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The 2011 growing season was topsy-turvy for French winegrowers. For many it seemed like summer arrived early—in April. Spring was hot and dry, while June brought cool, cloudy and wet conditions. September’s clear skies and warm temperatures saved the day for some vignerons, but others grappled with rot and erratic quality. As for final quality in the bottle—it’s too early to know. But here’s a sneak peek.
Alsatian producers enjoyed an excellent Indian summer in 2011, and that made all the difference. After a cold, wet summer, five weeks of warm weather starting in mid-August helped grapes reach full physiological maturity. Early tastings indicate that 2011 will be a vintage of very good quality. But it comes on the heels of four outstanding vintages, and this year’s wines may be the ones to drink young while other recent vintages rest in the cellar.
The growing season got off to a precocious start with unusually warm and dry conditions throughout spring, prompting a rapid and early flowering. The weather didn’t last, though. “Spring was hot, dry and sunny—like an ideal summer—and summer was like a bad autumn, rainy and cold,” said André Ostertag, winemaker at Domaine Ostertag. Abundant rain during summer spurred fast vegetative growth, and some producers had to spray to counter the development of mildew.
The rain stopped in mid-August and temperatures rose, leading to five weeks of near-ideal weather. “It felt like full summer again all along until mid-October,” said Séverine Schlumberger of Domaines Schlumberger. The warm, clear weather was crucial for the success of the vintage, according to Catherine Faller of Domaine Weinbach. She said full grape ripeness was only possible thanks to temperatures that reached the mid-80s on some days.
For most producers, picking began during the first week of September. With the continued fair conditions, things moved along quickly. Schlumberger said that they usually pause for about a week before harvesting their grand crus vineyards, but this year they worked straight through. Harvest moved rapidly at Domaine Weinbach as well, in part because of the threat of gray rot developing in the humid conditions. Yields were average for the region, but greater than the past three years.
The resulting wines show rich, fruit-driven flavor profiles, with good balancing acidity. “A very approachable vintage,” said Schlumberger. “Not the vintage of the century, but pleasant.”
“[This vintage] was both challenging and interesting,” said Frédéric Engerer, general director at Pauillac first-growth Château Latour. “It’s back to reality after 2009 and 2010.” With more than 250,000 acres of vineyards, Bordeaux has plenty of variables in even the best vintages. But in a growing season as tricky as 2011, the region’s wines will likely be defined by a wildly heterogeneous qualitative mix. Red and dry whites struggled throughout the region, while the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac excelled.
“From early heat to late rain, the season was very tricky,” said Jean-Philippe Delmas, general director of Domaine Clarence Dillon, which includes Château Haut-Brion and Château La Mission Haut-Brion. “Selection in both the vineyards and the winery will be critical, similar to 2008.”
The growing season got off to a fast start, with hot and dry conditions in April that saw vegetative growth begin weeks ahead of schedule in some vineyards. The drought continued through flowering in May and into June, resulting in canopies that looked dull and lifeless, according to Stéphane Derenoncourt, owner and winemaker at Domaine de l’A in Côtes de Castillon and a consultant for numerous estates throughout the region.
In July conditions changed, with numerous rainstorms rolling through the Médoc, along with some serious hail damage in St.-Estèphe and Entre-Deux-Mers. With gray skies and moist conditions, many vineyards faced disease pressures right up to harvesttime. “The quality of the wines will depend on the capacity of the vineyards to resist the dryness of the spring and then the moisture and disease pressure of the latter part of the growing season,” said Derenoncourt, who noted that yields were generally lower across the region.
“I was a little anxious after the uncommon weather conditions, but the wines show fine tannins, good acidity and moderate alcohol,” said Jean-Michel Laporte of Château La Conseillante in Pomerol. “It reminds me of ’06 in style.” The early dry conditions led to small grapes with thick skins, while the cooler wetter second half of the season resulted in inconsistent ripening, with some ripe and unripe grapes within the same bunch. “We needed to do a strong extraction because of the tannins from the thick skins, but also a soft maceration because of some higher alcohols,” said Pascal Collotte of Château Jean Faux in Ste.-Radegonde.
Workers pick Merlot at Château Meyney in Pauillac. (Photo by Christophe Goussard)
By September, some growers had to rush picking, fearing spreading rot, while those with healthy vineyards benefited from better conditions that extended into early October. The late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon in the upper Médoc areas of Pauillac and St.-Julien was able to turn out a strong performance. “Quality for the old-vine Cabernet Sauvignon parcels on gravel soil was high, but that was thanks mainly to the last two weeks of September, which had ideal weather,” said Philippe Dhalluin, general director at châteaus Mouton-Rothschild, d’Armailhac and Clerc-Milon in Pauillac.
Dry whites mirror the inconsistent nature of the reds in 2011, due to the difficult growing season. “We are very far from the ‘07 reference vintage for Sauvignon Blanc in terms of aromatic quality, but the Sémillon looks very good,” said Jean-Christophe Mau of Château Brown in Pessac.
