This year I had the impression that the seasons had nudged forward by a month. Spring began during March and although I had the logs crackling on the fire in the evening, the days were often bright and perfect for hiking which I did a lot of. However, during winter we had seen a lot of rain, some of it torrential and the little river at the bottom of my garden was deep and fast flowing as spring arrived. The vines started to wake from their winter sleep in early April and the spring sunshine and warmer than normal temperatures soon had them sporting their tufts of greenery like ribbons twisted into little bows. Flowering began just as it should and the little green flowers soon turned to baby grapes and by the end of May we had what looked like bunches of ‘petit pois’ beginning their short journey of around 100 days to become sweet juicy grapes.
June was the hottest I have known in the 7 years I have been living here and then July came in feeling like a Languedoc August normally does. Temperatures were in the high 30’s every day for weeks and for around 10 days we had a heat wave when temperatures reach more than 40°C. It was a dry heat, so good for the vines but occasionally we had some humidity which built bringing spectacular storms.
With the lack of rainfall and high temperatures I was constantly on the lookout for water stressed vines which manifests as the lower leaves shriveling and dying on the vine. Irrigation is not allowed for vines producing grapes destined for appellation wine so I was delighted to see we had hardly any stressed vines. The rainfall in the winter meant there was good reserves of water deep in the ground and all I saw was healthy vines swaying in the Languedoc breeze.
August is often very dry and hot and it’s usually during this month that I have difficulty sleeping but not this year. The days were hot but the temperatures dropped at night making it comfortable for humans but also ideal for producing very aromatic grapes. However the high daytime temperatures were a worry, it could mean very high sugar and low acidity levels. Quality wine producers needed to work hard in the vineyard all year trying to mitigate the heat using the vine canopy to shade and making sure the soils were not compacted.
August kept up the relentless day time heat and many domains decided to begin picking about a week earlier than normal starting as usual with the whites. The problem with picking early is making sure you have the right balance of sugar and acid but also mature flavours. Whites need some phenolic ripeness, meaning the grape skins and pips need some ripeness although this is not as crucial as it is with reds. As we stepped into September the weather began to cool down and we had rain quite often. Those with nerves of steel waited, not harvesting yet although they stood the risk that the bad weather would come and they could lose their crop.
So how will these weather patterns affect the wine this year? The general word on the grapevine (sorry!) is that it is set to be one of the finest vintages for a long time. Pierre Borie of Chateau Ollieux Romanis told me he is very excited about this year’s vintage pointing to the very aromatic character of many of his grapes. John & Nicole Bojanowski of Clos du Gravillas just brought in their best crop of Cabernet Sauvignon in their history.
I spoke with Bridget Chevalier of Domaine de Cébène in Faugères and she is thrilled with her crop and echoed what a lot of wine makers have told us; there is a good yield this year that will make the bank manager happy! The warm weather has caused her to finish her harvest by mid-September, the earliest since she began making wine in 2008, normally its mid-October by the time she has everything in. Faugères escaped the storms and heavy downpour of rain in mid-September and indeed Bridget had watched from the hill where her winery stands, seeing rain in the far distance falling in Pézenas and thanked her lucky stars that not a drop fell where she was. I was told my Patrick Moon, author of Virgil’s Vineyard of a dreadful storm that took place where he lives just north of Pézenas which might have been the one Bridget witnessed. It took out the electricity, washed away part so his driveway and the little steam that normally barely trickles had become a raging torrent. Unfortunately for some wine makers found that their Syrah grapes, that have fairly thin and delicate skins, split when the vines absorbed the water from the downpour. Those that cared enough discarded these grapes only picking grapes that would make delicious wine such as at Mas Gabriel who sorted rigorously to ensure their usually unbeatable quality was not compromised.
So it looks set to be a Languedoc vintage to talk about, maybe one of the best for more than 10 years and don’t worry I will let you know what I think of them next year once some of the wines start to be released. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it..!