Zap! Bang! Wallop! The tapes have risen, the Starter's Gun has fired, THEY'RE OFF! Always the first to harvest at CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE is CHÂTEAU LA NERTHE under the management of CHRISTIAN VOEUX. This year is no different, with the early harvest policy applied to all the estates in this group. CHRISTIAN reported as follows: "We started harvesting at La Nerthe and La Renjarde (their Massif d’Uchaux property) on 22 August, for the white crop, on 23 August for Tavel at Prieuré de Montézargues and on 24 August for my Domaine de l’Amauve at Séguret. We are now harvesting the red crop at La Nerthe on 31 August.
Normally La Nerthe is ripe at the same time as the Côtes du Rhônes, but is a bit later this year. The 8 to 10 days before we started harvesting were abnormally hot, registering up to 38-39°C. There has been very good ripening in clay soils, while sand-based vineyards have advanced more quickly. Nights in the ten day spell of hot weather were half fresh – down to 17-18°C, half hot – 25°C. It appears that tannin levels are high this year. The Grenache noir at La Nerthe is around 14.5° now, the Syrah 13.8-14°, and the Mourvèdre is lagging as it should usually do, around 12-12.5°.
Our researches show that the small yields lead to more advance in ripening, while La Nerthe is a precocious, even hot, zone at Châteauneuf. We expect yields long the lines of 2010 this year – not high, due to vines dying in the February freeze and to coulure (flowers failing to transform into fruit) at flowering.”
Away to the east, SERGE FÉRIGOULE of DOMAINE LE SANG DES CAILLOUX (The Blood of the Stones) at VACQUEYRAS told me his story: "we started to pick the whites - Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne – at around 13.6-13.8° on 29 August, and are harvesting the first Syrah today, 31 August, at 13.5°. We have had 15 mm (0.6 in) of rain on 25 August, 5-6 mm on 28 August and 27 mm (1.09 in) on 30 August, the last fall over a steady three to four hours, a total of nearly 50 mm (2 inches). That has inflated the grapes, but the skins are still in good shape, and there is acidity present. There aren’t many leaves from the drought, which makes harvesting go faster, I have to say. The Mistral is blowing and we are in the mid-20°sC, good working conditions.
Yields will not be large, maybe around 28-30 hl/ha – more than 2010, less than 2011. The main areas to suffer are those where there are gravel soils, some of the zones towards Château des Roques, for instance. We will start on the Grenache around 4 September – it was at 14° last week.”
In the NORTHERN RHÔNE, 2012 is also shaping up well. From CONDRIEU, PAUL AMSELLEM of DOMAINE GEORGES VERNAY recounted: “It’s been a complicated year, needing a lot of action in the vineyard. We have lost a lot of crop on the plateau, for our vins de pays Syrah and Viognier, due to rain during flowering – it will be half the yield of 2011. But the slopes have done well; around 22 August, the Viognier on Coteau de Vernon was at 11°, so we may harvest that on 10-12 September.
Our luck was the high heat in August – regularly 37-38°C, with moments when we were at 39-40°C. Leaves have been turning brown and dropping, notably where the vineyards are on very rocky soils, which have become very dry. The rain over the past three days has been helpful – 14 mm then pockets of 3-4 mm, maybe a bit under 25 mm (1 in). Acidities in the crop have been low, but so far Christine has noted that the Viognier from the vin de pays has re-established its acidity post-fermentation. It’s fresh today – hardly up to 20°C.”
At HERMITAGE, JEAN-LOUIS CHAVE was calm and content on the last day of August: “things are good for now," he told me, "after a fine and hot August, with heat above 37°C some times. We may start to harvest the white crop around 20 September. The heat helped the stems to harden. We had 20 mm (0.8 in) of rain yesterday, which was useful.”
Reports from CORNAS are also encouraging. PIERRE CLAPE of DOMAINE CLAPE summed up matters so far: "as we speak, there has been rain and a tiny bit of hail, but things have been almost very good up until now. It is not necessarily a very balanced year. Our Syrah was at 12°-12.4° on 29 August, before the recent rain of 18 mm (0.75 in), which came in two strong bursts. It’s a good sign that the grapes have inflated after the rains now. Acidity is at 4.7-4.8, which is OK. At Saint-Péray we are on low acidity, though, nearer 3.5, with sugars at 11.7° on 29 August.
