yields from the plots unaffected by frost are low, so that could amount to a 50 percent decrease. We don't know yet."
Sichel anticipated little impact on pricing. "At the very top end, the classified growths, no impact. For the middle of the market, the emphasis will be on maintaining sales and distribution, so stable pricing. What we will see is the disappearance of the entry-level wines."
Low crops leave winemakers concerned that they won't be able to supply their markets, losing shelf space to other producers. Sichel was confident that the 2015 and 2016 in Bordeaux's cellars would allow them to supply their customers and keep their spots on wine lists and store shelves.
Bordeaux is not the only region with low yields. Chablis, Mâcon, Châtillon, and the Loire also suffered from the cold snap. In Alsace, yields are down 27 percent. "In the Jura, the frost amputated half of the production," stated a report from Agreste, the agricultural ministry's statistics bureau.
A dry, hot summer further lowered French yields in certain regions like the south of France and the Loire. “At harvests everywhere, in places where we thought there would be a little less, there’s a lot less,” said Jérôme Despey, head of a governmental wine advisory board and secretary general of France's farmers union FNSEA.
Overall, Agreste expects the French 2017 crop to fall to 413 million cases worth of wine, sinking lower than the previous post–World War II record low set by the 1991 crop of 455 million. That places the 2017 crop 18 percent lower than the 2016 and 17 percent below the five-year national average.
The exception is Burgundy. While Chablis and Mâcon are down, local trade group BIVB reported a 12 percent increase over last year's dismal yield for the entire region. Picking began in their region at the end of August and the fruit is high quality.
Throughout France, the 2017 vintage has also been characterized by an early picking season, some 10 to 15 days in advance of the norm. The maturity and health of the grapes leaves growers hopeful that this vintage will be remembered for its quality, not just its rarity.
In Montlouis sur Loire, where five months ago, winemakers banded together to pay for a helicopter to help save their vine buds from frost, they started the harvest last week under ideal conditions.
"The quality of the grapes is very beautiful," said Valérie Fleureau, spokesperson for the Montlouis sur Loire appellation. "It was an easy year to manage vine disease—nothing dramatic—and the maturity we've seen from the grapes sampled is very promising."