As the grape harvest comes to an end throughout France, the 1981 vintage was hardly what the doctor ordered for a wine market afflicted by rising prices. The crop is generally small, in some areas only one-third to one-half normal, and nowhere is it much above average in size.
Quality, on the other hand, runs from fair to good. Prices will continue to rise just about everywhere, because this is the second small crop in a row.
BORDEAUX: In Médoc, Eric de Rothschild, manager of Château Lafite-Rothschild, says: "We're reasonably happy." Quality is a little above average, which means Lafite and other estates will be able to select their best for bottling under their own names and sell lesser wines under secondary labels. Rothschild says the grapes were healthy with good sugar content. He compares the 1981 vintage to that of 1971: It should be ready for drinking in 10 years (which is young for a first-ranked Médoc), yet it should also last well, which can mean 50 years or more.
In Graves, Jean Delmas, manager of Château Haut-Brion, reports smaller quantity, less than expected, but good quality. The grapes were very healthy, full of sugar and with a good balance of acidity. He expects the wine to be rather tannic, harder than the 1978s. The whiles should also be good, but there will not be very much of them.
In both Pomerol and Saint-Emilion, according to Christian Moueix of Château Petrus, quantity is just above average while quality is quite good. He compares it to something between 1971 and 1975: less "amiable" than 1971, yet less tannic than 1975. The grapes were very ripe and healthy with a good balance between sugar content and acidity.
BURGUNDY: The crop is very small, only half the size of a normal vintage, according to grower Hubert de Montille at Volnay. In the Côte de Nuits it is even smaller than in the Côte de Beaune because of spring frosts and summer hailstorms. The reds produced only about 25 hectoliters to the hectare, while the whites came off better with about 40 hectoliters to the hectare. There was not much rot but sugar content is rather low. There is enough acidity but it remains on the low side. De Montille expects his own wines to be better than last year's, perhaps more like the 1979s. Prices are likely to rise sharply after slowing and even dropping last year.
BEAUJOLAIS: The crop is small, only 1 million hectoliters, 200,000 less than last year, says Pierre Ferraud, a shipper at Belleville. The grapes were very healthy and the wines should be good with color and depth. They will probably be better a few months after the new wine is first released for sale on Nov. 15. Prices are likely to be up by 25 percent, with the year's Beaujolais going to 1,600 to 1,700 francs the 216-liter pièce, or barrel, as against 1,300 to 1,350 francs last year.
CHAMPAGNE: The crop was catastrophically small, according to Georges Vesselle, vineyard director for G.H. Mumm & Co. It amounted to only 310,000 to 320,000 pièces of 205 liters, and this after last year's already small harvest of 415,000 pièces. Although the quality of the wine is very good, it will probably not be vintaged because all of it will be needed for regular champagne. Although the price of grapes dropped from last year's exceptional 23.50 francs per kilogram to 20 francs this year, prices will continue to rise in order to discourage sales.
LOIRE VALLEY: Muscadet grower Louis Metaireau at Maisdon-sur-Sèvre reports a half-sized crop of only 25 hectoliters to the hectare. As in most areas with a small crop, a cold, wet spring caused pollination failure and the appearance of many undeveloped, or "shot," grapes, so called from their small size, no bigger than shotgun pellets. The grapes were healthy and the wine should be good if pressing was done gently. The proportion of stems to grapes is very high and pressing hard could give a bitter taste from the crushed stems. No stocks remain and prices are rising by 50 percent to 1,500 francs the 225-liter pièce.
The Chinon region harvested fairly late, says grower Charles Joguet at Sazilly. Quantity is very irregular but should be about average-sized overall. Rain during the first half of October diluted the sugar and acid content of the grapes and compromised what otherwise should have been very good quality.
In Touraine, grower Henry Marionnet at Soings says he brought in a harvest only one-third as big as usual, 20 hectoliters to the hectare instead of 60. The quality of both his red gamay and white sauvignon will be excellent, what there is of it.
RHONE VALLEY: The harvest is also small there, says grower Paul Coulon at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But quality is very good. The grapes were healthy, with plenty of sugar, a good balance of acidity and thick skins, which should make for lots of color and tannin and long-lived wines.
PROVENCE: Quantity is at least average there, says grower Jean-Louis Gerin at Pignans. Quality should be good. There was very little rot and the red wines have good color, although rain in some areas diluted the sugar content, which is not necessarily a bad thing in this hot region.
ALSACE: Quantity is average, bigger than last year's small crop, and quality OK, says Jean-Pierre Frick, grower at Pfaffenheim. This year there will be gewürztraminer and muscat wines, of which there was very little last year, although the sylvaner grapes produced very little this year.