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late September 2011

the later regions are swinging into action, content with affairs. From Beaumes-de-Venise where they have vineyards at 400 to 500 metres, Etienne de Menthon of Château Redortier, told me: we started on 17 September, as the high heat started to ease, which meant that we were bringing in grapes at 17°-18°C instead of 27°-28°C, so our fermentations started better. A storm of 11 mm (0.45 in) on the night of 17-18 September was also useful. We have had coulure (flowers but no fruit) high up this year, whereas the Grenache has been plentiful down on the plain. We will harvest over 20 days with a team of 14, and expect to finish about 8-10 October."

Good Year

mid-September 2011

Adrien Fabre, who runs two family estates, the Domaine La Florane at the Village of Visan, and the Domaine de l`Echevin at improving Village Saint-Maurice, speaks well of his prospects for 2011. "There are unusual patterns this year, but I am very happy. Our usually late ripening zones at Saint-Maurice and Visan are two weeks earlier than normal, indeed are the first to ripen. Since I have been with my wife Marie-Claire Michel [of Le Vieux Donjon at Châteauneuf-du-Pape], it is the first time that I have a lot of vineyards in advance of her - we are normally two weeks behind, but have had at least half their amount of rain. Draw a line at Tulette, and the vineyards north of that part of the Eygues Valley have had much lower rainfall in June, July and August this year. It is a beau vintage, grosso modo. The Syrah is not very productive after its busy 2010, and was also hit by Mistral at flowering. Tannins are ripe, there are low acidities, and the mix of hot days and cool nights have helped us. I will harvest my Grenache from 20 September - its stems are starting to turn colour and ripen. The Syrah is running at around 13.5°, while it will be another year for high degree Grenache - 14.5°-15°, at least."

Good news from the northern sector of the Southern Rhône, notably at Vinsobres, always a later ripening region. Philippe Chaume of the benchmark Domaine Chaume-Arnaud told me: "it is better than we expected - this is down to the last three weeks of fine weather that has allowed the Grenache to ripen. The Grenache has unusually lagged the other varieties this year, but it has got going thanks to the heat, including I reckon the warm nights, since around 20 August. The cool July meant that ripening has been uneven this year, unlike 2009 and 2010. It is close to 30°C today (15 Sept), and the Mistral has dropped since yesterday. It may be a bit cloudy this weekend, the 17-18 September, but the outlook is good. I will start on my Grenache next week, and my chums are doing roughly the same. So far, the style is well-fruited, and colour extraction in the Syrah and Cinsault I`ve picked so far has been quickly achieved."


second week of September 2011

the bad news of Monday 12 September is that of a morning fire at the nuclear plant of Marcoule in the Gard département, next to the River Cèze and the Rhône Village of Chusclan. One man is missing, another is seriously injured after the fire in a furness burning waste materials including clothing and gloves. The better news is that there has been no leakage of any nuclear or radioactive material. Marcoule is a subsidiary of the French electricity company EDF. The news was released by firemen at the scene. Local growers and families are understandably jittery, but the nature of the accident indicates an industrial problem at the plant rather than anything more widespread.Before 12 September, there has been more evidence that the Rhône will be one of the favoured regions of France's tricky 2011 vintage. From the Northern part of the Valley, the vintage has turned out to be precocious after all at Côte-Rôtie, and the crop is ample. Alice Barge, the wife of Gilles Barge, related that they had started their Condrieu on Monday 5 September, and had picked half of it, but were waiting until next week, commencing 12 September, for the other half. There are signs that the Viognier has ripened in a stop-go manner this year if the siting of the vines has not been full south on noble terroir. "We have harvested our Côte-Rôtie Syrah on the Côtes Brune and Blonde, at good degrees, and we don't think there is much to gain by waiting further," she told me, adding that on Friday 9 September, they were working on their 1990 Syrah at Chavanay, destination their Saint-Joseph Clos des Martinets.

