as much of France struggles under rain, notably Burgundy, from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a report from Vincent Avril of top estate the Clos des Papes: "it is very healthy, with no advance on normal dates now. It is a year of the viticulteur so far - a lot of work has been necessary in the vineyards, especially when you work organically. We have even had to control the grasses between the rows this year. There was danger of mildew before the veraison (grapes changing colour), which took a lot longer than usual this year - three weeks - and also started very early, around 5 July. Debudding and dropping grapes this year have been vital tasks. We reached 37°C in the third week of August, and that rendered a gain in degree between 0.5° and 1° in the grapes. I should think I will start to harvest my Grenache noir at a minimum of 10-15 September. The wines could be powerful if we want a complete ripeness and a good balance. I rate conditions across the whole appellation as very similar."
From the highly popular, top tier Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, Daniel Brunier informed me from the work site of his entirely redone vinification cellar: "if we get Mistral wind (north wind), we can make a very grand vintage; if not, we may lack structure, personality. A month of Mistral would be optimal, in the line of 2007 - one wants a late concentration of the juice. It is quite abundant at around 35 hl/ha, and the crop is healthy. We may pick a bit of Roussanne and Grenache blanc before 5 September, and the Syrah and Grenache noir on that Monday. At Gigondas, for our Pallières, there has been a bit less rain than at Châteauneuf; here at Télégraphe, I reckon we had two falls of 30mm (1.2 in) and 45 mm (1.8 in) in July and one of 15 mm (0.6 in) in early August, the last falling on already wet soils. At Gigondas we have had about 30 mm (1.2 in) less overall. Draining soils have performed well this year owing to those summer rains." Meantime at Domaine de la Janasse, the Sabon family started harvesting their white Côtes-du-Rhône crop on Thursday 25 August.
Laurent Charvin of Domaine Charvin in the northern area of Châteauneuf-du-Pape related that his worries of early August had subsided: "well, we received 30 mm (1.2 in) of rain in early August, on the heels of a cool and quite wet July. But now the harvest is handsome, and very well aired after we did a lot of work in the vineyard. Tests say there is a good level of polyphenols, indicating a healthy level of tannin, helped by the cool nights this year. We had a tiny drop of 1.5 mm yesterday. I would expect to start my Côtes-du-Rhône between 5 and 10 September, and my Châteauneuf between 15 and 20 September. Today (Sat Aug 27) here outside the house, there is Mistral blowing a little, blue sky, lightly white clouds, 32°C in the sun, 27°C in the shade, boom, boom."
Across the river at Saint-Laurent-des-Arbres, part of the Lirac appellation, Bernard Duseigneur, who works biodynamically, and is a leading name there and at Laudun, gave me a good rundown on events. "It`s been an unusual year - what with the early start, then a rare fresh and humid July, despite which we were still two weeks in advance. The 50 mm (2 in) rain we got on 6 August was also not usual - normally we get storms, but this lasted for 12 hours, so really sank into the soil. I am content with the health of the vineyard, and we are now 7 to 10 days ahead. The grapes are expanded, and the vineyards a sea of green. The varieties are ripening in similar cycles - again, it is unusual to have the Mourvèdre being harvested before the Grenache this year, whereas it is usually 2 to 3 weeks behind. The heat of last week was not more than 34°C, but seemed more because of the South wind. We will start on our whites this Monday 29 August, and the Cinsault and Syrah from around 5 September."
At Vacqueyras, Maxime Bernard of Domaine La Garrigue, maker of traditional, oak-free Vacqueyras and Gigondas, told me: "it is very joli for now, plus we have a normal size crop, around 36 hl/ha. Our last rain was at the end of the first week of August, and Vacqueyras as usual is around 8 to 10 days ahead of Gigondas. Last week we got up to 38°C, but the important thing was that the nights were fresh. Our test on the whites on August 25 showed the Grenache blanc ripening well at 12.5° and the Clairette at 12°. We just need this good weather to continue."
In the Northern Rhône, Michel Chapoutier at Hermitage was full of beans: "it is exceeeptional," he enthused. "We have a larger than usual crop, and will be harvesting the Marsanne on Le Méal about 31 August, the south facing vineyard. We have magnificent rain falling now."
The rain of Friday 26 August amounted to about 40 mm (1.6 in), and came with hail across Crozes-Hermitage, but not enough to seriously worry growers. Laurent Habrard stated: "the rain fell rapidly, all mainly over in 15 minutes. The Chassis also received the rain and some hail. I was really worried, as the sky went so dark around 4 in the afternoon that the village lights came on, as if it was 9 or 10 at night. Now we need sun, and north wind. My Hermitage blanc crop is as pretty as it could be - both from quantity and quality. I have received a comparison of 2011 against the previous ten vintages, and it looks very good. The result is that the Syrah has more tannin and less colour than those other vintages. Clearing the vegetation has been vital this year: the last week of July and first week of August, 10 of us did that to reduce the risk of mildew and oidium. But of course the catch for us working organically is that when hail comes you don`t have the protection from the leaves - not ideal. Today, after the rain, it is around 24°C, and there is a North wind coming up. There is a fine week ahead, with perhaps one day of rain or storm weather in mid-week."
