In the magazine: Rich Pickings

After suffering in previous years, 2018’s harvest in France looks likely to produce a bumper crop. Rupert Millar finds out how the country’s key wine regions fared against Mother Nature this year.

AS MUCH as more sceptical Anglo- Saxons may like to roll their eyes at what is seen as Gallic hyperbole, the noises coming out of France as harvesting either continues, or comes to an end, in all regions is one of overwhelming positivity. Initial reports point to a 2018 vintage that is both generous in quality and quantity. If 2017 in Europe was a year marked by terrible frosts, heat, drought and sharp drops in volume, then 2018 look set to be remembered as a warm, sunny and near ‘perfect’ season.

Picking has been taking place historically early in some regions, and there has been mildew pressure in many areas, especially Bordeaux, the South West and the Languedoc, which has led to slight crop reductions, but overall, 2018 is a return to normal, healthy yields in the country. In late August, FranceAgriMer estimated that the final harvest would be 44.5 million hectolitres, 1.6m hl less than the 46.1m hl estimated by the French government body Agreste. Nonetheless, as Jérôme Despey, president of the wine council at FranceAgriMer, noted, even at the lower estimate this year’s crop would represent a rise of 20-25%, bringing the yield back in line with the five-year running average.

As mentioned above, the warm weather brought on an uncharacteristically early harvest in several places, with Champagne and white grapes in Alsace, Burgundy and elsewhere being picked in mid- to late August.

BORDEAUX: Of all the regions touched by the devastating weather in 2017, Bordeaux was perhaps the most obviously affected, after years of missing the hammerings meted out to Burgundy or the Loire. Frost and hail ripped through the region in 2017, leading to an overall loss of 40% or 240m litres of wine. This took place after the 2016 harvest, which, yielding more than 570m litres, was the biggest in a decade. Depending on which estimates turn out to be the most accurate, the crop this year may not be far off this level, but Bordeaux did not get off scot-free this season. A vicious hailstorm hit parts of Entre-Deux-Mers, Bourg and Blaye in late spring.

Not wishing to diminish its effect on growers there, especially as these are areas that were wiped out last year, this storm was mercifully limited in scope. Slightly more problematic was an outbreak of oidium (powdery mildew), which will have effected estates to varying degrees (‘Bordeaux bingo’ holds that everyone’s neighbour will have suffered worse than that of the person telling you). Charles Sichel, export director at Maison Sichel, noted that yields will be as low as 12hl/ha in some badly affected vineyards and organic and biodynamic producers were worst hit.

On the other hand, if treated swiftly, the dry summer proved just the tonic, as he explains: “Others lucky enough to escape any kind of damage will have good yields. All, however, have benefited from incredible summer weather, which is set to last.” At the time of writing, the whites and Merlot had largely been harvested, and the excitement was becoming palpable. “The whites are in, fragrant, full with good freshness and acidity,” said Sichel. “Merlot is being picked at the moment. Alcohol level on the reds is high, with a good acidity level.

This shows the grapes have good concentration and complexity.” Lafite’s new president, Jean-Guillaume Prats, meanwhile, was animated about the potential of the vintage. “We are about to harvest one of the most extraordinary vintages in Bordeaux,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s ’09 or ’10 yet, but it’s one of those.” Quantities are down, he added (thanks to mildew pressure), but is this the start of the another Bordeaux hype-train before next spring’s en primeur campaign? “I don’t know the price of the ’18s,” Prats said, “but it will be expensive.”

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