In the last of a three-part series on wine, the IHT assesses this year's crop in France.
Contrary to the glowing predictions about this year's vintage, French winegrowers generally report only average quality, although the crop will be considerably larger than those of the recent past. But in some areas, such as the Rhone Valley and Burgundy's Cote de Nuits – where the crop was reduced severely by storms – the 1979 vintage is excellent.
In the Cote de Nuits, a hailstorm in June devastated an estimated 1,000 hectares from Nuits-Saint-Georges to Gevry-Chambertin, resulting in the loss of about 40 percent of the crop. There and in Champagne, prices are expected to rise. Elsewhere there is even a downturn here and there, thanks to the abundant harvest.
The late flowering of the vine inevitably led to late picking, mostly last month, but warm sunny weather in August, September and during the harvest made for healthy grapes. Alcohol content is good – which ought to make for less sugaring, but probably will not – although acidity tends to be a bit low. Quality is irregular, running from average to good in most areas. In general, the 1979 wines should be pleasant and ready to drink early, but will not be for long keeping.
Following is the outlook region by region:
Bordeaux: Medoc – Baron Eric de Rothschild, part-owner and director of Château Lafite and other Rothschild properties, says that this year's harvest was 25 percent larger than last year's at Lafite and about 20 percent larger in Bordeaux overall. This permits a certain selectiveness, to reserve the best vats for the Lafite label and downgrade the lesser ones into Carruades de Lafite.
The wine should be pleasant, with finesse and subtlety, well-balanced and smooth but for early consumption (which for Lafite means the mid-1980s). The picking took place during the first three weeks of last month and the grapes were healthy with adequate acidity and good natural alcohol content: 10.5 to 12 degrees according to the variety and parcel.
Bordeaux: Graves – Jean Delmas, the manager of Château Haut-Brion, says that the grapes came in good but not exceptional quantity, about 40 hectoliters to the hectare. They have good structure, strong tannin, good color and alcohol. They run from good to very good in quality according to the yield – the less the yield, the more concentrated, hence the better, the wine.
The grapes were very healthy and the picking was done in the first half of last month. The whites were more plentiful than the reds and are very fruity, but neither the reds nor the whites will be as good as the 1978s.
Bordeaux: Pomerol and Saint-Emilion – Christian Moueix of Château Petrus reports a slightly better than average yield in Pomerol, 35 to 40 hectoliters to the hectare. After a dry summer the alcohol content is not very high although the grapes ripened rapidly and had good color.
The wines should be "amiable" with more charm if less overall quality than the very good 1978s.
At Saint-Emilion the yield tended to be much higher. Hence the wines are light but pleasant in character. They are unlikely to keep very long.
Burgundy: Cote de Nuits – Jacques Seysses, grower at Morey-Saint-Denis, says that, because of the hail in June, most of the crop is small, as was last year's, with as little as 18 hectoliters to the hectare against 40 where the hail did not strike. This means that a reprieve is unlikely from the rising prices in this part of Burgundy.
The price of grapes sold by growers to shippers was 22 to 24 francs a kilogram at Nuits-Saint-Georges, or twice the price of grapes in Champagne. Because it takes 1.3 kilograms of grapes to make a bottle of wine, that makes about 30 francs a bottle before vinification, barrel-aging, labeling, shipping, taxes and the producer's profit.
But the quality of the grapes is very good, 11 to 12.5 degrees of natural alcohol, with good color and tannin.
Burgundy: Cote de Beaune – There was no hail here and quantity is "fairly abundant," especially in the whites, according to Hubert de Montille, grower at Volnay and Pommard. Quality is good but no more, something between the very good 1972s and the very light 1973s. Acidity is average and alcohol runs about 11 to 11.5 degrees. The wines should be ready to drink rapidly, before the 1978s and 1976s.
The picking was done from the end of September to the middle of last month, with those harvesting late getting riper grapes with a higher degree of alcohol. The white crop was very big, 60 hectoliters to the hectare, against 40 to 45 for the red.
Burgundy: Côte Chalonnaise – Armand Monassier, grower at Rully and Mercurey, reports a very good crop of 45 hectoliters to the hectare with good natural alcohol at about 12 degrees. The crop was very healthy and was picked during the first 10 days of last month. The whites are also very good.
Beaujolais – Pierre Ferraud, shipper at Belleville, expects stable prices with a crop of more than 1 million hectoliters, although this is less than last year. There are still stocks of older wines to be disposed of, and the new Beaujolais will be on the market next Thursday.
The picking was done during the first 10 days of last month. The wines are more variable than last year's with less aroma, but maturity was good and the alcohol degree high, up to 13 percent by volume. Acidity is light, which should make for very pleasant new wines, but they will not keep.
Champagne – According to Georges Vesselle, grower and head of the Mumm group's vineyards, the crop is very large, 800,000 pieces (each of 205 liters) as against only 270,000 last year, but not as big as hoped. The 1.6 million hectoliters is enough to cover sales but not enough to replace badly depleted stocks. The price of grapes is also up to 11.56 francs a kilogram, 2.15 higher than last year. Prices will thus continue to rise.
Quality is good but perhaps not good enough to make vintage Champagne. The alcohol degree is adequate at 9 to 9.5, acidity is good and there is lots of finesse but not much character.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape – Grower Paul Coulon says that the summer was dry and hot, the weather perfect during the picking from the middle of September through the first week of last month, and the crop was superb, even better than last year's outstanding vintage.
The grapes were very ripe with high natural alcohol of 13 to 14 degrees, good color and good balance between acidity and alcohol. The wines are flowery and fruity.
Alsace – This region picked later than most others, from Oct. 10 to Oct. 25, according to organic grower Jean-Pierre Frick of Pfaffenheim. Quantity is good but not huge. Prices have risen enough to slow sales and should at least stabilize.
Quality is generally good with healthy grapes but acidity is weak for all grape varieties and a higher alcohol degree had been hoped for. The wines are fruity and aromatic but run the risk of being a bit flabby. For this reason the malolactic fermentation, which lowers acidity, should be prevented. The wines should be drunk young.
Loire Valley, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé – Pierre Dezat, grower at Maimbray, reports very good quality in abundance, 60 hectoliters to the hectare and more. According to the yield, alcohol content runs from 9.5 to 12 degrees. The wines have good acidity, are well balanced and aromatic. It should be possible to build up stocks that had run dry and stabilize prices. About the same is true for Pouilly-Fumé across the Loire from Sancerre.
Loire Valley, Chinon – Grower Charles Joguet says that warm, rainy weather in the second week of last month brought on some rot but selection among the bunches should make for a "neat" wine, fruity and harmonious, smooth and low in acidity. Alcohol is good except where quantity was overabundant.
Loire Valley, Muscadet – According to grower Jean Sauvion at Vallet, the crop is very good and large. A sunny summer made for good quality. The wines are typical, dry but not acidic, clean and full of finesse. They are light "wines for thirst," aromatic and with an alcohol content of 11.5 to 12 degrees after sugaring. But the quality and the quantity justify making vins primeurs, available as of next Thursday, which was last done in 1976.