I think the vineyard handled the high heat – up to 38-40°C – this year better than last year. We had 4 or 5 nights above 20°C, which grilled a few bunches, but a lot less than in 2009. We are heading for harvesting maybe 14-17 September now, not the 10-12 September that we were anticipating, after this rain. There is no rot, and yields will be average. Our lowest spot is the 90 and 50 year old Syrah on the high part of Renard, which is at 15-17 hl/ha after coulure. It is forecast for the mid-20s°C next week, and our usual team of 15 or 16 people are ready to go.”
as with a game of football, this is becoming a season of two halves. The deluge followed by the drought. The Rhône has enjoyed three-plus weeks of hot and dry weather now, so ripening is occurring steadily, even if fears of stress in the vineyards are circulating due to the lack of meaningful rain since the first ten days of June. This still places the Rhône ahead of much of the rest of France, from Bordeaux to Burgundy to Champagne.
In the NORTHERN RHÔNE, PIERRE-JEAN VILLA summarised the state of his various vineyards. As he walked through his FONGEANT holding at CÔTE-RÔTIE, he told me: "I am now dropping grapes from the young vines, but I notice that even with the heat, if you press a grape like this - squeezes it - it`s full of water. In a hot and dry year, that would not be normal, and it shows how well the spring rains have served the vineyard. So the Syrah here is ripening, but steadily, and shows that we have actually needed the heat of the last two or three weeks. Most recently we had 5 mm (0.2 in) of rain on 15 August which just refreshed the temperature more than anything else. Today it will be 32-33°C in the afternoon, but for the last two days, the nights have been cool."
His SAINT-JOSEPH vineyard is about 25 miles further south: here his report ran as follows: I lost 40% of my crop south of Sarras through hail on 17 July - Eric Rocher at Domaine de Champal had 20 hectares hit by the same hail. September will be more than decisive this year - we can make sympa wines if our summer - that is to say, the last two weeks - continues well. Bunches are quite loose and well aired. Rain is the fear now - one or two rain setbacks would hurt - rain over one or two days would be manageable, but anything longer would be grave. Good rain would be a 20-30 mm fall in the next two or three weeks."
The SOUTHERN RHÔNE is perhaps in even better shape. From CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE, ANDRÉ BRUNEL, the wise and seasoned owner of LES CAILLOUX, noted: "things are looking rather good after our three months of fine weather. South of the village there is some drought, around Les Serres, but it is not yet dramatic. The grapes are well expanded, and have turned colour well, with ripening speeding along. We could start on our Grenache blanc before September. We seem to be one of the only French regions to have had this good weather. Yields will be correct, not excessive - we had coulure on the Grenache, while the Syrah is pretty, a bit in advance as would be expected in a hot year. We are looking at 30 hl/ha.
Our last rain was in early June, we have had 1-2 mm here and there, but nothing to speak of. It is 34°C today, and it`s certain that our spring rain until into May helped the vineyard a lot. My fear is for the young vines if this hot and dry weather continues, but at least recent nights have been fresh, with 17°C this morning, nor has there been any dew yet. So far, it is a year for clay sectors over gravel and sand zones. One concern is low acidity, but when I look back to my father`s vintages in the 1950s, there were cases of burnt acidity and high pHs then as well. The main difference, of course, is that now we make wines ready to drink soon, and to live a lot less long, unlike the 1960s vintages. I found some cuvée Prestige 2000s from colleagues here drinking at their best the other day, for instance. That doesn`t indicate a life much beyond twenty years in that case.
Our white vines are OK - we irrigated twice in early and late July, otherwise we would have no acidity and a degree of 16-17°, instead of 14°. You can irrigate drop by drop, by sprinkler or by cannon; drop by drop is the most efficient; we aim to put down 25-50 mm (1-2 in) each time. This year my Roussanne didn`t grow more vegetation after the irrigation - the benefit went into the ground and the vine wood - even though the leaves are turning yellow now."
From VACQUEYRAS, another early ripening vineyard to the east, BERNARD BURLE of DOMAINE FONT SARADE informed me: " it`s very dry. But we are not suffering on La Ponche thanks to the profound soils there. The crop is very small. Our Syrah is precocious and will be harvested around 5-10 September, while the Grenache ripening is very up and down - some bunches are ripe, others not. We are now cutting out the pink bunches, especially on the younger vines. Today, August 19, it is due to go up to 35°C, but this morning at 7 it was 14°C, which is helpful. What would be ideal would be 50 mm (2 in) of rain soon, otherwise we risk low acidity wines such as we had in 2006."