A few days here and there in the date of harvesting will count this year, since ripening has not been uniform. Those growers with a strong will should emerge in good shape, especially given the stable forecast for the period towards the third week of September. Louis Drevon of Domaine de Rosiers at Côte-Rôtie has 27 plots to harvest, all in the northern sector, over his 7.4 hectares. He told me: "I am starting on Saturday 10 September, on the Côte Baudin. [Baudin is a lower slope, on the Brune side, just to the north of Ampuis]. It is quite a big crop, that is attractive and sympathique. I will be picking the Côte Rozier [higher, more schist] three or four days later, which is normal. The potential degree is 12.4° to 12.6°. The ripening is well balanced between the mid and high slopes, also the plateau. 30 people will complete the harvest in six days. Looking ahead for the coming week, the only risk is a storm on Sunday 11 September. A lot of people are harvesting now."

From Condrieu, Paul Amsellem of Domaine Georges Vernay reported that the first weekend of September storm had brought around 50 mm (2 in) of rain, but an accompanying phenomenon. "After the rain a few days before, the grapes did not expand," he recounted; "after the second rain of 4 September, they did. The moon changed from waning to waxing in the period between the two rainfalls, so the grapes took on the water under the waxing moon, and the degree fell as a result. We have therefore stopped harvesting, and because there has been a good 10-day forecast, we are waiting on all fronts, both for the half of our Condrieu not yet harvested, and for all our Syrah, including the vin de pays. It has risen from 23-24°C earlier this week to 28°C today, the 9 September, and there is a light southern breeze that is bringing heat to permit ripening. The week ahead is stable, with temperatures around the 25-26°C mark."

In the Southern Rhône, hrvesting is in full swing at Châteauneuf-du-Pape under stable weather conditions. At Le Vieux Donjon, the high quality 15 hectare domaine, Marie-Josée Michel gave me this realistic rundown: "we harvested our Roussanne last week, and today, 9 September, we picked a little of our Syrah and Cinsault. The rest of the white crop, the Clairette, won't be picked for another ten days, as goes for our main vineyard on Les Pialons, which we would probably harvest the week starting 19 September. We work with 20 people, including 15 cutters, while our permanent staff do the sorting, and we have emptiers (videurs) of the buckets as well keeping an eye on quality. 2011 will be very difficult - the crop is large, and we had hail in May on Les Pialons [N-E of the village] which may turn out to have been helpful by reducing crop. I see enormous fat grapes everywhere this year, and the young vines have a lot of crop - so this year will boil down to a question of management - how you deal with such a harvest. We are in effect on a razor's edge vis-a-vis rain this year - any more and we will be in trouble. What we need is 15-20 days of really super fine weather, but at least we have had a good week of Mistral just now."

Gigondas as usual is later, which helps when the area receives early September rains - less ripe skins are more resistant to degradation. At the Domaine de Pesquier, father Guy and son Mathieu Boutière spoke highly of the year: "there is a lot of Grenache this year, but that issue is arranged if you sort it," remarked Guy. "We have been picking our vin de pays crop at Sablet. We had some Mistral in the last week, with temperatures around 28-30°C, and it looks magnificent." Mathieu added: "the Grenache has been slow ripening this year, prompted I reckon by its large yield. In the last week of August I went round with three colleagues dropping grapes over 10 days, spotting any bunches that were still pink. Houses that do well will be those that have taken the trouble to discard crop. The yield is full, and we have been allowed an increase to 38 hl/ha for 2011. We have no rot fears, and it is very dry now. The early September rains helped to free up the plants after the high heat of August. I expect to start on my most precocious Gigondas at Pallieroudas [low area near the Ouvèze River] next week, the 12 September, especially on the Syrah whose skins are cracking a bit here and there. Vacqueyras will be harvested next week, and Gigondas - the main Grenache - will be the week around 20 September. The old Grenache crop [1930s on Pesquier] has done well - it is homogenous, and will only need a last-minute sorting at harvest time."

