John Herbstritt

Vineyard Dispatch Part 3: Are there groundhogs in France?



contemplating our future

contemplating our future

This piece was meant to be more timely. Unfortunately it’s harder than previously estimated to write blog posts while road-tripping around foreign countries. But it’s still February, right? On February 2, 2014, Punxsatawney Phil saw his shadow and retreated back into his burrow, indicating that there will be six more weeks of winter. Thankfully, in America, we have traditions like these to guide us through treacherous territory: weather can be unpredictable and nasty. Other countries aren’t so lucky.

France, for instance, has no groundhogs, which is probably why they were ill-prepared for the harsh growing seasons of 2012 and 2013. 2012 brought multiple bouts of frost in April and May and poor weather during flowering, which means that many flowers didn’t bloom properly. Then there were hailstorms throughout the summer and, in many places, rains during harvest. Luckily the combination of flower loss and fruit loss from hail can lead to extra-concentrated fruit, but unfortunately also to an extremely reduced harvest. More on that later.

In 2013 it was unseasonably cold until June, and there was a devastating hailstorm in May that ravaged much of the Western half of the country. Once again, a reduced harvest. Many barrel samples that I tasted while travelling were vibrant and exciting, so still pretty excited about the wines. The worst thing about giant hailstones is that they not only ruin your crop for the current vintage but also extend their icy fingers into the proceeding one. How, you ask? When vines grow their canes during the Spring and Summer, sprouting leaves and flowers and tendrils, the budwood for the next year’s growth is already present on those canes, and when vintners prune their vines during the winter for the next year’s crop, they choose the best cane to keep from the previous year’s growth with which to continue on. So when entropy comes in the form of hail to ruin all of their careful preparations, vintners must make do, choosing inferior or partially damaged canes during pruning as they must.

hail-damage-189529_640

hail-damaged fruit

Of course, hail is very spotty. For instance, in 2012, the villages of Pommard and Volnay in the Southern part of Burgundy saw an 80% crop reduction due to hail, while the Cotes de Nuits just to the North was relatively untouched. I read this little tidbit in an article by Jancis Robinson in the Financial Times published on January 17, 2014: villages in the South of Burgundy are reportedly considering installing cloud-seeding cannons on the hills above their vineyards in order to mitigate hail damage. Depending on how you look at it, this seems either very futuristic or very retrograde – but wine is usually both of these things at once, isn’t it?

Which brings me to my final point. I had the privilege of tasting through barrel samples of 2012 Burgundies from some of the most famous names in Burgundy yesterday at a trade tasting at the Hotel Vitale. The tasting included great producers like Armand Rousseau in Gevrey-Chambertin, Domaine Christian Moreau in Chablis, Olivier Leflaive is Meursault, Jacques Prieur, and Domaine Faiveley. Big names. Across the board the wines were concentrated and intense, reflective of reduced harvests and a spell of warm weather in August and September that finally ripened things up. Speaking broadly, there were some Chardonnays whose intensity was rather jarring. The best wines were able to take this concentration and match it with clarity and minerality. Also, prices went through the roof this year for Burgundy. Perhaps this is the most boring sentence ever written, but of course rationales are about reduced harvests with the incentive that 2012 will also be a solid vintage in terms of quality. Of course, great Burgundy will still fetch great prices no matter what the vintage, but what about the rest of the country? Hard-working winemakers from Gaillac or Muscadet can’t simply make up for reduced harvests by increasing prices. They don’t make the market like the bigwigs in Burgundy. You’ll have to excuse the metaphor, but they’re like vines in a hailstorm: and crop insurance is expensive.

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