The 1974 wine crop in France has raised and dashed hopes so many times that you would expect the growers to be quivering wrecks. Fortunately, for them, the harvest has ended, or soon will, in most regions, and a sigh of relief can be heard from Champagne to Bordeaux.
The year began with a dangerously early but very promising budding. Everything was going well until a severe frost in May which struck even the Mediterranean vineyards of Provence. That cut the size of the crop overnight as did cold weather during the flowering and pollination.
The summer was sunny and the crop ripened well in most areas, but by the end of August growers were hoping for a little rain to fill out the grapes. It began raining about the middle of September and at first everyone was delighted. Unfortunately, it has yet to stop.
The worst thing that can happen is unremitting rain before and during the harvest. It normally causes extensive rot, washes the yeasts (they assure a good fermentation) from the skins of the grapes, and means a water-logged crop.
But the crop was saved by several factors: Normally when it rains, the temperature rises, which favors rot. So far this year it has been cold. Furthermore, the bunches are not as tight as usual and what rot there is has not spread from one grape to another as readily as usual.
There have been just enough breaks in the rain to allow picking more or less dry and surprisingly healthy grapes nearly everywhere, for they had ripened well during the dry summer. The reds have good color and the only drawback is that acidity and sugar content were somewhat diluted by the rain.
Had it not been for the rain, the year might have been astonishingly good. The end result is likely to be of good quality in somewhat reduced quantity. Prices are not likely to rise because large quantities of the abundant 1973 and 1972 crops are still on hand and 1974 will not be superior to them.
Here is the outlook region by region.
Bordeaux. – According to Bernard Ginestet, head of the Ginestet wine firm which owns Château Margaux, the red grapes are healthy, have good color, normal sugar, fairly low acidity and almost no rot. Because the May freeze did not hit Bordeaux, the crop is large, perhaps 15 per cent above last year's abundant harvest. It should be quite good. The dry whites are light and supple. They should make pleasant, early drinking. The harvest is nearly finished, except for Sauternes where it has yet to begin.
Burgundy. – This year things seem better in the Côte de Beaune than in the Côte de Nuits, says Hubert de Montille, a grower in Volnay and Pommard. The harvest has ended and it should be good, although on the small side. There is plenty of color and sugar, hence very little beet sugar will need to be added. The wines are tannic but a bit low on acid. There was no rot on the slopes, only on the plain, and the reds should turn out balanced and smooth.
Guy Roulot, who owns vineyards in Meursault, sees an average-sized crop of whites that should be very supple and easy to drink. There was little rot.
Aubert de Villaine, whose father manages the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and who owns vineyards himself at Bouzeron, just south of Chagny, sees very pleasant reds in the Côte de Nuits, good color, low acidity but a crop half the size of the 1973. At Montrachet, a great white Burgundy, there was rot all right, but "noble rot," which makes for a luscious, rich wine.
Grower Jacques Seysses in Morey-Saint-Denis, also in the Côte de Nuits, finds the same conditions for the reds as Mr. De Villaine – a small but good crop.
Beaujolais. – The size of the crop is down from the excesses of 1973. Pierre Ferraud, shipper at Belleville, says the yield is not too much above the legal maximum for a change, has good color and normal acidity in the better growths. There is more tannin than usual and the addition of beet sugar will be as much for smoothness as to increase alcoholic content. The harvest, now ended, is perhaps 30 per cent below the 1973 record of 1.8 million hectoliters.
Chablis. – Grower René Dauvissat sees a balanced, pleasant wine somewhat lacking in character that should no doubt be drunk rather quickly. The crop is of average size.
Champagne. – Georges Vesselle, head of G.H. Mumm and Company's 200 hectares of vines and a grower in his own right, sees a good, average year in both quantity and quality. He expects a crop of about 630,000 barrels (of 205 liters). Last year there were 720,000 and in 1970 a record 808,000.
If 1973 produced vintage wine, this year is unlikely to. Prices are the same as last year, just under 8.50 francs a kilo for the best grapes. There might have been another record crop of up to 900,000 barrels, but frost in May cut it down by 5 per cent, cold weather in June during the flowering reduced it by a further 20 per cent and a few more percentage points were lost to rot this fall.
Loire Valley. – Grower Paul Maitre at Bourgueil says there is little rot. Quantity is likely to be down by a quarter from last year's 36,000 hectoliters. Quality is good with normal acidity, alcohol and color. It should make for a very pleasant, balanced red. The same should apply to nearby Chinon and Saumur-Champigny as well as other Loire reds.
Vincent Delaporte, whose Sancerre is grown in the favored village of Chavignol, expects a good, average year in quantity and quality. Acidity is low but alcohol is normal and there is just a little rot. Much the same should be true of Pouilly-Fumé across the river.
Côtes-du-Rhône. – Richard Bartholomew, an Englishman and a hardworking and knowledgeable grower at Gigondas, says his wines are low in acidity and light in alcohol, although this is never really a problem here. He expects generally pleasant, if unexceptional, wine with some fine results here and there. Finding pickers has been a problem this year, a complaint heard from other regions.
Provence. – Bernard Laudon at Vidauban reports good quantity where spring frosts did not hit. The crop is healthy with good color but it could make for overly tannic wines because the cold causes slow fermentation, which extracts a lot of tannin. He is heating to provoke a more rapid fermentation and thus obtain smoother wines.
Alsace. – Pierre Frick, grower at Pfaffenheim, south of Colmar, also reports difficulty in getting pickers. He expects a crop 40 per cent off the big '73 crop. Quality is good, there is little rot and low acidity. There will be very little Gewürztraminer.
In sum, there was much less rot than feared when the rain began, and, in general, 1974 will no doubt make for good, but not unforgettable, and reasonably-priced drinking.