For the men and women who make wine, perhaps no word is more packed with nervous anticipation than "harvest." After months of spending time, sweat and money in their vineyards, it's the moment to see what nature delivered. For California, 2014 brought another year of record-breaking drought. For America's East Coast, winter brought a deep freeze. For much of Western Europe, 2014 was unpredictable, with sun, clouds and plenty of hail in some unfortunate spots.
In the third of five 2014 vintage reports, French vignerons and winemakers report a challenging but ultimately rewarding year. From Bordeaux to Champagne, spring was warm and sunny. But summer brought cloudy wet days to much of the country, requiring countless hours in the vineyards. Just in time, September brought sun.
As for final quality in the bottle, it's too early to know, but here's a sneak peek.
The good news: A classic Alsace vintage, with good acidity and pure flavors; also a slightly larger crop than 2013
The bad news: No disasters in 2014, but the vintage presented enough challenges that grape selection and sorting was important. Consumers should stick to quality-oriented producers.
Picking started: Sept. 16
Promising grapes: Riesling and Pinot Gris, and Alsace’s sparkling wine, crémant
Challenging grapes: Gewürztraminer, and Alsace late-harvest and dessert wines, vendanges tardives and sélections des grains nobles
Analysis: “We’re on track for a great vintage in 2014,” said an optimistic Jean-Frédéric Hugel, the newest generation to work at his family-owned estate, Hugel. And in general, producers are pleased with the classic style of the vintage, which shows the slightly higher acidity levels that were more common 20 or 30 years ago, versus those of more recent vintages.
A warm and dry spring and an early summer resulted in good flowering and fruit set, but it was August’s cooler temperatures and periods of rain that helped preserve the impressive acidity levels that the grapes showed at harvest. Overall, this cool, rainy period was a boon, but it posed some problems with botrytis, particularly for the more delicate Gewürztraminer grape.
Some vineyards were also affected by acetic rot, a consequence of drosophila, or vinegar flies. Sorting and selection became a key tool for a successful harvest. Although the 2014 crop is larger across the board than the small 2013 vintage, several producers report a reduction in yields due to selection—as much as 20 percent. And in selecting in order to produce dry wines, many producers will forgo the production of late-harvest and dessert wines.
Despite some of 2014’s difficulties, the weather was fair and sunny through September and harvest. Good diurnal temperature variations helped preserve acidity levels, and conditions allowed grapes to reach full physiological maturity. As a result, 2014 looks to be a solid vintage of well-structured wines that offer pure varietal character.
The good news: After three consecutive vintages of decreasing quality and quantity, Bordeaux vintners are breathing a huge sigh of relief following the 2014 harvest. A late spate of warm, sunny weather resulted in a strong performance from Cabernet Sauvignon, with yields across the region in a more normal range of around 2.5 to 3 tons per acre.
The bad news: Gray, humid weather in July and August was the vintage's achilles heel, resulting in some uneven ripening for those practicing less than rigorous viticulture. It won't be a classic-quality vintage, but it's potentially the best since 2010.
Picking started: Harvest ran late as grapes needed to catch up following August's less-than-perfect weather. Most producers started picking Merlot in late September, while Cabernet picking stretched into the first two weeks of October.
Promising regions: Nature favored Cabernet Sauvignon and warmer, gravelly soils, so the Left Bank looks to have the early lead in this vintage over the Merlot-dominated Right Bank.
Challenging regions: Pomerol saw a bit more rain in September and October, and generally Merlot seems to be behind Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of quality.
Analysis: The growing season got off to a warm and dry start, with most vineyards two weeks ahead of schedule. Flowering occurred in early June and the vintage seemed set for an early September harvest. But then July and August delivered clouds and humidity. By the end of August, producers were worried about laggard ripening and potential disease pressures.
They returned from August vacations and scrambled to clean their vineyards of any grapes or bunches that showed early signs of rot, while also trimming berries that were still green and reducing canopies for better air flow.
“I spent twice as much time in my vineyard as usual,” said Edouard Labruyère, owner of Château Rouget in Pomerol. “I made the choice to sacrifice quantity in order to keep the vineyard as healthy as possible.”Those who gambled by cutting yields were rewarded with nearly perfect conditions in September. “The month of September was amazing,” said Frédéric Faye, director at Château Figeac in St.-Emilion. “There was no [disease] pressure and the ripening accelerated. There was some wind too, which helped concentrate the berries, though yields were a little lower than normal.”
On the Left Bank, Cabernet Sauvignon picking stretched into October, with some rains providing a lifeline to vineyards at the end of their growing cycle. “We finished on Oct. 18 after two days of rain on the 7th and 9th, which was divine help because the vines were desperate after such a dry stretch in September,” said Basile Tesseron of Château Lafon-Rochet in St.-Estèphe.
