Languedoc-Roussillon 2013 – a real surprise


Written by Graham Nutter.

3 Dec - This article was originally entitled 'Minervois 2013 –  a real surprise' but so many wine producers throughout the Languedoc-Roussillon reacted to say that they too had experienced an excellent vintage this year that I have changed the title – JR

After all the doom and gloom around France about the 2013 harvest, you may like to take advantage of a small ray of comfort from the Languedoc and the Minervois in particular. Here at St Jacques d'Albas in the Minervois we haven't been hit by hail, nor by any torrential downpours, nor any serious outbreaks of rot, unlike so many of France's vineyards. That aside, the area we live in is semi-arid and weather patterns this year within the Minervois have also been quite variable, with areas not far from us having had serious hail and/or fungal attacks; yet we had little or nothing here. Having completed the restoration of our 11th-century chapel this year, we have perhaps been spared the wrath of the weather gods as compensation?

The harvest, as elsewhere in France, was some three weeks later than normal (as mentioned by most wine correspondents) due to a late flowering that was accompanied by cold and wet weather. High levels of nitrogen arising from the cold and wet acted to block subsequent growth too. It's the Grenache which has suffered the most, leading to coulure, a significant lowering of the fruit yield (see Coulure shrinks 2013 Grenache crop). Before picking in October, looking from 25 metres away, one had the impression that the vines had already been picked, such was the diminution in number and size of grapes. We estimate a 50-60% reduction in yields on the Grenache. Winemakers in the southern Rhône, depending more on Grenache in their blends than we do, will have had a tough time to find enough fruit. [This was confirmed by my visit there last week – JR]

The other red varieties' yields have suffered much less. Yields on the Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan are down over 2012 but are at about the three-year average. The white varieties (Viognier, Vermentino and Roussanne) have been sufficiently productive and quality is very satisfactory, the cooler conditions being favourable for acidity and minerality.

Overall, we estimate our 2013 harvest to be down some 22% over 2012, but 2012 was more productive than 2011. Other vignerons in our parish, by contrast, have a more abundant harvest in 2013 than in 2012, some even with regular yields of Grenache, having not been hit by coulure. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the 2013 Minervois variable harvest volumes. National reports of a lower or higher harvest volume would appear to be quite premature and we probably won't know the final and certified figures for our area (and for France) until later. Preliminary reports within the industry, though, as I hear it, are not at all positive.

Crucial for the 2013 harvest was the decision on timing of picking. On the one hand, the grapes, notably for the reds, were looking to be technically ripe by the end of September, but lacked taste and needed more hang time. Luckily, the Indian summer lasted through to the end of October – as elsewhere – and provided meaningful assistance to final ripening, given the warm days, cool nights and dry northerly winds. Ripening continued, the fruit gained taste and we concluded picking on 18 October, the latest since we arrived in 2001. It was a touch-and-go experience though, waiting until the grapes were about to fall off by themselves before picking. Our mechanical harvester, driven carefully, certainly brought in the crop so much more quickly and safely (without damage) than the manual alternative could have done, given the very narrow windows for harvesting.

At St Jacques d'Albas, the whites are good this year, due to the cooler climate. We are also happy with the rosé, both wines being very aromatic, accompanied by crisp acidity. Volumes for both wines are marginally down on last year. Cold fermentation for both wines (15 ºC versus 28 ºC for the reds) maintained fruit, freshness and acidity.

As for the reds, they created most of the above-mentioned problems. The Syrah started coming in during the first week of October. Older vines, with deeper roots to seek out water, coped better than their younger, shallower-rooted brethren, given the lack of rain since July. The younger vines displayed signs of hydric stress and phenolic immaturity in some cases. The Grenache suffered most from the cold and wet weather during flowering, with volumes down meaningfully, as noted earlier. This was not a Grenache year! We picked them through the middle of October. The Mourvèdre and Carignan are late ripeners and needed the most hang time, ending 18 October. Like their earlier-maturing Syrah and Grenache cousins, bunches and berries were smaller than usual, giving reduced yields. But the grapes were in good health across the board and very ripe, almost jammy, which is a compensation. Our cellar manager was quoted as saying, 'smells like strawberries!', upon entering the winery, when the Carignan came in.

In August, if asked, I wasn't expecting any miracles from the 2013 harvest for the reds. My sense was that the Languedoc and the Minervois would probably produce easy-to-drink wines for early consumption at best, given the negative prognostications pre-vendange. The whites and rosés showed promise early on by contrast and this has continued in tank. The reds, however, both before and after pressing, have pleasantly surprised us. While being short on juice, the smaller berries were clean (notably for lack of mildew), ripe and very fruity. Some tanks of the older Syrah in particular are showing the hallmarks of being an excellent vintage. The Carignan, a bête noire for us in some years, has also come through and will be a strongly positive addition to the 2013 vintage.

Overall, 2013 was a decidedly better-than-expected harvest which is going to throw up positive surprises, notably in reds. Might the Minervois and other parts of the Languedoc, surprise the critics in 2013?