Every year is by definition full of surprises and us producers accept to be at the mercy of Mother Nature. However this year may have been the hardest in a long time on both the vines and the growers. France as a whole will have had its lowest production in many years due to frost and drought, with the averages hiding some truly heart wrenching stories of total loss. It was a double record year for “earliest harvest”, as it seems our climate continues to change, and smallest harvest in France since 1945.
For us in the Minervois, still reeling from a 40% drop in production last year, it started so positively...
Winter was encouraging, with January to March witnessing some 340mm of rain, versus 152mm for same period 2016. Also, January was cold but no frosts or hail of any note - and similar for February. Pruning, that annual 3-4 month obligatory surgical labour, continued unabated, interrupted by some periods of continual rain, not a bad thing in the big picture.
The Spring sprint
And then March announced a beautiful and somewhat early spring. Above-average temperatures, combined with the water-replenished soil, resulted in an explosion of growth, with weeds leading the charge. But given the sodden soil, we could not use our mechanical weed-cutters to hold their advance in check. Any visitor had problems seeing vines, especially amongst the younger plantings.
Were the vines holding something back for a late charge? Indeed, vine growth then spurted and budding burst. The balmy weather continued into April, allowing mechanical weeding and fertilisation (with organic goodies) to be completed. All highly promising for a recovery in yields, notably amongst the younger, shallower-rooted vines, after the drought-induced drops in 2016.
End-April, disaster struck many vineyards throughout France, with a Siberian air mass rolling south, bringing sudden, plunging temperatures. Little warning from the weather forecast and incredible images of vineyards desperately lighting fires along the rows of vines to stave off damage (see image)! St Jacques, fortunately, was only slightly affected, being higher than many surrounding vineyards. But it was a manifestation of the old saying that frost risk doesn’t disappear before May commences!
How some vineyards had to fight the frost:
Having survived the frost, summer months turned hot and dry, and what little rain fell quickly evaporated on contact with the soil. Vines looked longingly at the swimming pool. June was particularly hot, but us vignerons were not too concerned, as we normally receive a few summer downfalls (20-30mm) of rain in July/August to give a boost to swelling of the grapes. But no! While some neighbours had some water dumps, our calls were ignored. Evidently, while bud burst had been generous, the subsequent maturing of the grapes was constrained by an emerging summer drought! Plenty of grapes but all on minimum rations.
Fast forward to late August. Analyse and tasting of the grapes gave mixed indications of when to harvest. Sugars on the whites suddenly developed in the 3rd week of August - while acidities held firm. Tally-ho with the harvesting! A record early harvest for us, and the rest of France it seems, and continuing a trend since we bought St. Jacques d’Albas in 2001 (see graph below). Small berries on the Viognier but compensatory juice on the Vermentino (Rolle), that drought-habitué varietal from Sardinia.
Grenache and Mourvedre for the rosé came in the end of August. Another story of plenty of small berries and juice yields down.
Reds were picked from 7 September, led by the Grenache, then the Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan. The last-mentioned smiled all the way to the winery, a varietal that basks in hot, dry conditions.
Our regisseur Marc had tears in his eyes when seeing the little volumes coming in, though we weren’t the only ones with plenty of grapes but low volumes... Some of our neighbours complained they were filling up their cuves with grapes, but having hardly any juice emerging. Just skins and pips!
So, yet another year of low yields (-40%) and a harvest a record two weeks earlier than expected. During fermentation, smiles returned to our faces as we tasted the evolving product. Similar to 2003 but characterised by more maturity and higher acidities. A precocious vintage which augers well for quality but not abundance. Phenolic development appears better than 2016 too. Whites & rosé improving all the time in tank - and quite honestly a pleasant compensatory surprise. Reds are concentrated, sweet and seductive.
While lucky for not being severally damaged by the April frost, a second record year of low volumes is difficult to absorb. The quality is definitely there and we hope our vines are pushing their roots deeper for years to come. Roll on the rain this winter!