Chris Hardy of Charles Sydney Wines sends this encouraging interim report on the Loire 2017 vintage. He was unable to take photos of Sauvignon in the Central Vineyards because, thanks to a torn hamstring, by the time he could get into the vines, all the grapes had been picked.
As usual, we have spent much of September and October travelling the length of the Loire, watching the grapes come in and tasting juices as the fermentations begin. Now the fun but challenging task begins as we attempt to visit all our producers from Muscadet to St-Pourçain before Christmas, to taste the new vintage and negotiate prices and volumes for next year.
Unlike in 2016, the growing season and weather conditions following the April frosts were almost perfect right up until harvest, which started at the end of August in Muscadet and was generally two weeks earlier than usual in every appellation. Amazingly, several growers have commented on the fact that they finished harvesting in 2017 a couple of days before the start date of the 2016 vintage!
In general, the growers seem very content with the 2017 vintage in terms of the quality – with the exception of a handful of appellations – and they are also satisfied with volume, which is actually up slightly on last year – roughly 10% more for the entire Loire region. The only word of caution is that following a succession of small harvests culminating in 2016, stocks in the cellars remain critically low and some producers are already out of stock while they await the release of the 2017 vintage. This means that there continues to be huge pressure on availability and pricing in all the major appellations.
So, from Muscadet heading upstream, here is a closer look at the harvest in each of the main areas:
Unfortunately Muscadet suffered heavily once again at the hands of the April frosts and overall yields are still down around 40% on a normal vintage. The good news is that the quality is fantastic with excellent fruit, concentration and ripeness and a return to classic Muscadet minerality and freshness which has perhaps been less obvious in the previous two vintages. (Chris Hardy's photo below shows super-ripe Melon de Bourgogne grapes at Dom des Herbauges in Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu.)
April frost hit the Anjou badly but the ensuing good growing conditions meant the final harvest is only down around 15%. Potential sugar levels and balancing acidities are looking spot on, so again another top vintage. The quality of Rosé d’Anjou, Crémant de Loire and Anjou Rouge is a step up on the last couple of vintages. The Anjou Secs will be impressive too but I obviously haven’t yet tasted any of the stickies.
Chinon and Saumur-Champigny
Once again the major enemy was frost. In Saumur-Champigny they were hit for four nights in a row from 26 to 29 April, especially in areas away from the Loire around Varrains. In Chinon, the low-lying Savigny-en-Véron sector between the confluence of La Vienne and La Loire suffered massively with temperatures dipping as low as minus 6 ºC but the rest of the appellation fared better. At harvest the quality and ripeness of fruit was amazing with the only complaint being the lack of juice being produced from the bunches – a result of the great hot, dry summer. So, again, we are expecting yields to be around 15% down on normal across both appellations. (The photo top right, by Chris Hardy, shows Cabernet Franc in Nicolas Paget's organic Les Quinquenays vineyard in Chinon.)
Touraine is a vast region and so it comes as no surprise that there is variation in terms of yields, although happily quality appears to be uniformly good from north to south and east to west. Cheverny shocked me with a staggering 80% loss due to frost and a yield of 12 hl/ha with one producer and another suffered a lifetime worst of minus 50%. AOC Touraine Sauvignon was generally better, and thanks mainly to huge investment in frost protection systems, the average is going to be down just 10% on normal. Vouvray and Montlouis again are below normal in terms of yields and that comes on the back of three small vintages, but the quality is looking good. Alcohol levels are about the same but this year the wines appear to have more intense aromatics and better length and freshness on the palate.
In 2016 it was barely worth harvesting in Menetou-Salon, Coteaux de Giennois and some sectors of Pouilly-Fumé but this year most producers have smiles on their faces and cellars that are almost full. Yields may not be quite 100% normal, but across the key appellations such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, the worst-case scenario is a loss of around 20%, which is just about bearable. My biggest concern is the continued rise of bulk prices in these two key appellations, with Sancerre nudging up close to €8.50/litre and Pouilly- Fumé edging over €7.50/litre and moving rapidly towards €8.
Luckily, although St-Pourçain lost almost all its whites and half of the reds, the quality is exceptional – and we’re going to use the opportunity to launch the Cave’s Pinots 6 months earlier than usual, which means you’ll really get the benefits of all their investments in quality.
2017 has ended up being an exceptionally good vintage in terms of quality with pretty decent volumes in most appellations, which is a long way from the cries of ‘C’est une catastrophe’ that we heard in late April and early May from the mouths of growers situated from source to sea.
Across the length of the Loire, we have been blessed with quality wines exhibiting ripeness, concentration, depth, complexity and wonderful freshness. It is true that there will continue to be intense pressure in the key appellations of Muscadet, Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre due to a combination of reduced volume and increased demand but these are factors beyond our control. While Mother Nature may have the last word, the growers’ investments in frost control are starting to pay dividends – four nights of frost and yields are still up on last year!