the autumn equinox has struck with its usual potent force, stretching nerves among the later harvesters across the Rhône. From the NORTHERN RHÔNE, one appellation is relaxed, thanks to its vineyards being tucked in and sheltered, away from the main Rhône corridor - CORNAS. The young and skilled GUILLAUME GILLES told me: “we finished on 22 September after 4 days of harvesting; I had a team of 12 cutters this year, and one of their main tasks was to cut out the burnt grapes from the heat this summer. There were two main moments of high heat – mid-July and the late part of August, when the setting sun on Chaillot was particularly hot. The yield is not enormous – 30 hl/ha. The harvest is healthy, even stunning, very, very ripe, very charged in sugar, and the potential degree is above 13.5°. Even the foot of the slopes and flat areas with less high heat are almost riper than the high slopes this year, since they weren’t sunburnt.”
Another voice, much more experienced, at CORNAS came from PIERRE CLAPE: "the Cornas phenomenon is that we have been riper than our neighbours even at Mauves and across the river at Crozes-Hermitage, where not a lot of people have yet harvested. Cornas vegetation was in advance in the spring, and it has been warmer here, and a lot of growers have now finished. The crop has been superb for most people, and the yield is around 35-36 hl/ha – in 2011 it was 40 hl/ha, a lot too much. The vintage is richer than 2000, perhaps like 2006."
Growers are working away at CÔTE-RÔTIE, with rain and squalls in the atmosphere. STÉPHANE PICHAT, thoughtful and talented, reported: “we started to harvest on Monday 8 September, and finished on 25 September. We have had some rain, but nothing too extreme, and it was followed by a lot of wind which dried the crop quickly. The skins are becoming very, very fine, and won’t last long in the current conditions. September was a healthy month, and my Syrahs are not high in degree – 12.5° about, with Grandes Places 13° or so. The grapes are small and handsome. This year we have had to work hard all the way through, so we are quite tired after all that, and happy to have reached the finishing line. There is a forecast for 85 mm (3.4 in) of rain this weekend."
Elsewhere at CÔTE-RÔTIE, young XAVIER GÉRARD told me: “I finished my Côte-Rôtie harvest on 28 September – the 50 mm (2 in) of rain on 26 September didn’t hurt, although the very ripest plots were slightly affected by that.” From the excellent STGT DOMAINE VIGNOBLES LEVET, NICOLE LEVET remarked: "we finish the 29 September, and it has gone well. We waited to achieve a sound degree which ended at about 12.5°. We had 60 mm (2.4 in) of rain on 26 September, so after that we had to do some triage (sorting, discarding) in the vineyard.”
Further south at Mauves, one of the villages that forms the original cradle of SAINT-JOSEPH, JEAN-CLAUDE MARSANNE a longtime grower with a traditional outlook and interesting wines told me: “the harvest is very joli for the moment. It rains from time to time, we have finished half, and the grapes are in good shape. Our yield is normal, less than 2011, and around 13°, which is good and ripe. Crozes is less ripe than Saint-Joseph, but also in good condition – there is always a delay between here and there.”
Down in the SOUTHERN RHÔNE, some appellations such as VACQUEYRAS have almost finished harvesting, while others such as GIGONDAS are still very much on the go. DAMIEN VACHE of DOMAINE LA MONARDIÈRE, a mainstay estate, reported: "we ended on 22 September – we accelerated because rain was forecast, and we don’t regret doing that since we had 65 mm (2.6 in) on Monday 24 September, a violent, early morning storm between 8 and 10 o'clock. We have had small storms passing through since then. The vats are fermenting very well, but the crop is very small, though very pretty – we are very happy with quality. We have been working on containing our alcohol levels and should be about 14°."