Also at Crozes-Hermitage, Alain Graillot told me that after the hail, he is moving to harvest his white crop earlier than he had planned - "we have had to speed up on that after the hail we received on Les Chassis," he said. He added: "I am reducing my aim for a Grand Vintage to a Good Vintage for the Syrah."
into the home straight now. The next two to three weeks will decide the final style of many of the wines after what has been an irregular ripening season. The topsy turvy nature of the year - all early heat, then little heat, now final heat, will lead to wines that are possibly going to be loose in composition, and fresh rather than intense. We will see, though. Everywhere growers report a large crop.
From the Northern Rhône, a variety of reports, mid-August. Jean-Pierre Monier, biodynamic grower in the middle zone of Saint-Joseph above Saint-Désirat, told me: "the vineyard is very healthy, also very abundant, and we have had to drop grapes. Even the young vines` foliage is green, and still active. I may start to pick the Syrah around 10-12 September, which is 12 days ahead of 2010, and the Viognier in very early September. We had 25-30 mm (1 inch) of rain in July, but August has been dry. We are heading for very handsome skins and pulps, and extractions will be belles if that maintains. We hope it will be dry before the harvest."
At Côte-Rôtie, in the northern schist zone, Brigitte Roch of Clusel-Roch was content: "the vineyard looks well, the vines are healthy. We are still in advance by some way. Our Condrieu Viognier is at 12°, and our Syrah on La Viallière is at 10°. The quantity is normal. In August, we had rain every three days or so, which had been the pattern since the middle of July. Since then we have had around 100 mm (4 inches) of rain, and it hasn`t been very hot. Today, 16 August, though, it is HOT, and sunny. Don`t ask me to tell you the exact temperature!" Madame Duclaux, mother of David Duclaux who is on holiday, reported from the southern, gore-granite zone of Côte-Rôtie that they would harvest around 7 to 12 September, and that the grapes had completed their veraison, or changing of colour.
A few kilometres further south, the talented Francois Merlin, who makes both Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie, stated: "ripening is going well, and the crop will be ready in early September. Yields are good. We had quite a bit of rain in July and August, but that helped, since we were so much ahead of the usual date - now we will end up 8 to 10 days ahead. We have had a bit less rain at Côte-Rôtie than at Saint-Michel, where I have my Condrieu vineyards."
Robert Niéro, whose domaine is on the up, with son Rémi providing impetus, sees matters "getting better. We have cut back on the three weeks advance of the end of May, and now it is the three weeks to come that can sort things out well after the fresh and damp July. We need sun now, we`ve had enough rain. The volume may well be around 40 hl/ha, a good amount, because the individual grapes are very puffed up. We may start on 5 September. Our last big rain was 50 mm (2 inches) around 25-28 July, but what has been good about August has been the fresh nights, down to 10-12°C. On our Châtillon vineyard last Friday afternoon the 12 August, our Viognier was 10°."
From Cornas and Saint-Péray, Jacques Leminicier was as cheerful and breezy as usual. "You may recall I had hail at Cornas in June, when the grapes were still green, but the budding was large, so that was not too bad. I have a lot of crop at Saint-Péray, and have been dropping grapes at Cornas. We have had a bit too much rain in August, maybe 80 mm (3.2 inches) so far. On 14 August we had a big storm, 30 mm (1.2 inches), that was all over in 10 minutes. Now it is super beau. Saint-Péray is ripening well, and I may even harvest the crop for my Cuvée de l`Elegance wine at the end of August."
Down in the Southern Rhône, there has been more rain than in the North this year. At Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Daniel Chaussy of Mas de Boislauzon, a robust, genuine northern sector estate, stated: "it`s not too bad. The summer hasn`t been very hot, we have had two or three rainfalls, but now we need no more rain. On 7 August, there was a fall of 45 mm (1.8 inches) spread across the appellation - that was our last drop. July hasn`t been very hot - 25-28°C against the more usual 30-35°C of recent summers, but now, the 16 August, it is 30°C, and the weather forecasters are announcing fine and hot days for the coming week, going up to 38°C. Until now, the nights have been fresh, around 15-16°C. My Grenache blanc this morning was at 13.2° when I went round the vineyard, so I will pick that soon. The key this year? Drop grapes. In a lot of places, I have cut my crop by half, and even on the old vines I have cut back by 20-25%. It is the first time since I started in 1990 that I have seen so much crop."
Walking around his southern vineyards at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Thiérry Usseglio gave a realistic appraisal: "it`s 35°C today, and now we want good weather, Mistral wind and heat, which is what is expected for the next two weeks. There are lots of bunches on the Grenache, but we have done a lot of debudding and dropping of bunches this year. If we have rain, then rot will become a problem. For now, the vines are good and green, and you can eat the grapes OK, though I have not checked on sucrosity and acidity. This southern area of Châteauneuf-du-Pape has completed its veraison, the colour change of the grapes, whereas it`s only three-quarters done in the northern area. I am confident, but one must be prudent."
