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Grape News From France

Alice Brinton  | GOOD TASTE 2014
Break in the Weather
Whoever commands the weather has been less than kind to the French wine industry during 2013. The hailstorms that hit in late July destroyed vines in Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux and the Loire valley. This came on top of the cool, wet weather of spring and early summer, which caused much variation in the size of grapes and uneven ripening in all of France’s wine regions.

But behind every storm cloud is a silver lining and the good news is that the hot days and cool nights of late August helped to ward off fungal diseases and promote slow maturity in the grapes. The even better news is that the 2013 harvest is expected to rise and exceed that of 2012 by about 11% nation-wide according to the French Ministry of Agriculture. While the harvest in Bordeaux is expected to fall in comparison to 2012, in Burgundy it is expected to grow despite July’s terrible hail damage, which hit from the Meursault/Volnay border to Pernand-Vergelesses in the Côte de Beaune.

Despite this shock and awe from the skies, the Burgundy whites look pretty magnificent on the whole and the reds of the Côtes de Nuits reportedly have the potential to be a great vintage. Cautious optimists are predicting that 2013 could be a very interesting year. However, you may want to save any definitive predictions until the grapes are picked for a more accurate forecast of what to expect.

Organic and Bio-Dynamic Operations
This year’s irrational weather caused a major problem for the growing number of organic wine-makers in France. Fighting against disease and pests without a plethora of antidotes, such as fungicides, herbicides and pesticides, is no easy task for the dedicated purist. But an increasingly large number of French winemakers are turning back to techniques used by their great-grandfathers before chemicals came into play in a drive towards uncompromised quality and environmentally friendly production.

It is estimated that about 6% of the vineyards of the Côte d’Or are now being cultivated organically with some of them adhering to the even stricter and infinitely more philosophical biodynamic methods evolved by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920’s. These methods are sometimes scoffed at by sceptics for their use of special soil preparations including concoctions of ground-up cattle horns and a strict adherence to the lunar cycle. The results however can be astonishing. The wines are purer, taste better and reflect their ‘terroir ’. The vines themselves are tougher – less sensitive to rot and disease. The Domaine de la Romanée Conti, the Domaine Leroy and the Domaine Leflaive are just three of the greatest wineries in Burgundy that now practise bio-dynamics. According to renowned wine-journalist and Master of Wine Clive Coates, “Sometimes the extremes of biodynamism sound like black magic. But the point is it works…within a decade, I predict that 10% of Burgundy will be bio-dynamic.”

Alcohol Levels on the Rise
Drinking organic or biodynamic wines may be healthier for all of us in the long run since we all wish to avoid pesticide residues in our favourite nectars. But what about the rising alcohol levels in wine? A single glass of one of my favourite white wines from the Maconnais left me quite light-headed recently until I realised that its alcohol content was 14 degrees.

Experts are unanimous in concurring that alcohol levels in wines worldwide have risen in the past two decades. Here in France, where growers often favour elegance over concentrated fruit, the quest for fully ripe tannins has led to grapes with higher sugar levels which mean wines with higher alcohol levels. Chateau Haut Brion’s 2012 wines are close to 15 percent alcohol, yet are, according to MW Jancis Robinson, “beautifully balanced”. Yes, but drinking two glasses of wine at 12.5 percent alcohol and two glasses at 14 or 15 percent alcohol may certainly unbalance you – not to mention, put you over the legal limit for driving!

Head down south to the Côte du Rhone wine region or the Languedoc-Roussillon and you’ll be hard put to find a wine under 14 per cent alcohol level. As one French wine-maker put it to me, “We all enjoy wine but it must be balanced. For me, when you get to 14, 15 degrees of alcohol, you no longer have balanced wine.” Global warming too has played its part in rising sugar levels and of course no wine lover wants to go back to the days of under-ripe wines. One option might be to introduce grape varieties which deliver lower alcohol in hot, dry, growing conditions into France.

Wine for the Mind
Finally, for all us wine lovers out there, a recent study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry maintains that red wine provides hope for Alzheimer sufferers. Apparently Resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, disrupts the disease
by preventing the harmful clumps of protein that cause brain cells to die from latching on to these same cells. Red wines contain ten times more Resveratrol than white and apparently, wines produced in cooler regions such as Burgundy often have more Resveratrol than wines produced in hotter climates! Time to head to Vino Veritas to replenish your stock of red Burgundies…

Alice Brinton - For a number of years Alice was based in Cairo working for ABC news, the London Times, the BBC and various other news outlets. Alice then settled in France and continued to publish articles in the Sunday Times, Tatler, Saveurs and the London Illustrated News, amongst others. She then began seriously making her abiding passion for wine a working reality by investing in and then acquiring a wine retail business in Cluny. Burgundy is her first love, though her shop – Le Cellier de l’Abbaye - offers a range of wines from all over France as well as a few choice foreigners!!