The 1980 French Vintage: Choose Very, Very Carefully

International Herald Tribune

November 1, 1980

The 1980 French grape harvest has ended in most regions except Alsace and Sauternes and the news is both good and bad. The crop is small almost everywhere except in the Rhone Valley, where it is well above average size.

Prices are already rising in Champagne, with the harvest at only 40 percent of its normal size, and the price of a kilogram of grapes nearly doubled this year to 23.50 francs. This is the price that the growers receive for top-quality grapes sold to the big champagne firms.

Quality, on the other hand, is apparently better than hoped for after a late, rainy spring and early summer. The sunny months of August, September and early October ripened the grapes well and in most areas there was little or no rot. But there is a lot of irregularity in quality, with some good, some bad and a lot in between, depending essentially on the human element: how the grapes were cared for on the vine and how the wine is now being made.

BORDEAUX
Medoc: Alexis Lichine reports from Château Prieure-Lichine that quantity is similar to 1978 but down from last year. Quality is very irregular but should make for a "rather decent vintage." The Merlot grapes came off best with good color, character and an alcoholic degree of 11 to 11.5 percent. The Cabernets were more irregular in quality and to obtain a good wine some vats may have to be eliminated. Picking began Oct. 8 was interrupted by rain, then continued again in fine weather to about Oct. 29.

After tasting his first vats with Professor Emile Peynaud of the Oenology Department of the University of Bordeaux, Lichine sees in this year's wine similarities to 1974, 1971 and 1967: low acidity and tannin, perhaps slightly better quality than the soft, easy 1973.

Lichine further reports that if the weather holds, Château d'Yquem expects to make a very good wine, which should bode well for Sauternes-Barsac in general

Graves: Manager Jean Delmas of Château Haut-Brion says fears for the worst were unfounded. Both quality and quantity are irregular but overall there is more than in 1978, though less than in the very large 1979. He says this is the fourth miracle in a row when things have turned out much better than feared.

The reds will make a good but not great vintage with good color, alcohol not too high, lots of aroma but not a lot of body. They should make "charming" wines, better than the 1977s, perhaps similar to the 1974s, but quality remains irregular according to location. The whites are perhaps better than the reds, with good body and less acidity than in 1979. The grapes were very healthy and picked first before the rain. Delmas says prices are stable given stocks from the big 1979 vintage.

Delmas also heard from Château Lafite in Pauillac that the crop there was almost as big as 1979.

Pomerol and Saint-Emilion: Christian Moueix of Château Petrus reports small crops in these regions, 40 percent of normal harvest in Pomerol and 50 to 60 percent in Saint-Emilion. But alcohol is good at 12 percent, with as much as 13 percent at Petrus, which harvested late. Those who began picking Oct. 13 were caught by rain. There will be lots of average-quality wines and a few good ones. Acidity is low, color is good, from thick skins with no rot. Wines may be a bit flat from lack of acidity but should be pleasant. Saint-Emilion came off a little better than Pomerol, perhaps because they generally picked late. This is the third-largest harvest of the century.

BURGUNDY
Hubert de Montille, grower of several crus at Volnay and Pommard, sees decent but not great wines, with plenty of color and fruitiness but low alcohol and tannin, better than the 1973s, perhaps similar to the 1967s. Quantity in the Cote de Beaune is under average, perhaps a little more in the Cote de Nuits. Harvesting took place between Oct. 8 and 22. The whites have bigger quantity but only average quality because of some rot and low alcohol, although they were quite fruity.

BEAUJOLAIS
Picking began Oct. 3 and ended Oct. 29, says shipper Pierre Ferraud of Belleville-sur-Saone. There is a good crop of 55 hectoliters to the hectare as against 65 last year. The wines have good color and are very aromatic. He is pleasantly surprised and the wines should be decent, as in other regions.

CHAMPAGNE
Georges Vesselle, vineyard master for G.H. Mumm and Co. and owner of vineyards in Bouzy, says quantity is only 40 percent of a normal crop and will yield 350,000 to 380,000 pièces of 205 liters. Quality is very good with good balance of acid and alcohol, and could well make for vintage wines. But the price this year is very high – 23.50 francs the kilogram of grapes, and it takes 1-1/2 kilograms to make a bottle of champagne – and prices will rise. Stocks are low and a year like this means sales have to be slowed. With such a high price for grapes, many small bottlers have gone back to selling their grapes to the big firms instead of making their own champagne.

RHONE VALLEY
Grower Paul Coulon at Chateauneuf-du-Pape says quantity is well above average and quality is good as well. The grapes were healthy with no rot, perfectly ripe, although a little less rich in sugar than last year, and the first vats have good color and lots of aroma and the fermentations are progressing well. The whites are also very aromatic. All this came as a pleasant surprise because only an average crop in both quality and quantity was expected.

LOIRE VALLEY
Muscadet: Grower Louis Metaireau says this harvest was very difficult with frost and rain but there was good average quantity at 50 to 60 hectoliters to the hectare, with average quality. There was some rot but vigorous selection should yield some very good wines. The rest will be very irregular, however.

Chinon and Bourgueil
Quantity and quality are very irregular in these areas, says Chinon grower Charles Joguet, who brought in a very healthy crop but with low sugar. He expects to make a pleasant enough wine but others may have trouble with acidity, which tends to be low this year.

Touraine
Grower Henry Marionnet reports a crop about 20 percent smaller than normal but of better quality than hoped for. Some growers suffered from rot, but he had none. The wines have adequate alcohol and are very aromatic. "We could have some nice surprises in store for us," he sums up.

ALSACE
The crop is very small, only 30 to 50 percent of last year's, says grower Jean-Pierre Frick at Pfaffenheim. The Muscat suffered a total fruit-dropping and Gewurztraminer yielded only 5 hectoliters to the hectare. The Riesling and Sylvaner grapes were satisfactory as to quantity. The grapes that remained after a late, difficult flowering have a good alcohol content and balance of acidity. Prices should not rise because of large stocks from the 1979 crop.

JURA
Guy Rolet, winemaker for the family's vineyard, says the crop is small with lots of fruit-dropping on the red varieties. The yield ran 15 to 20 hectoliters to the hectare instead of the usual 40 to 45. The whites also suffered some fruit-dropping, and it has been raining since the beginning of October. Rolet expects below-average quality and calls it "a year I would like to forget."