The fact that wine, an alcoholic beverage, is also an agricultural product distinct from white spirits is not always clearly understood. Graham Nutter’s detailed harvest report of the 2010 vintage at Château St Jacques d’Albas shows the extent to which wine producers are dependent on weather and the quality of the harvest to make good wine. The report is fascinating, especially for Sommelier India readers interested in viticulture.
“After a winter with low rainfall, a spring of unusual snowfalls, a summer of variable warmth with ultimate heat – and a long ‘Indian summer’ autumn, it was yet another year of putting one’s faith in the Gods for a respectful harvest,” writes Nutter. “Too early to make any sweeping conclusions as to the ultimate product, but quantities are certainly down (again) but quality is excellent, reflecting the dry warmth and north winds of August and September, with little rot or disease. Syrah and Grenache are excellent chez nous.
“Winter 2009/2010 was cold and dry, with little rainfall, and certainly insufficient to replenish the water tables (after two below-average years of 2008 and 2009) and to permit the vines to support the region’s semi-arid summers. We ‘normally’ receive some 650 – 750 ml (25-28 inches) of rain, with most of it in autumn/winter, but the 12 months in question only witnessed some 350 mills up to end-September, putting the vines under real stress, especially the younger vines who have not had time to put down deep roots (remember that most of the Minervois vineyards, especially the AOC plots, are managed under “dry farming”). Unusual snow in March and April provided some limited relief – and scenery more akin to Mirabel than the Minervois. And summer started cool, with tourists complaining of lack of sun! July and August heated up to the relief of all – but with no additional rain since mid-June. And as we entered September and harvest time, we had had only half the normal annual amount. The vines though at St Jacques exhibited surprisingly little stress at this time (no yellowing leaves) but the grapes were certainly not ready for picking. Full of sugars – but far from having phenolic ripeness.
“We picked our (small) harvest of whites – vermentino, viognier and roussanne – early morning on 3 September. Very aromatic, high sugars and more juicy than we expected (a precursor of positive surprises later with the reds?). The young Syrah and Grenache were then picked for the rosé. Again, more fleshy and aromatic than we anticipated. Both are now picked by machine, given the unattractive maths of hand picking. However, we employ our own employee to drive and who – rather than hiring the task out to a contractor, paid by the hectare harvested – operates slowly and thus with more care. Examination of the vines afterwards displayed little, if any damage and ironically left on the vine unripe grapes (don’t fall off easily when unripe). We then waited and waited for the older Syrah and Grenache to ripen, with the Mouvèdre and Carignan to be last. With no rain, the vines were closing down to protect themselves and sucking juice from the grapes in the process. A stressful time for us too!
“Our prayers were partly answered on September 24-25 September, when we received 27 mills (an inch) of rain, just enough to provide comfort to the vines and juice to the grapes. Two days afterwards, we rushed to harvest the Syrah and Grenache, both by hand and machine. Small grapes but very concentrated, giving strong and darkly coloured juice. The Mourvèdre then came in, not as ripe as in 2009, but clean, fresh flavoured and juicy. The Carignan remained stubbornly unripe – and again we waited.
“Rainstorms then hit us over 8-9 October, dropping 150 mills (6 inches – a fifth of an average year) over 48 hours. A disaster for the remaining Carignan? No. Given its thicker skins, inspection showed more benefit than any damage from moisture take-up. It came in on October 18, once the fields had dried out. Thus ended our longest (over 6 weeks) and our latest harvest since 2001, when we bought the domain. But the soil is definitely thankful.
“Given the delicate nature and high sugars of the fruit, cellar treatment has been light-handed to say the least. Cold soaks and slow, low temperature fermentations have been de rigeur for many tanks. The high sugars fermented slowly, as the yeasts strained under the effort. And pumping over has been minimalist. However, the upside was that fruit health and quality was exceptionally good, given the long, warm, dry summer. Memories of the 2003 harvest here, but with higher acidity and with a quality emphasis from the quasi-drought, rather than from heat? The entry-level wines will be accessible early on, while the older vine-based wines will need some cellaring. Late harvests are often good harvests – and 2010 has been no exception.”