“It was a much more relaxed harvest than in '13,” said Frédéric Engerer, director at Pauillac first-growth Château Latour. “Grapes slowly concentrated and kept a good acidity level. There was a little more pressure on the Right Bank [where Latour's owner, the Artemis group, also manages vineyards] with 2.4 inches of rain in September versus just 0.66 inches in Pauillac. But overall the wines we're tasting now are rich, dense and very long.”
Both dry whites and the sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes also look excellent, thanks to some intermittent rains in September and the warm weather that brought excellent concentration and botrytis development. “The excessively favorable conditions we saw this year are comparable to 2003,” said Aline Baly of Château Coutet in Barsac. “We basically had August in October.”
Ripe Chardonnay hangs on the vine at Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils in Chablis.
The good news: Excellent, balanced whites and very good reds. Overall quantities are higher than the past three vintages.
The bad news: Hail for the third consecutive year reduced yields in Meursault, Volnay, Pommard and Beaune.
Picking started: Sept. 12 in the Côte d’Or; Sept. 13 in Chablis
Promising grapes: Chardonnay
Analysis: The 2014 growing season got off to a great start in Burgundy and finished strong, though July and August were rainy and cool. After a mild winter, spring was dry and warm, advancing the development of the vines about two weeks. “Very rarely have we seen such healthy leaves and such a balanced growth of the vines. Diseases were nearly absent and the treatments were kept to a minimum,” said Aubert de Villaine, co-director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Flowering was early. High temperatures caused some berries to dry out and drop off and there was some millerandage (a combination of normal berries and small, seedless berries with thick skins. Conditions were very dry until a big hailstorm on June 28, which affected Beaune to Meursault and some parts of the Côte de Nuits. Christophe Roumier noted this was the first “real” rainfall of the season.
Fine weather returned in September, and warm temperatures ripened the grapes rapidly. “September brought marvelous weather,” said Frédéric Drouhin, president of Maison Joseph Drouhin in a winery report. “Light, warm northerly winds, warm days, cool nights; all the favorable conditions needed to bring the grapes to the desired level of maturity.”
In the end there was no rot and moderate sorting, mostly where hail had damaged some grapes. The whites are balanced and intense, the reds show good colors and ripe fruit flavors. At this stage Etienne Grivot of Domaine Jean Grivot compares his young reds to 1989.
Vineyard workers work the hillside of Le Clos, above the town of Chablis.
The good news: Both in quantity and quality, the 2014 vintage surpasses the recent 2012 and 2013 vintages.
The bad news: Very little. Producers are happy, though only time will tell if 2014 will be a vintage year.
Picking started: Sept. 8Promising grapes: Chardonnay performed particularly well, reaching excellent physiological maturity and showing great aromatic expression.
Analysis:As late as August, a successful vintage was by no means a given in 2014 for Champagne. A mild winter put the vines ahead of schedule, with the possibility of frost a serious threat in March and April. But slightly higher-than-average temperatures continued through to flowering, setting the stage for a more abundant harvest.
Unlike 2012 and 2013, no major hailstorms struck in 2014, a boon for the growers. Until August, the vines were about a week to two weeks ahead of schedule, and an early harvest seemed a possibility. Then came cool days, along with light periods of rain, which slowed the ripening to a more typical timetable.
As the cool spell continued, growers feared for ripeness levels, and August’s ongoing rain showers meant that grape bunches had to be watched and treated for botrytis. Fortunately, the weather turned again in September, and sunny days paired with cool nights pushed the grapes to physiological maturity and a balance between acidity, sugar and varietal expression.
The Champenois are quietly pleased and optimistic about the vintage. Olivier Krug, of Krug Champagne, summed up the vintage by saying, “2014 is better than was expected in August. [There are] plenty of grapes and they’re looking good—with interesting chemical balance and expression.”
The good news: After a devastating hailstorm during the summer of 2013, vines in Vouvray and surrounding areas are recovering. September proved to be a saving grace for winemakers across the region thanks to weather that ripened grapes in spite of a cool, rainy summer.
The bad news: Despite good flowering in June, the summer months of July and August were mostly overcast and rainy, which increased the risk of rot in some areas and delayed maturity of grapes across the valley. While September weather was a relief, the effects of the rainy, cool summer made harvest timing tricky and mandated meticulous work in the vineyards.
Picking started: Harvest in Muscadet started in mid-September, while other areas, such as Chinon, did not start picking from some vineyards until mid-October.
Promising grapes: Mélon de Bourgogne in Muscadet, Cabernet Franc in Chinon and surrounding areas, and dry Chenin Blanc, especially in Vouvray.
Challenging grapes: Excessive summer rain caused low yields in the Quarts de Chaume, and issues with gray rot and volatile acidity reduced quantity in Savennières.
