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No sooner are vinifications finished, than off growers head once more into the vineyard to extract vines earmarked for the chop – they can be too old, or suffering from ESCA [a fungus that eats away at the wood of vines] or be SYRAH that is in bad shape from what is known as dépérissement [wasting away]. In the latter case, bright red leaves in autumn are a signal, as are crevasses or indentions in the vine wood leading them to gradually die. It is thought that vine grafting in part creates this problem, which is linked to clones, with some clones more susceptible than others, and to rootstock grafting, with the RIPARIA 110 & 99 graft the most vulnerable.

Heavy rain – several inches in a few days - in the last week of OCTOBER, 2018 did at least facilitate the digging out of the dead or very old vines. The replacements will be planted in the early spring, 2019. However, the extremity of the past two vintages has served to intensify the debate over what should be planted.

“Things are hurtling along now,” comments LOUIS BARRUOL of CHÂTEAU SAINT COSME at GIGONDAS. “Every year now, the approach of the grower is having to be more and more fine tuned, because of the extreme weather - drought, very high heat, seasons out of sync and so on. You can think it’s best to go up the hillside for fresher conditions, but you may be on a south-facing slope, which takes away some of that advantage. The micro-climate in each vineyard will be important.”

JEAN-PIERRE MEFFRE of DOMAINE SAINT GAYAN, also at GIGONDAS, has always been a keen weather watcher. He told me: “The Mediterranean at SAINTE-MAXIME, where my sister lives, is 21°C, instead of 14°-15°C – it was 28°C at the end of the summer, unheard of. With no MISTRAL wind this summer to turn the waters over, and bring the cooler water up from the depths, we are subject to these ÉPISODES CÉVENOLS – flooding in the AUDE, GARD and VAR départements, all along the Mediterranean, in fact – between the end of AUGUST and DECEMBER.”

“MAY 2018 was abominable with the onslaught of mildew after the wet spring. In a normal year, there are four to five days of mildew contamination; in 2018, there were 21 days of contamination. I know of one big estate at CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE which treated the vines 22 times – in CHAMPAGNE, 15 times is already a lot!”

Certainly, the mildew in 2018 savaged the GRENACHE NOIR. After the coulure [flowers failing to convert into fruit] in 2017, it was the second consecutive year of near disaster for the region’s staple variety. By contrast, the MOURVÈDRE stood up better to the mildew in 2018, which was a saving grace for high quality organic properties such as CHÂTEAU DE BEAUCASTEL and CLOS DES PAPES. CÉSAR PERRIN of BEAUCASTEL remarked: “we had the luck of the MOURVÈDRE to bring complexity in 2017, while we now only prune the GRENACHE on biodynamic calendar fruit days, which has helped to restrict the incidence of coulure. The MOURVÈDRE has played a starring role the past two years.”

“I am more and more worried by the GRENACHE,” admits VINCENT AVRIL of CLOS DES PAPES. “Our spring cleaner was the MISTRAL wind, but that has been absent in the rainy springs recently. The MOURVÈDRE is now approaching 40% of our blend; I am glad we have had 20% of it since 1979, and that I increased it to 30% in 2001-2003, not just the other day.”

Hence MOURVÈDRE is more likely to be the vine of choice for replanting, but it must have its roots in humid soils, and stand in a sunny position. It does not do well in sandy soils – as opposed to the GRENACHE – nor does it do well fringed by trees and woods, which is why there is no MOURVÈDRE at CHÂTEAU RAYAS.

As for JEAN-PIERRE MEFFRE, he is taking a novel slant on his replanting of the 0.75 hectare he owns on JANASSE at COURTHÉZON in CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE. “I am going to be the only domaine making noting but white wine at CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE! I replanted this year, with 50% CLAIRETTE ROSE and BLANCHE, 20% PICPOUL [not prone to mildew], 15% GRENACHE BLANC and 15% BOURBOULENC. It’s too hot for ROUSSANNE, which gets too ripe, and the CLAIRETTE is an ideal base for the wine, well adapted to the region.”