Minervois 2014 – fine for the unhailed


Graham Nutter of Ch St Jacques d'Albas sent us this report on this year's harvest in his part of the Minervois to demonstrate  that a vintage in the Languedoc can be quite heterogeneous, as discussed in this thread on our Members' forum.

This was a yo-yo year of weather conditions, of vine health and of vintners' temperaments! We have not witnessed such a year of fluctuating conditions and emotions since arriving in the Minervois in 2001. A year which demanded above-average vigilance regarding the health of the vines, a need to be flexible in viticulture and cellar management – and to keep a constant eye on the weather forecast.

Optimism was rampant before the summer, after near-perfect spring weather conditions, allowing good flowering and budding. Remember that 2013 was characterised by a cold and wet spring, which hindered flowering, with dire results for Grenache in particular and a significant drop in its yields for many domaines, including ours (-60% for the Grenache). The 2014 growing season has been the reverse, with yields more than bouncing back under the influence of winter-replenished water tables and excellent spring weather. Grenache, after disappointing us in 2013, is back with interest (+12-15% yield compared with 2012), accompanied by fruitiness and concentration.

As tourists [me? JR] reported though, summer was subsequently unkind to the Minervois vigneron. July and August were characterised by variable weather, with warm and humid air masses (normally dry and hot) coming in from the Mediterranean. The warmth and damp of 2014 was annus mirabilis for fungal diseases in particular, as all gardeners would have noticed. Only rapid (within hours) and generous treatment with broad-spectrum fungicides and/or copper-sulphate would prevent it rapidly spreading across the vines. Many vignerons were either late and/or insufficiently generous in treatment and thus ended up with fields of sickly-looking leaves. As a result, crop yields, notably of whites, were sharply down in some areas of the Languedoc, and what has been harvested in such areas would have been immature, lacking in ripeness and sugars. The caves co-opératives in the Minervois talk of the harvest being down 23%.

The other high-profile and more newsworthy observation in summer 2014 was the above-average incidence of hail. It not only seriously damages the vine, stripping off fruit and leaf, but also means that the subsequent one to two years will also be hit by lower yields as the vine recovers slowly from Nature’s salvos. A number of neighbouring areas to the east and west of us suffered not only hail but also bouts of torrential rain, leading to swelling and bursting of fruit on the vine. Good providence allowed Ch St Jacques d'Albas to escape any serious damage by hail or torrential rain. We are just not in a 'hail corridor', thank goodness.

At Ch St Jacques we picked our whites in early September – and they are fruity and juicy. With another 1.5 hectares coming into production this year, we have been able to double production of white and will more easily be able to meet demand for our blend of Vermentino, Viognier and Roussanne. The rosé is also tasting very well, benefiting from more Grenache than last year, giving the blend (with Syrah) added fruitiness.

We didn't start picking the Syrah and older Grenache reds until after Thursday 25 September – late again compared with the earlier part of the decade. As reported elsewhere, the Indian summer through September and into October was an absolute godsend which helped to complete ripening and add flavour. We completed the Syrah and Grenache harvest on Tuesday 30 September. We then attacked the Mourvèdre and Carignan, ending on Friday 10 October; these too are tasting well. Even the stubborn Carignan, picked just before the grapes fell off the bunches of their own accord, is promising. Patience appears yet again to have been rewarded.

Subsequent work on the reds in the cellars can best be described as 'normal'. The fruit was healthy and ripe, so that little was required to modify the process of fermentation. Some tanks appeared initially to lack some concentration, but a series of déléstages (rack and return) satisfactorily addressed this issue. Pumping over was conducted only once a day and for 15-20 minutes only. Fermentation times were also normal and malolactic fermentation came and went.

Our most acute cellar issue was, ironically, lack of tank capacity. Our régisseur was performing a regular juggler's act, both when the fruit came in and subsequently during fermentation. Yields have fully recovered from the 2013 lows – and with interest. All our tanks are full and négociants are knocking on our doors for juice, notably Grenache. The wines tastes fruity, have good colour, little astringency and consistent natural acidity. All in all, a more than satisfactory year for St Jacques, after the vagaries of the weather in 2014.

Our winemaking consultant, having been initially concerned at levels of maturity in the fields and degree of concentration in tank, is very happy with the final product. Reports from other Languedoc areas have been variable and, combined with the hail and rain, have given the area an initially negative press. As in most years, there will always be variations in weather in the regions that go to make up the South of France. These differences have been particularly marked this year, with absence of hail and control of fungal disease being perhaps the most important determinants of subsequent fruit quality and yield.