France's 2018 growing season so far

It’s mid June, and we’re sitting in the kitchen in a small village in the Aude, watching rain lashing the window panes. The last time I was here in the Languedoc, the ground was rock hard and dry. This year the towpath along the Canal du Midi is slippery with mud, puddles too large to jump over, and the vegetation is unseasonably lush and green.

Caryl Panman of Ch Rives-Blanques in Limoux told me wryly, ‘We’re in real danger of slipping anchor and drifting off. So much rain. Had lunch in La Clape last weekend, where they’ve had twice as much rain since November as they usually get in a whole year. We’re almost at our annual expected level.’ That’s a year’s worth of rain in just five months. 

Caryl's husband Jan Panman is genuinely concerned. They’ve had such heavy rainfall that at this stage they have no idea whether the pollen during flowering has been washed away before fertilisation took place, and, even if fertilisation did occur, whether the impact of this unprecedented spring and early summer weather is going to result in shatter, coulure and millerandage. In their 15 years of winemaking they have never encountered a year like this. ‘We can only wait and see’, he shrugs. But there is a furrow to his brow.

In addition to all this there are very real problems with getting tractors into the vineyards. The ground is so wet and muddy that those who try are getting stuck. People are resorting to horses and hand spraying. Weeds, much more of a problem this year than in the past thanks to all the rain, are much more difficult to control because mechanised mowers are struggling. Vignerons who ploughed between the vine rows earlier in the year now have an impassable sea of mud.

Lidewij Van Wilgen of Terres des Dames in Murviel-lès-Béziers is also feeling the strain. When I suggested to her that we meet up for a bite to eat, her comment to me was, ‘Yes I would be happy to get out of my vineyards full of mildiou – and have a good drink before total depression! :)’. She’s been organic since 2002 and says that she’s never experienced downy mildew problems like she has this year. To try to keep copper applications down to a minimum, she’s using orange oil – but every time it rains (almost daily) she has to get back out into the vineyards and re-apply it. Her photos of the giant mushrooms sprouting in her vineyards like aliens are below and above right.

The first graph below shows rainfall in a village in the Hérault in 2018 (in mm) up to the month of June compared with average monthly rainfall in the area, and the second shows cumulative rainfall in 2018 compared with annual averages. Bear in mind that the 2018 figures for June take us only up to 15 June, so for 2018 the figure may well end up much higher if things continue as they have been. 

Another winemaker from St-Chinian was complaining that they’ve had to spray for downy mildew eight or nine times already – unheard-of for Languedoc in June. People are seeing oidium, some for the first time.

After a drought in 2016, the Languedoc baked through a rainless summer in 2017 and yields were down about 40% as vines struggled to get enough water. This year the rain, far from allowing a bounteous recovery, could lead to another year of low yields for the very opposite reason. But who knows. As Jan Panman said, all we can do is wait and see.

Jancis writes I was wondering how the 2018 season was progressing in Bordeaux just three hours' drive north west from the western Languedoc. I am told by Gavin Quinney of Ch Bauduc, 'It has been wet but not too bad. Dry periods allowed us to get in to treat the vines okay. We have no mildew at Bauduc, touch wood. Will report back on the flowering, which has just finished. I want to check fruit set but we're generally happy. A decent yield is a godsend after last year. And the hail in Blaye, etc.' 

Apparently it has also been unseasonably wet in Champagne too. In fact the only French wine region that has not been suffering excessive rainfall is the driest in France, Alsace. All of this is making life difficult for vignerons anxious to keep their vines healthy, but of course in the bigger picture, replenishment of the water table is welcome and some beautiful wines may well result this autumn. 

Natasha Hughes MW tells me she has just returned from Andalucia where she was told they, most unusually, received 1,000mm of rain this spring. 

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