WINE: Look Ahead at the Crop in France

International Herald Tribune

October 15, 1975

The 1975 French wine harvest is over or almost over in most regions. Despite the usual breathless reports after a generally hot, dry summer, of an exceptionally fine, not to say "great" vintage, the overall characteristic of this year's crop is irregularity in quality, size and price.

The Bordeaux crop seems excellent everywhere but only about half the size of last year's. Despite, or because of, lowered prices and last year's scandal, Bordeaux has been selling more than ever, stocks are largely eliminated and with a small crop of excellent quality, prices can be expected to rise again.

In Burgundy the crop is also severely reduced but of very uneven quality. Only those growers who have the means or take the pains to hand-sort the grapes and eliminate the rotten ones are likely to produce good wine.

Champagne produced a large crop of very fine grapes that will likely make vintage wine. Sales are down by 50 per cent for the first half of 1975 and the price of grapes has consequently dropped by almost 30 per cent. In this situation prices are bound to continue to drop as stocks rise.

Here is a region-by-region breakdown:

Bordeaux: According to Philippe Cottin, manager of first-growth Château Mouton-Rothschild in the Médoc, most of the picking ended in this region before the beginning of October. The saying goes that a September harvest is always good and it holds true this year, at least for those who were not struck by the catastrophic hailstorm of Sept. 29.

Entire vineyards were devastated in the communes of Moulis, Listrac and Lamarque but the great classified growth of Margaux to the south and Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe to the north were spared. Even so, an inch of rain fell on Pauillac in two hours' time. Three hundred soldiers came in to try to salvage what was left.

Mouton had prudently picked nearly all grapes by then and expects the 1975 vintage to be exceptionally good, combining the body of the rich 1947 with some of the softness of the finely balanced 1953. The yield, on the other hand, was only 24 hectoliters to the hectare, 40 per cent less than the normally authorized 40 hectoliters to the hectare.

The wine is high in natural (before any addition of beet sugar) alcohol, up to 13.5 or 14 per cent by volume, rich in color, very tannic and with good acidity. It should make for a slow-developing, long-lasting wine, as should be the case for most of the Médoc that was not struck by hail.

Much the same can be said for Graves according to Jean Delmas, manager of first-growth Château Haut-Brion. Again a small crop, half the size of the 1974 harvest, with good color, tannin, alcohol and slightly high acidity. Some hail fell around Léognan but the rest will make long-lasting wines. The whites should also be good, both dry Graves and sweet Sauternes, although it is much too early to be sure about the latter.

Saint-Emilion and Pomerol should also be very good but the crop was greatly reduced by frost at Easter.

Burgundy: The picture is far less bright in this region. The crop is small everywhere, and only one-third normal size in the storm-lashed Côte de Beaune, according to grower Hubert de Montille, whose vineyards lie in Volnay and Pommard. On Aug. 9 a torrential rain literally washed away slopes of soil, which must now be carried back up and redistributed.

Further, rain caused extensive rot. Only by carefully hand-sorting the grapes to remove the rotten ones, at great expense in labor, was anything salvaged. The great majority could not afford to do this. The result will be very poor wine. The "sorted" wine will be better. Color is sufficient, body is not lacking and a natural alcohol content of 11 per cent was achieved on the slopes. The whites, less affected by rot, should yield a somewhat bigger and distinctly better crop.

In the Côte de Nuits, grower Jacques Seysses reports a better quality but still a very small crop. There is some rot but once again hand-sorting will save the day for those who can afford it. Natural alcohol content is quite satisfactory at 12 to 12.5 per cent. Acidity and general balance is fine. These wines should be good.

Paris restaurateur Armand Monassier, who is also a grower at Rully and Mercurey in the Côte Chalonnaise, reports that picking has so far been done in excellent, sunny weather. The white grapes are healthy and should make good wine of 12 per cent natural alcohol. There was some rot among the reds but it has stopped and alcohol is equal to that of the whites. The wines should be well balanced. The only black cloud in this picture is the small size of the crop.