Analysis: “The 2014 vintage was a ligerian vintage,” explained Anne-Charlotte Genet of Charles Joguet in Chinon. "'Ligerian' is a word from the Loire meaning a typical Loire wine profile." The Loire, a region that spans over 200 miles from Sancerre, smack-dab in the middle of the country, to Nantes, on the Atlantic coast, is prone to extensive weather variation. In 2014, however, winemakers across the region reported similar patterns in their harvest analysis.
For almost all, the beginning of the season showed promise, with good flowering. “The flowering in June went very well, maybe one of the best flowerings we have had over the last six vintages," said Genet. "The weather was dry, sunny with constant temperatures.”
The good weather did not last long, unfortunately. “The absence of sun and warmth in late July and all of August provoked a delayed maturity of the berries,” said Sarah Hwang of Domaine Hüet in Vouvray. Vintners in Muscadet, Anjou-Samur and Sancerre all reported similar weather.
September brought dry and sunny conditions back. “In early September, all grapes were far from mature, and I was very pessimistic,” said Florent Baumard of Domaine des Baumard. “Then we had three weeks of real summer weather, warm and dry. It changed the whole picture.”
Relief also came to the eastern part of the region in Sancerre. “Fortunately, September was like an Indian summer: blue sky and warm temperatures all day with quite cold nights,” said Pascal Jolivet. These conditions proved beneficial for Sauvignon Blanc, and winemakers are pleased with both the quantity and quality of the grapes.
While the delayed ripeness brought challenges when it came to picking, the hard work in the vineyards could pay off. “[Harvest] conditions were difficult," said Hwang. "But with multiple passes through the vineyards and tenacity and absolute meticulousness on the sorting table, we succeeded in producing a sec from each of our three terroirs, as well as a cuvée of demi-sec from both Le Mont and Clos du Bourg.”
Freshly picked Melon de Bourgogne goes into the bin at Chéreau Carré in the Loire's Muscadet region.
The good news: Quality for whites is excellent and reds can be outstanding
The bad news: Yields are very low and quality is inconsistent; a fruit fly spread acid rot in parts of the Northern Rhône, while pesky rains hampered the harvest throughout the valley.
Picking started: Harvest fell at a more normal time following the very late-running 2013, with most picking in the north concentrated around mid- to late September, while the south stretched from late September to mid-October.
Promising grapes: Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne wines in the north look excellent; the south's supporting players Syrah and Mourvèdre performed very well.
Challenging grapes: Syrah in the north varies in quality, while Grenache struggled in the south.
Analysis: Many of the Rhône Valley's winemakers, both north and south, are pleased with their 2014 wines' potential. But others report a tough year, where the weather was variable and meticulous vineyard work was a must.
“Spring was beautiful and then June and July was rainy,” said Olivier Clape of A. Clape in Cornas. “But we got a good wind so we really only needed to do some leaf pulling to get the vineyard healthy and fruit clean. Harvest ran early and we were done by Sept. 21, before a hailstorm hit." That hailstorm hit hard in Crozes-Hermitage, particularly in the prime Les Chassis area, home to producers such as A. Graillot, Gilles Robin, David Reynaud and Laurent Combier.
Meanwhile, further north in Côte-Rôtie, ripe Syrah was the fruit of choice for the pesky Drosophila suzukii fly, a fruit fly that eats only red-colored fruits and pierces intact skins, rather than dining on already compromised fruit. The result was acid rot, and growers had to select carefully to avoid the bad fruit, resulting in some reported yields of just 50 percent.
But those who dodged the fly and picked before the rains were ecstatic. “In St.-Joseph the red was picked Sept. 15 at 14 percent [potential alcohol], which is impressive, as it came before the heavier rains,” said Philippe Guigal of E. Guigal.
The good fruit that was selected shows promise, though in a decidedly different style from the racy, acidity-driven 2013s. “2014 is a September vintage. It was a rainy July and August and then September was gorgeous,” said Pierre-Jean Villa. “We had no summer—it was worse than '13. We won't have the same concentration in '14. We have purity and aromatics, but not the tannins or same structure. It's a softer vintage.”In the Southern Rhône, September wasn't as dry and growers had to deal with more persistent rains than the north. “The sorting table was important,” said Louis Barruol, of Château de St.-Cosme in Gigondas. "Some grapes with botrytis had to be removed, as well as those that didn't fully ripen.”
The trend was echoed in Provence. “The early-ripening areas were favored, as the weather changed mid-September and got humid,” said Gregory Hecht of Hecht & Bannier.
“2014 is two sides—there are very good wines and there is also some very bad stuff,” said Jean-Louis Chave. “It was so wet in July, the grapes got bloated and the vines shut down. September was great, but not everything could catch up—on slopes yes, but on the flat soils, no, because they couldn't drain. September saved the vintage, but you can't save a classic vintage, you can only save a good vintage.”
Inspecting old vines at Domaine Constant-Duquesnoy in Vinsobres in the Southern Rhône Valley.