Elsewhere at VACQUEYRAS, MONTIRIUS finished harvesting on 20 September, and the STGT DOMAINE LE COUROULU on 19 September, the latter finding the crop down by 15-20%. Later to harvest, MAXIME BERNARD of the very consistent, traditional DOMAINE LA GARRIGUEinformed me: "we have not finished yet, but are at least 15-20% down in yield. The impact of the frost was long-lasting, and interfered with the flowering, I think. The crop we have is very joli, the acidity not bad, and degrees are normal, not high. Choosing the date of harvest was complicated this year – we started on 14 September, and will finish around 3-4 October. We had 40 mm (1.6 in) of rain on the evening of 26 September after 50 mm (2 in) on 24 September, but it is now fine. The crop is still in good shape, and just needs to dry. It is now 21°C, and a North Wind is expected, a turnaround from the recent South Wind.”
Nearby at GIGONDAS, DOMINIQUE AY of the excllent DOMAINE RASPAIL-AY was having some weather problems: “we will finish harvesting on 1 October, but have been set back by the heavy rain on Monday 24 September and then again another 40 mm (1.6 in) on 26 September. We don’t use weedkiller so there are grasses in the vineyard, and it is too wet for the tractor to get in, so harvesting is on hold while it dries out. The weather is magnificent now, so that’s OK. Our Grenache from old vines has been around 14.5°. 2 of my 4 vats have started to ferment, and are going well, with the Syrah nearly finished.”
Up the road in the southern Drôme at VINSOBRES, growers were pretty happy. HUBERT VALAYER who makes wines full of character at the DOMAINE DU DEURRE related: “we have completed 65-70% of the harvest, with just some Grenache and Mourvèdre still to come. 30 mm (1.2 in) of rain at the end of August helped the grapes expand after the drought. We are down 20% this year, with a very healthy crop. The Syrah didn’t suffer from the drought, and maybe lost 10%. As for the Grenache, the mixture of the February frost and the drought hit it, but what we have picked is very joli. Alcohol degree is not high this year – 13° on the Syrah, 14° on the Grenache. This week, 24 September, we had another 30 mm (1.2 in) and now there is a South Wind and 23°C – it changed from a North Wind then.”
Vinifications are going well nearby at the high quality VINSOBRES DOMAINE CHAUME-ARNAUD: son THIBAUD and his mother VALÉRIE informed me as follows: “there is good acidity, and less alcohol than in previous years. It seems very balanced, with “formidable” acidities. This year we observe fermentations taking off at speed, the yeasts are valiant, with the density in the vats falling fast. Unlike 2011, which was very slow and took forever, the sugars ended quickly. It has been a lot more comfortable working in the cellar this year.”
it's still summertime in the RHÔNE, and growers are happy. From the NORTHERN RHÔNE at CÔTE-RÔTIE, STÉPHANE OGIER reported that he was content with matters: "Well, things are certainly better than they were in June, when I thought we were heading for a catastrophe. I have never known a year with such blight pressure from June until the middle of July – grass growing everywhere, mildew potential, treatments needed, all very complicated. Since August the weather has been magnificent. It’s now not the vintage of the century but we are well past the point of catastrophe. The next ten days will help the degree, which is not high at present. My samples on 10 and 11 September across my plots at Ampuis (Côte-Rôtie) and Seyssuel (vin de pays, across the river, north of Ampuis) showed Syrah at 11° to 12.5°. I have dropped a lot of grapes this year.
Now that we have had nearly 40 mm (1.6 in) rain on 12 September, the degree will be lower, but good weather is here now, and more of the same is forecast. I want to wait as long as I can, and may start to harvest around 19-20 September. The grape skins are fine, and I can envisage having to chaptalise some vats, since I expect low alcohol this year, The sort of vintage I expect is one of good aromas, a supple and round set of wines, not high in acidity – maybe along the lines of 2000 or 2004. If rot does come, it will be necessary to harvest super fast, unlike 2011 when I harvested over a month. For my Viognier at Condrieu, I will start next week, like Yves Cuilleron. Acidity will be low. They say that Château Grillet (Bordeaux owned) has already finished harvesting."
A few miles south in the SAINT-JOSEPH appellation at Saint-Pierre-de-Boeuf, XAVIER NOVIS of DOMAINE NOVIS was in sanguine form: "I will harvest in two weeks," he told me. "The vineyard is very joli, we have decent degree, it’s a good year. We had 10 mm (0.4 in) of rain on 12 September, but it was followed by a healthy North Wind. There have been no blights, no hail, and we are expecting a yield of 35-40 hl/ha. The Syrah skins are still firm and need more time.”
