Wine

Navigating France’s Recent Hard-Hit Vintages

If this year’s harvest production in France hits a historic low, what will we end up drinking from the 2017 harvest?

withered grape vines
Gavin Quinney from Château Bauduc in Bordeaux, France. Photo courtesy of Gavin Quinney.

There is no doubt that life has been tough recently for producers in some parts of France. Preliminary estimates issued in mid-July by the French Ministry of Agriculture suggest that the 2017 vintage will be the smallest in many years, possibly even smaller than the 1991 vintage that was affected by frost.  

These estimates project that the 2017 harvest will yield between 37 and 38.2 million hectoliters. If the estimates are correct, it means that this year’s harvest will be down 17 percent from 2016, and taking the lowest estimate, it’ll be down 22 percent from 2015. Factors that contributed to the small harvest include widespread frosts in mid- to late April and coulure, which affected Grenache in the Languedoc, the Southern Rhône Valley, and Provence in particular.    

The Bordeaux region, especially the area on the Right Bank, was among the hardest hit by late April frosts. As a result, the region’s production is expected to be down by 50 percent this year. In contrast, Saint Estèphe, Pauillac, and Saint Julien, on the Left Bank, escaped with only very minor damage. Fortunately for Bordeaux producers, the region had a high-quality bumper 2016 harvest that yielded 5.7 million hectoliters—and the 5.4 million hectoliters in 2015 met the latest 10-year harvest average.

Although 2016 saw an above-average harvest in Alsace, of 1,176 hectoliters, it followed three harvests that were low in yield. The projections for 2017 suggest that the region will be down by 30 percent, at 861 hectoliters.  

On a positive note, Burgundy and the Loire are among the regions expecting larger harvest productions than last year. Burgundy is up by 14 percent from the 2016 harvest, which suffered a very short period of frost, hail, and mildew; that harvest followed the 2015 vintage, which was struck by both hail and heat.

The Loire is expected to have a 7 percent rise in its production this year, yielding approximately 2.3 million hectoliters. But 2017 will still be considered a small vintage in the Loire because it comes on the heels of another small vintage—2016 was down 25 percent on average as a result of complications from frost and mildew. (Much of the Loire has been experiencing small harvests since 2012.)

Harvest estimates should be viewed with caution, as they do not always end up being correct. For example, in October 2016 the Ministry of Agriculture estimated that wine production for that vintage would be down 12 percent from the 2015 vintage, and it would yield only 42.2 million hectoliters, but this proved to be unnecessarily pessimistic. The actual production total was 45.6 million hectoliters, which was only down 5 percent from the 2015 vintage, which yielded 47.3 million hectoliters. Comparisons with 1991 can also be slightly misleading, as the area planted with vines has shrunk considerably since then. France had 856,741 hectares under vine in 1995, but by 2014 the area under vine was down to 741,300 hectares.

The 2017 vintage kicked off in Roussillon in late July—it is expected to be early in the rest of France as well. An early vintage is often a sign of a good-quality harvest, but it’s sensible to wait until the grapes are safely in the wineries before making predictions about the vintage’s overall quality.

What Can We Expect to Drink?

The quality of the 2016 wines appears to be very good, especially the reds—there just won’t be very many of them, explains Burgundy expert Jasper Morris, MW. “Chablis was the worst affected [area in Burgundy],” he says, adding that with the exception of Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint Véran, which experienced significant hail in 2016, there should be plenty of wine coming from most of the Mâconnâis. However, it’s going to be hard to supply enough wine from most of the Côte d’Or, Morris says. Recent vintages from there have been small, and the frosts of 2017 have made the situation worse, with only Morey-Saint-Denis coming through the great frost unscathed. He adds, however, that in Burgundy “quality and quantity at this stage look promising for 2017.”

Gavin Quinney, Château Bauduc producer and Bordeaux-based writer, suggests that the 2017 crop in Bordeaux will be seriously depleted as a result of the frost, but as you can see in his map, the damage varied across the region and many of the top châteaux remained largely unaffected. Says Quinney, “I’d guess that we’re looking at around 270 to 320 million liters in 2017, as opposed to the 10-year average of 540 million liters—40 to 50 percent down.”

“We had a good run of three vintages,” he says, “but Bordeaux was low on stock following the 2013 crop. It’s hard to say how much excess there is to cover the damage, stockwise. There’s bound to be a shortage for some wines and appellations. The 2016 [vintage] was the highest for a decade, at 5.7 million hectoliters.”

As far as production in the Loire goes, aside from being affected in only a minor way by frost in 2015, Sancerre has escaped France’s recent weather complications essentially unscathed. In contrast to most of the rest of the Loire, where recent vintages have been below average in quantity, Sancerre has been yielding normal quantities since 2012, so we can continue to look to this appellation for wines to drink. Neighboring Pouilly-Fumé vineyards, however, were hit by frost in 2017 and 2016. Touraine is very short on Sauvignon Blanc stock, with only four months of stock available as of late July. Muscadet will be also be short on stock, having been hit by spring frosts in both 2017 and 2016. Stock levels are now at just 38 percent of normal. For the reds, there is stock of Chinon and Saumur-Champigny.

We can also expect wines from the Rhône Valley and the Languedoc to drink. The Rhône Valley enjoyed high-quality vintages in both 2015 and 2016 and good volumes in 2015, though quantities were slightly down in 2016. Although the 2017 vintage in Languedoc-Roussillon is anticipated to be down in volume by 6 percent from 2016, writer Jancis Robinson, MW, who spends the summer in Languedoc, says she hasn’t heard any talk of serious stock shortages there.

Jules Dressner of Louis/Dressner Selections, based in Manhattan, is hesitant to make a firm projection until the harvest is entirely in. “It is highly variable for both vintages,” he says. “Frost in 2017 has struck [in unexpected] regions, including the Languedoc. [Another] terrible example is Fleurie, Morgon, and Moulin à Vent—a gorgeous harvest just got decimated by ten minutes of July hail. Until the grapes are in the cellar fermenting, I will wait and see. [For] 2016, we have a clearer picture of what is available. I repeat that it’s highly variable, but regions that got away unscathed are the Mâconnais, Gaillac, Cahors, Languedoc, and the Northern and Southern Rhône.”

In the end, finding fine French wines to enjoy may not be the most critical challenge associated with the 2017 harvest. While French wine enthusiasts search for wines from the country’s top regions to drink, producers will be desperately trying to balance the books and persuade banks to continue to support them, and feverishly working to sustain existing markets and retain their clients.

Jim Budd, who divides his time between London, the Loire Valley, and Lisbon, has been writing about wine since 1988. He has been a contributor to many magazines and blogs at Investdrinks-blog and Les 5 du Vin. Jim is also the former chair of the Circle of Wine Writers, a former editor of Circle Update, and has been regional Loire chair for the Decanter World Wine Awards since 2004. He earned IWC Personality of the Year in 2012 and the 2012 Born Digital Wine Award for the best investigative wine story. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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