After all the doom and gloom around France on the 2013 harvest, a small ray of comfort from the Languedoc and the Minervois in particular. Here at St Jacques d'Albas in the Minervois, we haven't been hit by hail, by any torrential downpours or any serious outbreaks of rot, like so much of France's vineyards. That aside, the area we live in is semi-arid and weather patterns this year within the Minervois, have also been quite variable, with areas not far from us having had serious hail and/or fungal attacks; yet little or nothing here. Having completed the restoration of our 11th century chapel this year, perhaps we have been spared the wrath of the weather Gods as compensation?
The harvest, as elsewhere in France, was some 3 weeks later than normal (as mentioned by most wine correspondents) due to a late flowering, accompanied by cold and wet weather. High levels of nitrogen, arising from the cold and wet, acted to block subsequent growth too. It's the Grenache which has suffered the most, leading to "coulure", a significant lowering of the fruit yield. Before picking in October, looking from 20-30 metres away, one had the impression that the vines had already been picked, such was the diminution in number and size of grapes. We estimate a 50-60% reduction in yields on the Grenache. Wine makers in the south of Rhone, depending more on Grenache than we do in their blends, will have had a tough time to find enough fruit.
The other red varietals’ yields have no way suffered as much. Yields on the Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan are down over 2012 but about the 3 year average. The white varietals (Viognier, Vermentino and Roussanne) have been sufficiently productive and qualitative to merit a big mention, the cooler conditions being favourable for acidity and minerality.
Overall, we estimate our 2013 harvest to be down some 22% over 2012, but a year which was up over 2011 remember. Other vignerons in our parish, by contrast, have a more abundant harvest than 2012, some even with regular yields of Grenache, having not been hit by coulure.. There is no rhyme or reason to the 2013 Minervois variable harvest volumes. National reports of a lower or higher harvest volume would appear to be quite premature and we probably won't know the final and certified figures for our area (and for France) until later. Preliminary reports within the industry though, as I hear it, are not at all positive.
Crucial for the 2013 harvest was the decision on timing of picking. On the one hand, the grapes, notably for the reds, were looking to be technically ripe end-September, but lacked taste ("gout") and needed more hang time. Luckily, the Indian summer lasted through to end-October - as most of elsewhere - and provided meaningful assistance to final ripening, given the warm days, cool nights and dry northerly winds. Ripening continued, the fruit gained "gout" and we concluded picking on 18 October, the latest since we arrived in 2001. It was a touch-and-go experience though, waiting until the grapes were about to fall off by themselves, before picking. And thanks to our mechanical harvester which, driven carefully, certainly brought in the crop so much more quickly and without damage than the manual alternative could have done, given the very narrow windows for harvesting.
At St Jacques d'Albas, the whites are good this year, due to the cooler climate. We are also happy with the rosé, both wines being very aromatic, accompanied by crispy acidity. Volumes for both wines are marginally down on last year. Cold fermentation for both wines (15C, versus 28C for the reds) maintained fruit, freshness and acidity.
As for the reds, they created most of the above-mentioned problems. The Syrah started coming in the first week of October. Older vines, with deeper roots to seek out water, coped better than their younger shallower-rooted brethren, given the lack of rain since July. The younger vines displayed signs of hydric stress and immaturity in “gout” in some cases. The Grenache suffered most from the cold and wet weather during flowering, with volumes down meaningfully, as noted earlier. Not a Grenache year! We picked them through the middle of October. The Mourvèdre and Carignan are late ripeners and needed the most hang time, ending October 18. Like their earlier maturing Syrah and Grenache cousins, bunches and berries were smaller-than-usual, giving reduced yields. But the grapes were in good health across the board and very ripe, almost jammy, which is a compensation. Our cellar manager was quoted as saying “ Smells like strawberries!”, upon entering the winery, when the Carignan came in
In August, if asked, I didn't expect any miracles from the 2013 harvest for the reds, forecasting that the Languedoc and the Minervois would probably produce easy-to-drink wines for early consumption at best, given the negative prognostications pre-vendange. The whites and rosés showed promise early on by contrast and this has continued in tank. The reds, however, both before and after pressing, have pleasantly surprised us. While being short in juice, the smaller berries were clean (notable for lack of mildew), ripe and very fruity. Some tanks of the older Syrah in particular are showing hallmarks of being an excellent vintage. The Carignan, a « bête noire” for us in some years, has also come through with the goodies and will be a strongly positive addition to the 2013 vintage.
Overall, a decidedly better-than-expected harvest and which is going to throw up positive surprises, notably in reds. Might the Minervois and other parts of the Languedoc, surprise the critics in 2013?
Chateau St Jacques d'Albas
11800 Laure Minervois