Across the river in LIRAC, the biodynamic DOMAINE DUSEIGNEUR gave the following assessment: "we are ripening very quickly, and have drought here now - water stress is our main fear. We need to avoid the grape skins withering, and want to pick before that. Our phenolic (meaning tannins, colour) ripening is not yet ready, and there is a gap between them and the sugars, which are further ahead. Loss of acidity is a risk. We could start picking around 25 August, on the white grapes Clairette and Bourboulenc. Syrah has suffered in the high slopes this year. Yields are likely to be 34 hl/ha, against 32 hl/ha in 2011 and 28 hl/ha in 2010."
If France is to have a viticultural champion in 2012, then it could well be the Rhône on current evidence. July was uniformly hot and dry, and the vineyards are in verdant, blooming shape. Yields are middling, not abundant, and the outlook until mid-August is for continued dry weather in the SOUTHERN RHÔNE.
On holiday from his CÔTES DU RHÔNE vineyard on the right bank Gard département, RÉMY KLEIN of DOMAINE LA REMEJEANNE told me: "we certainly cannot complain vis-à-vis the North of France - for us, of course, the North means anywhere north of Montélimar!" We have now had no rain for about six weeks, and the vineyards are in good shape. This year has given us more vineyard work than previous vintages. A few young vines are suffering from the drought. Yields will be lower than 2011, which is very good, but higher than 2009 and 2010. If the drought were to continue, there could be a delay in ripening, so rain, say 20 mm (0.8 in) on 15 August would be ideal. Otherwise we may face tannins that are too prominent and too dry. The white vines are in good condition, with the Roussanne as usual needing the greatest vigilance for oïdium and rot. We should harvest around 8 to 15 September, which is normal."
At RASTEAU, DIDIER CHARAVIN reported: "it will be a small crop, but there are no blights. There will be less harvest than in 2011, but it will be more concentrated. We had 20mm (0.8 in) of rain right at the start of July, and now a drop of rain would suit - mid-August, ideally. Today, Monday 6 August, we have lost 10°C over yesterday, which was 35°C, and there are some drops of rain, but it is forecast to be hot again by the end of the week. My harvest date at present would be around 10 September."
Across the River in the northern Vaucluse, VINCENT ROCHETTE of DOMAINE ROCHE-AUDRAN at VISAN, was in good form: "it`s been very, very beau for six weeks, which has saved, yes saved, the crop. Mildew was breaking out after all the spring rain. It`s been 35°C with a lot of sun, and we are edging towards drought, with a possible blockage of ripening that would delay matters. I could have a fear that it could become dry as in the years 2006, and also 2009. Young vines and those in gravel soils have been most susceptible, with a few yellow leaves visible. Conditions are there for a very good vintage. After some very hot nights, mornings have been a little cooler recently. Our veraison, when the grapes turn colour, is now at 80% completed for the Syrah, 50% for the Grenache noir. The vineyards look a bright green still, and we could harvest around mid-September, not precocious."
From the NORTHERN RHÔNE, JEAN GONON of the yardstick STGT DOMAINE GONON at SAINT-JOSEPH, was breathing a sigh of relief: "well, life was a bit complicated until the start of July, but now it`s been good weather for a month. We have had temperatures of 28-33°C, with nights and early mornings varying between 16-17°C and 23-24°C. Our veraison is half way completed, with Cornas a little ahead of that. The vines have certainly perked up, and I am a lot more content than I was in June. Mildew has been a very close thing this year, and we also had to contain oïdium, so it`s been a lot of hard work. The white crop is a bit larger than the Syrah, which was hurt by lack of quantity at flowering - the first week went well, but the second week weather was poor, which hit the later ripening vines. We should be harvesting around 20 September."
In the northern area at CÔTE-RÔTIE, BERNARD BURGAUD pointed to the amount of work required this year: "yields resemble 2010, which is acceptable, not high. The climate has been a bit chaotic, with rain, but no storms. Flowering was capricious, so budding was variable. We then had a fight against the usual illnesses, but now it has been dry for three weeks, the last rain in later June thanks to a good, steady 50-60 mm (2-2.4 in). We actually now need rain because our soils are not deep, and the main challenge is oïdium. Temperatures have gone up to 33-34°C, with nights hovering around 20°C. We now have a North Wind, and conditions are favourable for ripening - we could end up with a super vintage. The most precocious zones are half way through their veraison, so we are perhaps in advance of a classic year from 20 years ago, and could be harvesting around 21 September."