Reports from Burgundy, Languedoc and port country outline just how difficult the 2006 season was.
Philip Tuck MW, Louis Jadot, Burgundy reports on what he describes as a 'vintage of extremes':
After some challenging growing conditions, the 2006 harvest has landed safely. The Ban des Vendages for whites was on Sept 18, and for reds this was on Sept 20- although special dispensation was given to certain sites in the Côte de Beaune where there was a degree of rot. Sugar levels across both varieties are acceptable.
The volumes for 2006 will be slightly down on those in 2005 because of the extreme dryness and heat in July of this year. Record temperatures in this month reduced volumes, and a fairly severe triage was carried out on fruit from a few vineyards in the Côte de Beaune where rot had begun to set in as the harvest date approached. Conversely, August was unseasonably wet and cool, which lead to an extended veraison and, as a consequence, uneven ripeness within some grape clusters, especially in the Pinot Noir. Fortunately however, the fine weather preceding this - and indeed during the entire harvest - meant that many excellent wines will be made.
At this early stage it is possibly looking more like being a white wine vintage than red, although there will undoubtedly be many characterful red wines - from the Côte de Nuits in particular. Some early comparisons are being made with 1992. The vintage in Beaujolais is also looking very successful, being both generous and typical in style.
Graham Nutter of Ch St Jacques d'Albas, Minervois, Languedoc:
If one read the international press or listened to the TV in France
recently, one has an impression that all of France's grape harvests have
been affected by torrential rain and that the grapes are suffering from
all sorts of damp-related diseases. I can't speak for the rest of France
or even for the Languedoc but our little corner of the Minervois
(south-west of La Liviniere) in the Languedoc had its best harvest since
we arrived in 2001. Rain can be a markedly more localised and violent
phenomenon in the Languedoc Roussillon (even within the Minervois) than in the rest of France, given its semi-arid nature.
Winter and spring 2006 bought rain to replenish the water table, flowering was on time and we marched into summer with dry conditions and prospects of another hot summer. July - like so much of Europe (poor World Cup footballers!) - was also very hot and no rain. However, the nights were cooler than in 2003, so both the grapes and human beings had some nocturnal relief. August evolved into a surprisingly below-average temperature month, much to the consternation of the tourists, but without any noticeable precipitation. However, veraison became
heterogeneous during August, causing some concern, as we had grape
varieties ripening at different speeds and the harvest prospects looked
worrying as to timing and quality.
Some 20 mm of rain end-August then triggered a wake-up call amongst
the grapes. Homogeneity in colouring set in, accompanied by a sudden
acceleration in ripening. We harvested one week earlier than normal,
starting on Aug 30 for the rosé and Sept 7 for the larger
quantity Syrah and Grenache. The quality of both was the best and
healthiest we had seen since 2001 - a joy to pick! Truly, a Grenache
year in particular. Some 80mm of gentle rain then interrupted harvest on
Sept 13 but without any negative impact on the later-ripening
Carignan and Mouvèdre. Overall, our sugar levels were high but balanced by good acidities and with firm but integrated tannins.
Sounds like blowing our trumpet too much? - but mark 2006 as a potentially excellent year for Minervois wines and don't judge all grape harvests of France by what you hear or read in the media for France as a whole.
Paul and Charles Symington of the Douro Valley:
The 2006 viticultural year started very well with really good winter rains that broke the two-year drought of '03 and '04. This was vital in order to replenish the water table and to support the vines through the hot Douro summer. Between Dec 1 and end April, 332 mm fell at Dow's Quinta do Bomfim, more than double the rainfall (158 mm) in the winter drought of 2004/5.
Budburst came a little late on Apr 3 followed by generally good weather for flowering in May, although strong winds at the end of the month reduced fruit set in the higher vineyards. May was very dry and hot, in fact the hottest May for over 40 years with an extraordinary six days delivering a daily average of 25˚C or more.
June got hotter until a very severe hailstorm hit some vineyards in the premium areas of the Pinhão and the Rio Torto valleys on the night of Jun 14. In about 20 minutes of intense hail, several vineyards lost up to 30% or more of their crop. The vine leaves looked as if they had been blasted by shotgun pellets from a distance of a few yards. Many young and as yet green bunches of grapes were partially shredded. Fortunately the Douro is made up of many sharply contoured hills and valleys, consequently numerous vineyards were shielded from this onslaught and the storm only affected the above-mentioned areas, the rest of the Douro simply benefited from some timely rain.
July was very hot. At the end of the month our viticulturist Miles Edlmann wrote 'This month has been particularly unpleasant for human beings in the Douro, and not necessarily the best for vines either'. The mean temperature at Bomfim was 27.2˚C. At Vesuvio the temperatures reached 40˚ on every day but seven and the lowest maximum temperature all month was 37˚. This heat clearly played a role in reducing the final crop size in September. August started much cooler and a useful spell of rain occurred on the 16th, 17th and 18th (47mm in all), usually an excellent omen for the port vintage. However at the end of the month the heat returned and this continued into early September which caused some raisining and crop reduction in the more exposed vineyards. After three years of harvesting grapes under very good conditions it was perhaps inevitable that we would have a slightly more difficult year.
Following regular maturation studies that started in mid-August, Charles set the picking dates at our most easternmost vineyards, including Quinta do Vesuvio, for the Sep 11. Graham's Malvedos started on the 14th, at Warre's Bom Retiro harvesting started on the 18th, at Bomfim on the 21st and at Cavadinha on the 25th September.
Some unsettled weather began to appear mid month as a result of the Azores 'high' being moved north by Hurricane Gordon, a storm originating in the Caribbean that hit these mid-Atlantic islands. But although there were many unsettled days during picking, rain only fell on the 13th and then on the 21st, 23rd and 24th September. But after virtually every rainfall, dry winds came through the valley and dried the ripe bunches. Consequently no real harm was done and the daily anxiety of impending rain was relieved as the clouds did not in practice bring persistent rain.
Baumés were good at between 12˚ and 13.5˚ and the grapes were generally in good condition although there was some raisining, a result of the hot weather previously mentioned. Cooling was not needed at most of our wineries after the first very hot week as the grapes were more or less at an ideal 20˚ to 21˚C just prior to crushing. The Barroca, Touriga Naçional and Roriz all gave good colour and aromas in the fermenting tanks. The Touriga Françesa, being a late ripening variety, suffered a little on some of our vineyards from the unsettled conditions and the lack of sunshine prior to picking. Yields everywhere were down by at least 15%. Charles Symington estimates at this early stage that the best vineyards, those classified as 'A' by the regional authorities, had rather lower yields than the higher vineyards which seem to have produced a more average sized crop.
While the last fermentations are ending at the time of writing, it is clear that there are some very fine tanks and casks of port and Douro DOC wines from the 2006 harvest amongst the total wine made this year. Overall it can be said that the average quality of wine made is reasonably good throughout the valley. This is very satisfactory considering what would have happened if the rain had settled in for the three to four weeks of harvesting.
The total production of port in the Douro in 2006 was 9.5 million cases, some 900,000 cases less than the estimated sales this year. This shortage of young ports will inevitably lead to some price increases in the New Year.