Beaujolais: Pierre Ferraud, a shipper at Belleville, reports yet another small crop, probably no more than 600,000 hectoliters. For once, the yield per hectare will be well below the authorized maximum, which is good news after the excesses of recent years. As much as one-sixth of the vineyard in plain Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages areas was badly hit by hail. There is some rot.

On the other hand, color is rich, the wines are full of alcohol and tannin, which should make for long-lasting growths. The new wine, however, released on Nov. 15, is likely to be harsh and lacking the fresh, youthful qualities sought in new Beaujolais. Prices will no doubt rise as stocks diminish and the rage for this wine continues its vertiginous climb.

Mr. Ferraud also reports that about half of Pouilly-Fuissé was destroyed by hail in June, although there is more regularity in quality among the whites of the Mâconnais and stocks are large.

Champagne: Georges Vesselle, grower and producer of his own wines as well as being G.H. Mumm & Co. vineyard director, reports a large crop of fine quality throughout the region. Although as much as 10,000 kilograms were produced per hectare, only 7,500 kilograms per hectare are authorized for the making of champagne this year. Thus one-fourth of the crop will go into nonsparkling wines under the appellation of Côteaux Champenois.

The grapes ripened well during the heat wave in the first half of August; September rain caused very little rot. Alcohol content is high for champagne, 10 to 11 per cent, and acidity is in good balance. The chances are good for a vintage wine and even the few red, nonsparkling wines such as Bouzy should also be of fine quality.

Best of all for the consumer, though not for the grower who sells to the big firms, the price of a kilogram of grapes which reached about 8.5 francs in 1973 and 1974, has dropped to about 6 francs this year, and this should mean cheaper champagne.

Loire Valley: This area came off rather well also. Grower Vincent Delaporte at Chavignol in the Sancerrois reports small quantity, about half as much as last year, but a crop of good quality. September rains caused some rot in pebbly soils, but the wine should be well balanced with plenty of natural alcohol (11 to 11.5 per cent) thanks to complete ripening. Prices may start rising since stocks are exhausted. The harvest ended a few days ago. Much the same should be true for Pouilly-Fumé across the river from Sancerre.

Bourgueil, Chinon and other Loire reds made from cabernet grapes should make for good, long-lasting wines, although the harvest will not end until after Oct. 20, according to grower Paul Maître at Benais in Bourgueil.

Much the same situation prevails in the Loire as in Bordeaux: deep color, rich tannin, plenty of natural alcohol (a good 11 per cent here), slightly high acidity and almost no rot. The crop should be of average size, between 35,000 and 40,000 hectoliters at Bourgueil.

Alsace: A few weeks ago a large crop of poor quality was expected after heavy September rains and rot, but lately the weather has been sunny, reversing expectations to a small crop of fairly good quality. According to grower Pierre Frick at Pfaffenheim, those who stayed well under the maximum authorized yield for this year of 96 hectoliters a hectare will have some good wines among the Klevner, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris varieties, but the popular Riesling may not do so well.

Rhône Valley: This area, with its well-known Châteauneuf-du-Pape, had a hot, dry summer until late August followed by too much rain in September, as reported by grower Richard Bartholomew at Vacqueyras. Rot set in, especially in the carignan and grenache grape varieties but it has largely dried up in the last 10 days. The crop is down by half from last year, but as usual in this southern region, alcohol is sufficient at 13 per cent. Acidity is normal. The worst news is that prices are already on the way up because of the small size of the crop.

Provence: According to Bernard Laudon, grower at Vidauban, the harvest is about ended. The crop is a bit below average in size but of good quality among the better varieties, such as grenache and cinsault. Quality is, however, somewhat irregular because of scattered hail and heavy rain.

The small size of most harvests, except in Champagne, can be expected to lead to price rises in many areas, especially Bordeaux. Champagne sales and prices are still in a down swing although the crop seems to be of very good quality. Burgundy has suffered most and it is had to tell what effect this will have on prices. An overall graph of quality for the 1975 vintage would show a roller-coaster profile.