The lone bright spot in 2011 looks to be the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. The appellations relished the early warm period and the cool, wet weather late in season, which helped jump-start the growth of botrytis, or noble rot, which shrivels the grapes and concentrates their sugar. “The harvest was homogeneous and acidity is very good,” said Jean-Pierre Meslier of Château Raymond-Lafon in Sauternes. “We often picked fully botrytized bunches, not just grapes, because the weather was hot and consistent for several weeks with cooler nights bringing humidity that allowed botrytis to spread fast and evenly.”
In Burgundy, the 2011 growing season was chaotic—summer occurred in April and May, fall arrived in July and summer returned in August. The year challenged growers with heat, drought, rain and vine maladies. It ended with an early and quick harvest.
After a sunny, dry spring, experts were predicting a harvest beginning during the third week of August. Though conditions were hot and dry, there was less heat and more drought than in 2003. Water stress in the vines retarded sugar development and reduced yields. High temperatures for two days at the end of June inflicted sunburn on some berries.
Hail hit parts of the Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton vineyards May 13 and the grands crus Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet July 12. The May storm occurred just at the beginning of flowering, with relatively little damage; the July storm reduced yields in some Chardonnay vineyards by 20 to 30 percent.
June, July and August also saw roughly double the average rainfall in some areas. One report detailed almost 8 inches in July in the Côte d’Or. In general, the Côte de Nuits was drier than the Côte de Beaune. The humidity, combined with August heat, raised the risk of botrytis, making it necessary to both treat the vines and eliminate any affected berries by sorting. Pinot Noir in the Côte de Beaune suffered a little more, while the Chardonnay grapes remained healthy.
A worker shovels out grape seeds and skins to empty a vat in Bordeaux after fermentation has finished. (Photo by Christophe Goussard)
Most domaines began harvesting at the end of August or start of September. Yields are down 20 to 30 percent because of roasted grapes from the early heat, botrytis, hail and lack of ripeness. Also, despite the normal number of bunches, berry weight was lower than usual, resulting in less juice overall. Ripening was slowed down by water stress early and by rain later in the growing season. Most growers reported potential alcohol levels at harvest in the 12 percent to 12.5 percent range, meaning chaptalization was necessary.
In Chablis, Fabien Moreau said the grapes in 2011 were less ripe than in the past two years. Patrick Piuze based his picking decisions on preserving the acidity in the Chardonnay grapes, due to the early heat in the spring.
All in all, it was a year when vigilance in the vineyard was a necessity, along with the ability to be flexible in harvesting parcel-by-parcel, followed by meticulous sorting. “I hate to give generalities because this year there really are no rules,” said Beaune proprietor and négociant Alex Gambal. “The only consistency was that nothing was consistent.”
With a long and storied past, producers in Champagne probably thought they had seen it all—until 2011 came along. “This was an atypical year, the likes of which we have never seen in Champagne,” said Régis Camus, chef de caves for houses Charles and Piper-Heidsieck.
The bizarre nature of 2011 was its extreme variability. The growing season started rapidly, with extremely warm weather in April and May. The result was an early flowering—about three to four weeks ahead of the normal schedule. This timing put 2011 on par with the very hot 2003 initially, according to Jean-Baptiste Cristini, export director for Salon and Delamotte.
But the weather shifted gears in June, and for two months temperatures were lower than average and rain came regularly. The summer’s rainy weather saved what could have been another 2003 for Champagne. Nonetheless, producers were happy to see warm weather return in August. And despite cooler conditions during summer, some producers started picking as early as Aug. 19, the earliest date in the region’s history. Most began a few days later, ruining vacation plans for many people.
Unfortunately, the weather at harvest was unpredictable. “Right at the beginning we were lucky to have some sun, then the rain set in, which reduced the potential alcohol content and slowed down—and even stopped—the harvest,” said Jean Rémy Rapeneau of Charles de Cazanove.
These variable conditions meant that maturity varied greatly from plot to plot. Rapeneau said they checked maturity levels every day, adjusting their plans for the next day at the last minute based on the results and ultimately picking in a pattern that was the opposite of any previous harvest. This variability extended to quality as well, at least among the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. “I saw beautiful Chardonnay everywhere, [but the] Pinots were more contrasting. Even in the same village, a lot of differences,” said Alice Paillard of Bruno Paillard.
Paillard believes the variability of the Pinot and other factors may have resulted in a great deal of selection for many houses, leading to smaller-than-expected reported yields. The Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), Champagne’s trade body, set yields at 12,500 kilograms per hectare, but several houses indicated lower yields of about 10,500. While the quality of 2011 may not be sufficient to declare a vintage—producers are waiting to see—it should provide a fine base for the region’s non-vintage wines.
The Loire Valley was not spared the extreme weather that beset most of France’s wine regions in 2011. The results look mixed but promising. Vintners are reporting varied results even among different parcels in a single vineyard, so it’s no surprise that there are disparities between varieties and appellations in a region as vast as the Loire.
