This year's late spring front brought a crushing blow to French vineyards. Find out more in the opening round of Imbibe's northern hemisphere vintage harvest 2017 round-up for Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace, Loire, Rhône and Languedoc:
The Overview: France’s harvest in 2017 looks set to be the smallest since the war, thanks to devastating spring frosts in almost all regions.
The Good News: Quality surprisingly good given the start of the growing season, especially in Burgundy, Alsace, the Loire and parts of the Rhône.
The Bad News: Volumes are down in most regions, which will put pressure on prices, while quality is erratic in most of Bordeaux.
The weather: The warm early spring meant that the growing cycle started two to three weeks earlier than in many regions. Unfortunately, the end of April brought severe frosts for several nights in a row, which caused damage almost everywhere, with some vineyards losing more than 90% of their crop. Early summer was generally warm and dry, after which conditions varied from region to region.
The proximity of the sea usually means that Bordeaux seldom has the problems with frost experienced further inland. Not in 2017. The effects of the frost vary from district to district, and the top Médoc châteaux, especially those with vineyards on higher ground close to the river, seem to have escaped with only minor damage. However, many vineyards in Graves, Sauternes, St Emilion and Pomerol, especially the low-lying ones where the frost settles, suffered badly. While the rest of the growing season was mostly warm and dry, with a little rain towards (early) harvest time, late August hailstorms cut the quantity even further in parts of Graves.
An additional problem is that some of the damaged vineyards produced a second crop which wouldn’t have had enough time to ripen fully by harvest time. If these underripe grapes ended up in the fermenting vats, the resulting wines could veer towards the mean and green.
Given the challenges, early signs are that the wines look promising, although perhaps without the concentration of a great year. Given the reduced quantities, canny wine buyers should be doing what they can to secure supplies from earlier vintages.
Parts of Chablis and the Mâconnais were hit by frost in April, while Beaujolais (Fleurie especially) suffered from hailstorms in July (and a mini tornado) but otherwise the picture from Burgundy is very healthy, with what, compared with recent vintages at least, is a bumper crop, and of decent wine too.
Even in Chablis, the frost doesn’t seem to have been as severe as in 2016, and early signs are that quality could be excellent. Further south, cooler late summer weather points to this being more a white vintage than a red, but as ever with Burgundy, making strong predictions as to the ultimate quality is premature at this early stage.
The 2017 harvest in Champagne was slightly larger than the previous year, but frost still damaged many vineyards, with all varieties taking a hit. Rain in late August gave rise to widespread botrytis, and growers had to decide whether to start harvest early before the grapes were fully ripe or wait and risk further rot problems. Those able to sort their grapes to eliminate unhealthy fruit will have produced good wines, but this isn’t going to be a legendary vintage.
Alsace was not immune to the spring frosts, with Gewürztraminer being the worst affected of the portfolio of grapes. Fruit set for Riesling was also erratic, so come harvest time, growers had to deal with differing levels of ripeness across their vineyards.
But otherwise, the noises from the region are promising. Harvest was early and, thanks to low rainfall throughout the year, yields were low, but quality looks very good. In addition, late September provided ideal weather for the production of Vendanges Tardives and Sélection de Grains Nobles wines.
This was another year of heavy frost for the Loire, the third in five years for some parts of the region. Muscadet was especially badly hit, with some producers losing all their crop, and total production being 40% below average. However, unlike in 2016, warm, dry summer weather followed; so dry, in fact, that some districts would have welcomed a little more rain. Despite the frost losses, overall yields are those of a typical vintage, and quality is very good throughout the valley.
But with a small 2016 vintage, there will be pressure on growers to release some wines early: don’t be surprised to see 2017 Touraine Sauvignon on menus before Easter.
2017 brought a small and early harvest to the Rhône valley. Although not as badly affected by frost as some regions, there was still significant loss, and this wasn’t helped by erratic fruit set in both Syrah and Grenache. Drought conditions in many districts also kept crop levels low, and vines, of white grapes especially, on less water-retentive soils often struggled. But the quality of the reds seems very good, meaning a continuation of a run of impressive vintages for the region. It’s just a shame there won’t be a lot of wine around…
Some Languedoc vineyards escaped the April frosts, only to be hit by hail in June. Some suffered in the summer drought while their neighbours received a sprinkling of rain. A common thread throughout the region is that the harvest was early and small.
Quality should generally be good, with reds faring better than whites in the heat, and several pockets of excellence in wines from deep-rooted old vines that were able to cope with the summer heat.