The rain that fell on 12 September dwindles the further south one goes, and from CROZES-HERMITAGE across the river, MAXIME GRAILLOT gave this assessment: "I harvested my white crop on 13-14 September. The white crop is magnificent, very healthy, and the yield is a good 45 hl/ha. There is not a lot of acidity, but I expect the wines to be very fine and beau. The Syrah crop is very handsome, very healthy. I expect to start to harvest it around 19 to 20 September – this year it will be around 40 hl/ha, a lot less than 2011 when it was 46 hl/ha or so.
Our last main rainfall was on three occasions – 25, 28 and 29 August, and amounted to around 55 mm (2.1 inches). Our rain on 12 September was a dribble, really, about 4 mm. The late August rain was a big help, as the vineyard was getting dry. The red grapes are aromatic, the pips are getting firm, but the skins are still thick. I have had to treat quite a lot this year – six times.
Crozes-Hermitage announced the ban des vendanges, the opening of the harvest, on 10 September, but I look around and do not see a lot of harvesting machines out and about yet. It’s piano for now – people are taking their time given the good forecast. Laurent Combier has cut his white Crozes-Hermitage crop on 13-14 September, and at Cornas I know that Thiérry Allemand and the Clapes are under way on their Syrah.”
The SOUTHERN RHÔNE is also in good shape. From VINSOBRES in the Southern Drôme, PASCAL JAUME of DOMAINE JAUME has started to harvest some white grapes: "the vines are ripening nice and quietly," he stated. "We have Mistral wind, and fresh but warm weather is forecast towards the 20 September, so it looks good. We picked some whites in the first week of September, and they are very aromatic. The Grenache blanc was 13.5°, the Marsanne 13°. This week we harvested Viognier at 14°. They are very healthy, just a little nice golden tone to them.
We are now on a harvesting date from 15 years ago, unlike the recent times; that means we harvested some Grenache noir for our Côtes du Rhône on 12 September, and the Syrah on 14 September. The week starting 17 September we will move on to the Vinsobres Syrah. The Syrah has small berries, but they come with a lot of colour and are well fruited, so a big potential, especially if this good weather continues. We have been having fresh mornings around 12°C, and the days going up to 23-25°C, with Mistral wind.
Yields will between 2010 and 2011 – down 15% on 2011, but ripening has been very inconsistent – berries within a bunch at different stages, and the old vine Grenache has notably been very variable, with some plants not giving a single bunch. On the other hand our 10 year old Grenache gave 50 hl/ha when we harvested it on 12 September."
As a late harvesting appellation, GIGONDAS always benefits from fine weather in September, and this year is no exception. DOMINIQUE AY of DOMAINE RASPAIL-AY sought the lee of his cellar to combat the fierce Mistral wind, and had the following report: "The weather is fine, it’s very dry, there’s no dew, there’s a Mistral blowing and all is good and stable for now. It’s been 26-27°C and people are not in a hurry to harvest at Gigondas – just one or two Co-operateurs have been out picking. There isn’t a lot of crop, especially on the old vines Grenache, which suffered from the cold weather at flowering.
We had 30-35 mm (1.4 in) of rain on the 3 September after about 10 mm (0.4 in) on 25 August, the first rain serving to chase the dust away and to unblock the ripening of some vines. My Grenache is around 14°, 13.5° on the young vines now. The crop is concentrating now after expanding following the rain. Vacqueyras is harvesting, and so is Beaumes-de-Venise. The outlook is good towards the 20 September or later, and I will start harvesting on 20 September as things stand.”
Across the river in the Gard, RODOLPHE DE PINS of CHÂTEAU DE MONTFAUCON, buoyed by the birth of a son, Odon, from his Finnish wife Marie in August had this news to announce: “things are going very well, I am happy. It’s been a very dry year even after the spring rains. We had 15 mm (0.6 in) just before the 14 July landmark, but not a drop of rain during August. I was getting a bit worried, but we had a storm of 30 mm (1.2 in) in early September. There has been some blockage of ripening, with young vines, overcharged vines, some draining soils, but I also find that some of my vines in sand are fresh.