Near Sainte-Cécile, Jean-Marc Espinasse has an interesting organic Côtes-du-Rhône estate, the Domaine Rouge Bleu, whose wines are cool and precise. He reported as follows: "it`s been a strange season this year. We had a cool and wet July, with four falls of around 20-30 mm each (about 1 inch), but that was welcome after the very warm, dry spring. I would say that July was 4-5°C lower than recent years. August has been similar so far, with below regular temperatures, but now it is sunny and hot. We are now only 2 to 3 days ahead of the usual harvest date."
neatly, 1 August signalled a cut-off from the fresh, cool weather that prevailed for much of July in the Rhône. Temperatures have hit 30°C, and the heat is noticeable as much as anything because of its previous absence. The advance, the precocity of the ripening, has been whittled down. This is beneficial, placing acidity levels in better shape, and not allowing an over concentration of the crop. Quantities are better than 2010 and 2009, and for now growers are sanguine about the state of things. When looking at the weather map of France during July, it has been noticeable that the South-East has frequently experienced the warmest, best weather, which is encouraging for the Rhône in national terms.
In the Northern Rhône, Jean-Paul Jamet at Côte-Rôtie stated: "for the moment, things are truly good. The rains that in July amounted to over 100 mm (4 inches) have not hit the health of the vines, and our advance of ripening has come down to 7-10 days from the three weeks previously. The rains have been stormy, but very localised - so Condrieu has had rain, but we not. The falls have often been between 10 mm (0.4 inch) and 20 mm (0.8 inch), which has been very profitable for the soils. I am now maybe looking at harvesting around 18-20 September, as the ripening is now taking its time."
At Saint-Péray, Sandrine Robert of Domaine du Tunnel was in chirpy form: "we are happy; July was not very hot, but we did need the rain that came in several falls. Two or three plots had hail in June, but when the grapes were green, not ripe. The quantity is good, so good that Stéphane is now out dropping grapes. We will start the whites for Saint-Péray in late August, maybe the 28 August, and Cornas is on target for 5-6 September, against the normal 15 September."
At Crozes-Hermitage, Laurent Gomez of Domaine Michelas St Jemms, echoed the previous views when chatting on 2 August: "we are now only 7 to 10 days ahead of 2009, which was such a solar year. July was fresh, so we may now harvest around 10 September. Our last rain was 15 mm (0.6 inch) last week."
Similar satisfaction is apparent in the Southern Rhône. At the Mas de Libian, in the southern Ardèche, Hélène Thibon told me about her Côtes-du-Rhône vineyard: "it is magnificent - we actually have a crop this year, unlike the last three years, when we lost around 30% each vintage. It is handsome, dry, and providing you have worked the soils and not used weedkillers, you will be in good shape. We had good rain in mid-July, and the veraison, when the grapes change colour, was done with days up to 30°C, and nights down to 16-18°C, so quality is very homogenous. The North of the Ardèche will start ahead of us, we are targeting 25 August this year." Her 2010 Khayyam has just been released, a wine I recommend.
Talking about his Lirac Château Boucarut and his Laudun Château Saint-Maurice, Christophe Valat told me: "2011 is pretty, no illnesses, and we are now just one week ahead. The rain in July was really good - we had around 75 mm (3 inches) in two falls in mid-July, and the fear of drought that we had in May has now passed. The Grenache suffered less from coulure (flowers failing to convert into fruit) than in 2010, which is good, but there is less Syrah this year for some reason. The veraison has just ended. I don`t expect to pick my Lirac before the end of the first week of September."
Across the river at Vinsobres, Pascal Jaume of Domaine Jaume commented: "our July rain was around 70 mm (2.8 inches), but it has been spread irregularly. Last week, for instance, the village of Vinsobres received 20 mm (0.8 inch), but the plateau towards Valréas got only 3 mm, and Saint-Maurice just to the west here in the Eygues Valley saw only 5 mm. It was a soft, London-style rain. Grenache is good this year, but Syrah is uneven. We have had to be vigilant about oidium, but mildew has not been a factor. We will have a higher yield than 2009 and 2010."
West of Vinsobres in the full Eygues Valley, alonmg which the Tour de France passed this year amidst much local excitement, Philippe Viret of Domaine Viret at the Village of Saint-Maurice had experienced similar variations with his Grenache and Syrah. On 2 August, he observed that "the Grenache has very fat grapes this year, with a lot of juice in them. The Carignan and the Mourvèdre are very beau, but the Syrah is mixed - yields differ from plot to plot, from soil to soil. We had around 90 mm (3.6 inches) of rain in July, which was also a month of much Mistral wind - not good for the tourists. Although it`s hot today, above 30°C, the light is not bright, there are clouds around. We will start harvesting in early September, which is nearly a normal date."