“It’s funny because we had a kind of summer in the spring, then we had a kind of fall in the summer,” said Matthieu Baudry, of Bernard Baudry in Chinon. April and May brought a hot, dry spring and early flowering everywhere. But a cool, rainy July and August played havoc, making it imperative for vignerons to pick at the right time or risk losing part of the crop to rot.
“It was really complicated and stressful,” said Pascal Jolivet, who makes Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. He added that patient selection in the vineyards was crucial, necessitating a long picking season from the end of August to around Oct. 20. Even still, there were losses—Jolivet lost a quarter of a pristine but sensitive Pinot Noir parcel in the last few days as he waited for the grapes to reach maturity. On the whole, however, he says he is happy with the results, and expects a wine somewhere between those of 2009 and 2010—less rich than the former, but less sharp than the latter.
Workers sort Sauvignon Blanc grapes as they arrive at Domaine Claude Riffault in Sancerre. (Photo by Jon-David Headrick)
Toward the center of the valley, Domaine Hüet also grappled with a host of weather issues in Vouvray. “More rain in July and August than the first six months,” reported Benjamin Joliveau, a winemaker at Hüet. “Because of the rain, some bad rot started to develop, and so we decided to start harvesting Sept. 8, which is historic for us.” Even the grapes for late-harvest sweet wines were plucked by the end of September, when harvest typically begins for Hüet. Joliveau said that 2011 is a better vintage for dry than sweet Vouvrays.
In Chinon, growers tending Cabernet Franc were shielded from some of the problems of more delicate grapes. After an early flowering, Baudry navigated heat and rain in Chinon, but ultimately, the thick skin of the Cabernet protected it. “The grapes were very healthy. Much less rot than a year like 2006 or even 2007.” Some in the region harvested at high potential-alcohol levels, but reaching optimal acidity posed a challenge.
In Anjou, Cabernet also had splendid potential. Philippe Germain, owner of Château de la Roulerie said, “Eighty percent of my production is white, but for me, 2011 is a vintage of the Cabernet Franc. Low acidity, superb ripeness due to this amazing September month, quite a good volume of juice—that balance that maybe we didn’t get unfortunately for the Chenin Blanc.” By the time Germain could begin harvesting Chenin in early September, gray rot had already proliferated. Germain felt he did not have the balance of sugar and acidity necessary for a Coteaux du Layon Chaume dessert bottling.
Pierre-Jean Sauvion makes Muscadet at Château du Cléray and Chenin Blanc under the Bonnezeaux appellation at Château de Fesles; despite challenges, he was pleased with both. Good weather in late September and mid-October allowed his Chenin grapes time to ripen for dessert wine, but the Melon de Bourgogne grapes for Muscadet were not afforded the same luxury. He had to implement rigorous selection in the vineyard to clear out rotten grapes, and yields were low.
The 2011 harvest has most Rhône vintners exceedingly optimistic for a third straight outstanding year, though a handful rued some late rains and heat that blemished what could have been a perfect growing season.
As with most French wine regions in 2011, the Rhône’s growing season was marked by a very warm and dry spring, which led vineyards to shoot out at a rapid pace. “But July was unseasonably cold and that slowed things down significantly,” said Nicole Sierra-Rolet of Chêne Bleu, located in the Ventoux of the Southern Rhône, where Grenache is the lead red grape.
The heat returned in August, however, leading to some shriveled berries and stalled ripening. Luckily, early-September rains helped cool off the vineyards before a long Indian summer ran through October, allowing the grapes to ripen fully. “Each winery could choose between harvesting quite early to keep a natural acidity and a classic balance, or harvest very ripe for a more modern style,” said Thierry Sabon of Clos du Mont-Olivet in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
“The early autumn weather was invaluable. I did bleed some tanks for concentration, and more than ever I retained stems to add density to the wines,” said Isabel Ferrando of Domaine St.-Préfert in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, who compares the vintage to 2000 and 1998 in style. Most growers in the south reported normal yields.
Grenache grapes hang on the vine, waiting to be picked, at Le Paradou in the Côtes du Luberon. (Photo by Jon-David Headrick)
In the northern section of the valley, where Syrah is the lead red variety, the vintage also looks excellent, though some winegrowers sounded a note of disappointment at just missing a truly great harvest. “In mid-August, the vineyards were correct, but nothing more. Then outstanding weather cleared the vineyards of disease pressure and concentrated the grapes. At the start of September things looked absolutely splendid,” said Philippe Guigal of the E. Guigal estate and négociant based in Ampuis. “But two heavy rains in early September damaged the potential by dilution.”
Higher yields put a premium on vineyard maintenance, as parcels carrying higher crop loads can exacerbate the dilution from the early September rains. “The yield this year was high,” said Stéphane Ogier. “More than ever, green harvesting will be critical to making the top wines. ”
Northern Rhône whites also look strong, with many picked before the early September rains. “The vintage is rich as we harvested parcels in Condrieu at more than 14 degrees [potential alcohol] Aug. 31, but we had a good freshness because of this unusually early picking,” said Paul Amsellem of Domaine Georges Vernay. “We are very happy with the vintage.”
Courtesy of Wine Spectator