We are in pullovers and long trousers today - it’s dry, with Mistral, and there is a good variation in the temperature – it was 12°-13°C this morning, and a maximum of 23°C today. Temperatures are expected to move up towards 28°C in the third week of September. If that continues, I will have a good sentiment for the vintage.
An unusual observation on the whites is that I normally pick early to avoid high degree; this year I have picked later, and have a lower degree – 12.5° at most - than usual. I have picked all my white crop. For the reds, the acidity is rather low after the heat wave – there is not a lot of juice, so the rain two weeks ago certainly helped the grapes to expand. I am very happy with my Cinsault this year – it is always extraordinary in dry years, in dry soils – with thick skins and fine tannins, a good quality. The Counoise and the Carignan will also help to raise the acidity, as usual.”
harvesting is proceeding steadily across the SOUTHERN RHÔNE, but the majority of the main work remains to be done, with the Grenache taking time to ripen its tannins and pips. A high pressure front in the first week of September and hot weather for the season has meant that growers can be pretty sanguine and calm about their harvesting policies. From CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE, PATRICK BRUNEL of CHÂTEAU LA GARDINE told me: “the vegetation looks good, we have had no mildew or oïdium, and there was a helpful rainfall of around 40 mm (1.6 in) at the end of August and the first day of September – that helped acidity levels and out things in place. We started picking our Roussanne on 3 September – we have a good crop, but the acidity levels are low - the Roussanne was 14°-14.2°. We have done one very small vat of red grapes, where Grenache and Syrah are 13.8°."
Patrick's wife EVE BRUNEL looks after the CHÂTEAU LA GARDINE vineyards at LIRAC, across the River in the Gard. She commented: "our Roussanne is very healthy – we picked for three days from 3 September, then paused, and will re-commence on 10 September, working on the Viognier. We have to wait for the red crop, since the tannins are a bit green, and you find the grapes still stuck to their stems – these need to time to ripen further. I go into the vineyard and taste the grapes to see where we stand, which I find the best way, so cannot tell you lots of figures on the crop for now. Our Syrah is looking very good, but I have noticed something unusual this year – the red grapes are nearly ahead of the white crop, whereas the whites are normally well ahead of the reds. The Mourvèdre is very variable, with grapes of different colours within the same bunches. Yields will be less than 2011, nearer 2010.”
West of LIRAC, and little to the north of Uzès, American AMY LILLAND runs the expressive LA GRAMIÈRE. Her vineyards are in a CÔTES DU RHÔNE area, but she prefers to make VIN DE TABLE: “we may start on 10 September; our Syrah is around 12°, but the Grenache is backward – bunches on the same vine can have different ripeness levels, and the skins are still very bitter. We had good, steady rain of around 50-60 mm (2-2.4 inches) at the end of August, but it has been very, very dry before that – so dry that the crop will be small this year. The Grenache varies a lot in potential degree at the moment.”
The NORTHERN RHÔNE is also blessed by stable weather for the time being. It, too, experienced very high heat in August, with a brief interruption before good, hot weather resumed once more in the first weekof September. From CONDRIEU, CHRISTINE VERNAY of DOMAINE GEORGES VERNAY informed me of her progress: "“we will harvest maybe around 14 or 15 October, starting on Vernon. It was very, very hot at the end of August, which was followed by rain and cool weather, which slowed down ripening. Now we are back to 27°-29°C, although rain is forecast for around 14 September. Analytically, the crop is ripe, and nearly have a Muscat sense about them. Vernon (the majestic hill behind their house, giving the top wine, the COTEAU DE VERNON) will be 13.5° to 14°, not high compared to recent vintages. The grapes skins are firm, and the pips are very ripe.”
CHRISTINE also referred to their CÔTE-RÔTIE: "it has been a complicated season; 80 mm of rain (3.2 inches) in early July got mildew going, a real explosion. We have had to be extremely vigilant – you were in trouble if you missed a window of treatment. The vines now look in good shape, and we may be harvesting around 20 to 25 September. A few young vines in shallow soils have lost their leaves."