Graham and his son Andrew Nutter of Ch St-Jacques d'Albas in Minervois sent this report written on the eve of the worst floods since 1891 which hit the western Languedoc on Monday. See also 120 wines reviewed in Languedoc before the floods. Their dog Syrah stars here.
2018 was a year of vacillating and damaging weather, fluctuating vine health and surprises. One thing is for sure, the concept of a 'normal' year is no more, and we need to adapt our wine-making accordingly. We were fortunate this year, with the harvest concluded under blue skies with a smiling, yet tired team.
In our region of the Languedoc, sunshine being plentiful, we worry more about rain. How much, when and how it falls, and also how much rain there was in the previous years (to replenish water tables and prompt the vine to get out of self-defence mode). The 2015 and 2016 harvests saw much less rain than usual, and the 2017 harvest, despite annual rainfall returning to normal, gave us a dry summer and a 40% drop in harvest yields.
The winter months for this harvest cycle provided 230 mm (9 in) of water between October and February, lower than some previous years, but a regular mild rain that helped replenish water levels. March to May, however, was an impressive 280 mm, great for stimulating the vines during budding and growing season.
Our Syrah buddy and our budding Syrah
Since a wine grower can never be completely happy, the downside from this water initially was that parcels were too wet to move in with our mechanical weed cutters. The tractors struggle in very muddy conditions, as do humans getting our boots stuck in the mud, and we want to avoid compacting the wet soil from the weight of the tractor. As soon as the sun came out, it wasn't only the vines rejoicing. The weeds mounted a rapid push, and it was a race to get out as soon as the soil was dry enough to cut these back (no chemicals for us!) and allow the vines to benefit from resources unhindered.
While 2017 had a dry summer with lots of berries but not much juice, 2018 had enough occasional rain to fill the grapes with juice, bringing us good bunches and helping the younger vines produce at last.
However, that was the easy part for vineyards in the region...
Frost, hail and disease
Last year gave us images of vignerons protecting their vines by lighting fires to keep them warm. This year, we were spared this toil for the most part. Readers must think it bizarre to mention frost in a region perceived to be blessed with so much sunshine. But no; the Languedoc runs the risk of frost up to the end of April – and this is what sadly struck many parts of the region, damaging budding. The St-Jacques topography part-resembles a wind tunnel up a long valley, which we refer to as 'God's hair dryer', keeping frost damage to a minimum and also drying vines quickly.
Hail was another damaging feature in the spring and summer of 2018. Hail is highly localised, as well as being destructive physically to vines. Again, we escaped the phenomenon but it struck indiscriminately elsewhere. Reports from neighbouring areas were of violent storms lasting several minutes and pounding vines, cars and buildings with golf-ball-sized hailstones. Seeing rows of vines without a leaf on them after three minutes made many wonder what they were doing in this industry. Car body repair shops and veranda glass replacement businesses were not disappointed.
The other bane of vignerons' life here in the western part of the Languedoc prior to the grape's colour change, or veraison, was downy mildew, which occurs under warm and humid conditions and particularly before colour change in the grape skin (once colour change, or veraison, has set in, it is less of a problem). Unless spotted early and treated quickly, it spreads like wildfire. We had slight damage, but were fortunate it affected us later than others, after the start of the veraison, and not enough to seriously affect the health or volume of the harvest.
The September harvest
So, after all the vicissitudes of the spring and summer months' weather, particularly after the encouragingly wet winter months, we approached September and the harvest with bated breath. As we had relatively healthy fruit and higher yields compared with prior years, we even displayed a certain optimism, particularly given the hail, frost and rot phenomena that many of our neighbours suffered.
And after so much vacillatory weather since the beginning of the year, we were at last rewarded with an Indian summer through September. Cool nights and warm days right up to the end of the month. Just what the doctor ordered for a trouble-free harvest. And with dry conditions all month, we anticipated a good quality harvest too.
We were not disappointed. We started picking the whites on 3 September, both the Viognier and Vermentino making us smile. Recent plantings of Roussanne and Marsanne added to our joie de vivre. The Grenache and Mourvèdre for the rosés came next. After a short respite to allow final ripening, the Syrah and Grenache were harvested next, the late-ripening varieties of Carignan and Mourvèdre for the reds being last.
As mentioned in past reports, we machine-harvest everything now. It's quicker, cheaper and more flexible than manual picking to harvest parcels at the perfect time – but less romantic for many. After the leap in quality from a few years ago, modern harvesting machines are continuing to improve, even sorting and removing stems (source of harsh tannins) while they harvest. The grapes go straight into tank as beautiful clean marbles and no longer have to go through a destemmer separately, thus removing a source of bruising. We initially harvested with a team of 12–15. We now conduct it with three people in a fraction of the time, and optimally for each parcel.
For us, this was a year of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
Qualitatively and quantitatively, we have had a good harvest. Escaping the worst that Nature could throw at us during the earlier months of 2018, together with the blissful Indian summer weather of September (the cherry on the cake), has given us optimism and highly enjoyable tasting sessions.
More broadly, with the changing weather patterns, winegrowers are having to adapt. A few more are taking weather insurance, some are leaving, some are learning to buy in juice from elsewhere after being hit by frost, hail or downy mildew, some are considering irrigation as an answer for drier conditions, or other, better-adapted varieties. We hope difficult years like this will also spur research into natural ways of controlling disease.
To end on a positive note, although being organic means we have fewer tools at our disposal to counter disease, we also witness our vines being better able to support variations in weather and they appear to produce better-quality juice. Let's hope others see it the same way!
See the Ch St-Jacques d'Albas website for more information.