Northern Rhône - Vintage Report
For Michel Chapoutier
to apply his somewhat unusual motto "fac et spera" to the 2013 vintage does not appear to be the most promising or, for that matter, enlightening of assessments. The subtext is clear, however; this was an unusual vintage and one where there was much to be done, both in the vineyards and the winery. The essential problem resides not so much in the fact that the vegetal cycle was late; indeed this, given our seemingly endless run of Indian summers, may well be perceived as a benefit; rather it can be traced to the fluctuations in timings that characterised the season, in the timing of budding, flowering, véraison and ultimately of the harvest itself. A cold winter and lacklustre spring were followed by a mild, early summer and then an unpredictable July, which saw hail on the 9th in the vineyards of Crozes-Hermitage
and the central swathe of St Joseph
In addition there was high humidity which, allied to the warmer temperatures and intermittent rainfall, engendered the danger of powdery mildew. The challenge was to defy the threat of botrytis and to ensure phenolic ripeness, which apparently becomes more –rather than less – tricky in a late seaso
No matter; the key is that conditions were unusual and conditions were tricky, all that without the coulure which ravaged the Grenache grape further south. ‘Fac et spera’ became for a while ‘non fac’ and still ‘spera’; hopes which were assuaged practically by diligent work with the foliage in the vines and then by our now expected friend from the east, Indian Summer. The yields were low but the grapes were clean and generally healthy, with the bulk of the harvest taking place from the third week in September until the second week in October, late indeed, but redeemed and fascinating to taste.
The usual round-up of sound bites may be less Wildean than usual but focuses on what Marc Sorrel describes as a ‘soft and approachable style’ or what many growers, Emmanuel Darnaud and Yves Cuilleron included, describe as ‘aérien’ and almost Pinot Noir-like for the Syrahs. Michel Chapoutier likens the whites to Burgundy in their tension and finesse, while Jean-Claude Mouton echoes the views of many in praising the freshness of the whites; his early fears were allayed clearly, as were those of many of his compatriots.
Comparisons were less freely offered this time, which may or may not be a bad sign. Albéric Mezoyer at Domaine Voge detects the ‘gourmand’ character of 2006, while Jérôme Coursodon and many of his colleagues go back to the 1980s when describing the weight of the wines and the all-important interplay between alcohol, tannin and acidity. All in all a very commendable result; they waited, they acted, and now they should reap the rewards. Southern Rhône Vintage Report
‘Flower abortion’ is the rather delightful translation used by the Fédération des Syndicats of Châteauneuf-du-Pape
to describe the blight which affected the Grenache of both colours in 2013, and reduced yields to historical lows. ‘Flower abortion’, henceforth referred to as ‘coulure’, describes the situation where irregular conditions at flowering time prevent the grapes from being pollinated – a regular phenomenon in the Southern Rhône, but seldom seen to such an extent.
Vincent Avril may have been more punctilious than most in restricting his yields to a scarcely-profitable 13 hectolitres per hectare, but he was not atypical in his diligence. The problem resulted from a cold spring, where temperatures were four degrees lower than seasonal averages, allied to greater humidity. There were 217 millimetres of rainfall in Orange in April, compared to just 17 millimetres in 2011. An unusually hot July, then a relatively mild August continued the unpredictable season, the erratic conditions risking excess acidity and only partially ripe tannins. As summer progressed, it got warmer again, but the early delay was not made up, and eventually the harvest had to be brought in with some alacrity as vignerons faced rains forecast in the third week of October.
Christophe Delorme wonders where the god of Provence winemakers, namely the Mistral, was when it was needed most. With Grenache less dominant, there is more room for Syrah and Mourvèdre to shine, with the added bonus of relatively lower alcohol levels, thereby addressing with serendipity one of the great latent problems of the region. Jean-Baptiste Meunier at Moulin de la Gardette advises that the reduction in alcohol will make the wines more ‘gourmand’ and ‘digeste’ – both examples of excellent French words which are perfectly understandable, but tricky to translate with any degree of accuracy.
Sophie Armenier at Marcoux and Stéphane Usseglio are two of the accredited biodynamic producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape: it is no coincidence that their wines are amongst the very best this year. Christine Saurel at Montirius, another biodynamic property, makes a biblical comparison between leaner years and years of plenty – both have their part to play in the grand scheme of things. In such circumstances it is no surprise that the whites fared very well, with wonderful freshness evidenced.
All in all – and despite the problems with Grenache – the region produced a very impressive set of wines, with Lirac, Gigondas, Vacqueras and Cairanne especially worthy of mention. The wines and their pricing structure demonstrate that the interplay between industry and honesty has been not only commendable, but also successful, and certainly worthy of our attention. Simon Field MW, Wine Buyer