Rainfall Troubles

early September 2011

slight unease in the camp now, with rain in the Southern Rhône across the weekend of 3-4 September. From Gigondas, Stéphanie Fumoso, maker of fine wines at Domaine du Gour de Chaulé, voiced a reality in saying, "it is not a simple vintage to vinify this year - it seems to me that fermentations should not last long; we have degrees around 13.8-14.2°, which is OK, but stalks are still green. We had a hard fall of 20 mm (0.8 in) in 90 minutes at tea time yesterday, and it is raining today, Sunday 4 September. We need Mistral to blow behind this. The Syrah is close in maturity to the Grenache this year. No-one has started to harvest at Gigondas, although growers have been picking their white crop at Sablet and Vacqueyrasjust now."

Nearby at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the talented, young Julien Barrot of Domaine La Barroche was in relaxed mode: "we had just 6 mm (0.25 in) on Saturday 3 September, yesterday, and it is raining now. A maximum of 50 mm (2 in) rain will be OK. I will probably attack my ripe Syrah and Cinsault on 7-8 September. The total key this year has been to drop grapes or green harvest, to get rid of a lot of crop - 2011 is a bit like 2000 and 2001 in its volume of grapes. People who have dropped crop will make the best wines this year. After three small crops, you had to keep your head and not go for too much this year. I will be on to my Grenache around mid-September. I note that the Mourvèdre is early this year, not far off ready now."

Across the river from Avignon, the leading Côtes-du-Rhône Château de Montfaucon`s owner Rodolphe de Pins, gave me the following rundown: "I harvested my Viognier early this year - on 19 August, at 13°, which was very good, and then my Marsanne four days later at 12.2° to 12.8°. I have harvested a lot of my red crop, perhaps 60%. There is a lot of fragility in the grapes this year because of the large volume. It`s a fruit year. I observed that a two-speed ripening happened after the very abundant start: the really laden vines lagged behind those that were less charged, the latter around 25-35 hl/ha. There are potentially a few vast yields around - some Co-operatives talk of 100 hl/ha. Mid-August was when I was really worried: we had had humid summer heat, and the Grenache was starting to show signs of rot, but the small wave of high heat around 33-35°C in late August headed that off, and saved the foliage from degradation. We had 4-5 mm (0.2 in) of rain yesterday on 3 September, and 25 mm (1 in) today after a big storm. The outlook is for 26-28°C this week, with an agreeable, not too strong, Mistral wind behind. I will probably resume picking on 6 September, and have been using twice as many people as usual this year, given the conditions."

From the Northern Rhône, Fabrice Gripa was busy in his cellar decanting his white juice from Saint-Joseph and Saint-Péray, and told me: "I started on 1 September on my most precocious plots, including the lieu-dit Saint-Joseph. The Roussanne and the Marsanne are being harvested at Saint-Péray as I speak. As for the Syrah, it has needed a massive amount of dropping crop this year. I will start on it around 8 September - there is the risk of skins being spoilt and degrees rising if I do nothing, even if there could be a gain in concentration. There may have to be some saignée (bleeding juice off the skins) to help density in the vinification."

From Condrieu, Paul Amsellem of Domaine Georges Vernay, reported that their harvest was under way: "our Coteau de Vernon is always very precocious thanks to its due south exposure, and we harvested it at around 14°, very ripe, on Wednesday 31 August. That night we had a big storm, which varied between 40 mm (1.6 in) and 60 mm (2.4 in) across our different vineyards and brought two power cuts, lots of thunder, but no hail here, although there was some at Sarras in the middle of Saint-Joseph. Around us, others have started but stopped for lack of degree, although I know that Château-Grillet have finished their harvest (Grillet changed to Bordeaux owners this year). Our worry as we speak today, 4 September, is storms and possible hail, but the coming week is expected to be very fine. One unusual aspect is how far in advance the Viognier is of the Syrah this year - when our Viognier was at 14°, our Côte-Rôtie and Saint-Joseph Syrah has been at 10-10.5°. One phenomenon is that the Syrah is doing what has happened for the past two years - despite flowering going very well, there are bunches with green grapes in them, that have to be hand picked out on the sorting table."