Our Australian wine-making consultant, Richard Osborne, describes the 2012 harvest as the most difficult he has experienced in his 22 years in France. A combination of unusual and volatile weather conditions over the year led to harvest dates and fruit ripeness being variable to say the least. Rainfall was also sub-par (some 525 millimeters (21 inches), versus an historic average of 650 -700), leading to hydric stress into the September/October harvest time. Cellar treatment was also more complicated than usual.
After an initial mild December/January, winter returned with vengeance end-January with minus 5 - 13 C weeks, accentuated by wind chill. Pruning was no fun. After 2 weeks of polar weather, spring bounced back with serious intent the week of 13 February. Birds sang, plants slowly raised their heads and clouds re-appeared. Budding came later in early April as a consequence - and was followed by irregular flowering in June (with a consequent reduction in fruit). Temperatures remained sub-par (for the Languedoc that is) during spring and early summer - and never really climbed to “normal” in summer (i.e. a regular 30C plus) until August, leaving growers concerned as to lack of potential ripeness. Late June/early July also saw waves of warm but humid air sweeping over the Minervois (and much of other growing areas in France), highly favourable to fungal diseases. Extreme vigilance was required to arrest (by spraying) any outbreak of mildiou in particular, which I'm happy to say did not affect us to any significant degree. However, "le mois d'août fait le moût" (August makes the juice, as they say), and the hot dry August weather, continuing into September, aided ripening and brought relief to all concerned.
We harvested the white and young reds for the rosė early September but then waited for the remaining reds to fully ripen - and waited and waited. The fruit was technically ripe, according to laboratory analysis, but lacked flavour and complexity when tasted. Not encouraging. Our oenologue insisted we be patient (while everyone around us was eagerly harvesting), in order to capture maximum ripeness under the Indian summer of September/October. Slowly the fruit gained in taste under the sunny but shorter autumn days, but the ongoing semi-drought conditions threatened to forestall things by the vines sucking dry the grapes for survival. We finalised picking Monday 10 October. Not excessively late but a harvest period of nearly 6 weeks, punctuated by irregular ripening and stop-go harvesting periods. Thank goodness we had a mechanical harvester to rush out at short notice. Manual harvesting would have had to start earlier, being slower, probably bringing in under-ripe fruit.
Volumes are about even with 2011 (which was up 15-20% over 2010), helped by replanted plots giving higher yields. Overall though, we are still talking about low yields of some 37-38 hectolitres per hectare (54 being the max for Minervois AOP). No volume drop compared to some regions in the Languedoc (and elsewhere in the SW of France where mildiou was a real problem in 2012). The delayed picking proved highly beneficial, with the Syrah and Carignan in top condition. And the Grenache improved significantly in tank. Cellar treatment had to be light-handed in order to retain freshness and flavours. For example, pumping over was done only once a day and that for only 5 minutes, just to moisten the cap. Warming of the marc and deléstage (“rack and return”) was also in evidence to optimize structure. Certain tanks of Syrah are now truly superb – and the Carignan has pleasantly surprised us too for the second year running (I threatened to rip up the Carignan in 2010 unless the quality improved. Who says plants don’t listen?).
Conclusion? A year when we snatched victory from potential disappointment with fantastic Syrah. We have to say that recent years’ weather has become more variable and which adds unexpected complications to both harvesting and work in the cellar. A reflection of more complex global weather patterns? Let’s hope that 2013 brings us a little more “normality”.
31st October 2012
Chateau St. Jacques d'Albas