WINE: Despite Poor Spring, France Expects Good Vintages for '78

International Herald Tribune

October 24, 1978

This year's wine crop in France will be better than most people expected after a long, cold and wet spring that delayed the flowering of the wine by several weeks to a month.

Pollination was irregular and led to the fruit's dropping in many areas; nearly everywhere the size of the crop is below average. Only the Beaujolais produced a large crop – 1.2 million hectoliters.

This is the second small wine crop in a row. Stocks are depleted nearly everywhere, and prices will continue to soar.

The one bright side of the picture is quality. In almost every region this year's wine should be good, above average at least, and in Burgundy it is even being compared to the remarkable 1961 vintage.

The harvest is generally late after the tardy start. Everywhere it was late-summer sun that saved what would otherwise have been a mediocre crop. Most of August, September and the first half of October was sunny and warm, so much so that drought was frequently a problem.

But the grapes were healthy throughout the country. There was no rot, alcoholic content is naturally high (which should make for less sugaring) and in most regions there is a good balance of acidity.

Here is the rundown by region:

Bordeaux: Médoc – Baron Eric de Rothschild, part-owner and director of Château Lafite, and Philippe Cottin, manager of neighboring rival Château Mouton, both agree that the wine of the Médoc should be quite good. Cottin says the grapes are healthy but small, and that the crop will be a little below average for size. The Merlots are doing better than the Cabernets, which suffered more from fruit-fall and the late summer dryness. The harvest is underway, and the Cabernets are yielding a potential of more than 11 percent alcohol by volume.

"This is a very exciting year," Rothschild says. "It is not a perfect year, but it should make for very good wine. It will be fun to vinify and the cellar master will be the most important man around this year. It will be satisfying to make something of it."

Martin Bamford of Château Loudenne says the year might be something between 1962 and 1966, both of which were good. He adds, however, that people are still being cagey in their preliminary estimates.

Bordeaux: Graves – The harvest at Château Haut-Brion is already in, according to manager Jean Delmas. It is slightly smaller than the average, but quality is better than was expected after the "horrible spring and early summer." The wine will not be great but should be very good: a little hard, with fair acidity, good color and aroma. It will probably take a few years to come into its own, but it does not have the unpleasant acidity of the '72. Alcoholic content should be around 12 percent.

The same degree of natural alcohol is found in the whites, and they are likely to be even better than the reds. If there is not too much rain, the Sauternes should also be very good, but the crop is small.

Delmas expects the overall crop for Bordeaux, reds and whites, to reach about 4 million hectoliters. (Last year produced only 3.5 million; a good average year generates 4.5 million to 5 million hectoliters – hence the anticipation of continuing price rises.)

Bordeaux: Pomerol and St. Emilion – The Merlot, the major grape of the Pomerol, is yielding an average quantity and quality, with 12 percent natural alcohol, surprisingly high for such a late harvest. The wine should be better than that of '73 or '77, but will fall below the levels of '76.

At Château Pétrus the alcohol is as high as 13 percent and may make for a very good wine because there is so much Merlot at the château. Some vineyards suffered from drought, but at St. Emilion the roots tend to go deeper and drought was less of a problem.

Burgundy – Hubert de Montille, grower at Volnay, says the harvesting has ended everywhere except at the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which regularly practices late harvesting. The crop is small but of "beautiful quality," yielding more than 12 percent alcohol.

De Montille believes this year's wine has a lot in common with 1961s. It has lots of finesse, aroma, and a lingering taste. The whites are also good, if perhaps less spectacularly so. Again, it was the late-summer sun that turned the tide.

Beaujolais – The area will have a fairly large crop – about 1.2 million hectoliters. Jean Garlon at Theizé is getting 11 to 11.5 percent alcohol from his older vines. There is good acidity and lots of fruitiness. He compares the fall weather to that of the great year of 1947; the wine should be excellent. Fifteen to 20 percent of last year's Beaujolais remains unsold, but prices are likely to go up anyhow because of the quality.

Pierre Piron, grower at Morgon, says the Beaujolais crus are better than in '76 because there is a better acidity balance. Very little wine remains from the '77 harvest.

Champagne – The harvest continues. Quality is quite good, although quantity is only half that of last year's crop. The potential alcohol is 9.5 to 10 percent. Acidity is a little high, but not excessive. The price of grapes is up a franc and a half, at almost 9.5 francs per kilogram this year.

The Chardonnay grape produced a normal-sized crop, but makes up only one-quarter of the Champagne vineyard. The Pinot Meunier, and especially the Pinot Noir, suffered heavily from fruit-dropping and undeveloped grapes.

According to Georges Vesselle, vineyard director for G.H. Mumm and Co., it is possible that 1978 might make a vintage wine. This would be the first time that such a late harvest produced a vintage champagne. The big problem, again, is price. Annual sales of champagne have been running about 180 million bottles. Even if excess still wine from the three previous crops is eventually released for the making of champagne, there would still be only enough for 120 million bottles.

Alsace – Jean-Pierre Frick, who grows wine with his father at Pfaffenheim, says the picking is just beginning in Alsace. The crop is better than expected earlier, but only of average size. There will be almost no Muscat because 80 percent of the grapes were lost in fruit-dropping. Gewuertztraminer also lost 50 percent.

The Sylvaner grape has come off well, but then it rarely has problems. The Riesling has lots of bunches, but is late-ripening and is low in sugar this year The grapes are healthy, with no rot. There is a good balance of acidity and alcohol, and the breed should show well.

There are no stocks. The '77s have all been sold. Prices are rising "seriously" and they began rising right after the difficult flowering.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape – Grower Paul Coulon says the harvest is coming to an end. Thee has been no rain since July. The grapes are very healthy and should produce very good wine. The crop is larger than last year's and of above average quantity.

It should be of even better quality than the very good 1976. The alcohol should average between 13 and 14 percent. The wine is full of aroma and has good acidity. The area whites are also very good. Altogether, "a great vintage," says Coulon.

Loire Valley: Muscadet – Louis Métaireau, grower at La Haye-Fouassière, reports that harvesting is completed and despite he miserable spring (including an April freeze), the weather has been fine since early August. The wine should be excellent.

It has a high 11 to 12 percent alcohol, with good acidity and is elegant, fruity and typical. The fermentations are proceeding rapidly under perfect conditions, and the wine is already clear. It should be a wine that will last for two or three years.

The problem is that because of the freeze and the drops, the crop is small – the last two seasons together produced only as much as one normal year. Demand is growing and there are no stocks. The price situation is "very disturbing." They are, in fact, rising wildly.

Loire Valley: Chinon – The harvest is just beginning, and quantities are varying from vineyard to vineyard, but overall the crop is average. Grower Charles Joguet at Sazilly feels that in any case it will be "interesting."

Loire Valley: Sancerre – Grower Pierre Dezat at Maimbray sans that 1978 will be "among the best recent years," although the crop is below average in size. The grapes are thoroughly ripe and very healthy. The acidity is just right (there was too much in 1977 and not enough in 1976). The wine will be very fruity.

The harvest began a few days ago and will last until almost the end of the month. Prices are rising fast, but Dezat hopes they will not rise too fast. More than half of the production of Sancerre is sold in the bottle directly to private clients; too high a price rise will discourage bot these buyers and the many bistrots that sell Sancerre.