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Loire Valley 2012 Harvest Report: Update

Another message from Loire courtier Charles Sydney, received yesterday, following on from his previous Loire 2012 report:

The 2012 harvest is pretty well over, with just a few parcelles of chenin hanging out in the Layon, waiting for the weather to go cold, sunny and windy (the forecast is good), in which case we may get some stickies this year after all. Keep praying!


Dry whites – Sauvignon & Muscadet: as per, quality is good to fantastic in Muscadet, Touraine, Sancerre & Pouilly Fumé, with the Muscadets promising to be among the best ever. Quantities are way down in Muscadet and Touraine but look fine in Sancerre & Pouilly.

Muscadet’s yields are a problem and compounded by the appellation going from 13000 hectares to under 8000 as growers have ripped up or abandoned 40% of the vineyards since the 2008 frosts as bulk prices have been way below production costs. Luckily the serious single estates have survived so far. Hopefully you’ll be able to use the quality of the vintage to really put across to the consumer just how attractive this appellation can be.

The 2012 harvest in the Clos de l'Echo, Couly-Dutheil

Reds – Cabernet Franc: starting 2 weeks later than average (and a month later than last year) was always going to be a gamble, so the rains at the end of September that helped ripen the Sauvignons were less of a blessing here, especially as the last couple of weeks have seen about 5 inches of rain. That said, there’s been hardly any rot until this week (picking is now effectively over) so although there’s obviously been some concentration lost as growers waited for ripeness, this should be a pretty and easy-drinking vintage for the Cabernet Francs.

Reds – Pinots: Our guys in Sancerre and over in St Pourçain are pretty ecstatic about quality, with lovely ripeness – and the concentration that comes with low yields. With 35 hectolitres/hectare, winemaker Sylvain Miniot in St Pourçain reckons they lost more through the grapes being roasted by the sun and drought than they did through hail or frost.

The 2012 harvest by Claude Papin, Château Pierre-Bise

Chenin Blanc – Vouvray, Montlouis & the Anjou: First things first : there won’t be any great moelleux this year – but growers have stocks of the truly great 2010 and 2011 vintages, so that’s not a problem.

For dry and off-dry Chenins, things are looking surprisingly good, though again, yields are down. In Vouvray and Montlouis the juice is tasting fresh, clean and nicely aromatic. Less concentration than 2009 and 2010 especially, but this should make for a pretty, consumer-friendly vintage – and growers like Jacky Blot, who really did a serious ‘tri’ at harvest should make some super ‘secs’.

Meanwhile, the hand-picked chenins of the Anjou are promising to be really lovely, with some real ripeness and concentration.

The proof of the pudding is of course in the eating, and we’re about to start tasting with our growers all along the Loire. We expect to send you a ‘real’ vintage report early in the New Year.

Enjoy! – Charles.

Bernard Magrez buys Clos Haut-Peyraguey

It was officially confirmed on October 22nd – although the news hit Twitter courtesy of François Mauss during the preceding weekend – that Bernard Magrez and Martine Langlais-Pauly had agreed the sale of Clos Haut-Peyraguey. It’s an interesting story, not least because of rather convoluted path Magrez has taken to arrive at this point. Having been on the prowl for a Sauternes estate to add to his already impressive portfolio of Bordeaux properties which already includes Château La Tour Carnet and Château Pape-Clément, this isn’t the first time Magrez has bought an estate in the region this year. It is the first not to slip through his fingers at the last minute though.

Although the owner of about 40 estates in Bordeaux, until recently Magrez had only one in Sauternes; a small property named Latrézotte which he used for the production of a cuvée named Le Sauternes de Ma Fille. A belief in the growing Asian appetite for Sauternes led him to seek out a larger and perhaps grander estate, however, and it was widely reported in April 2012 that he had purchased Château Romer. As indeed he had…..sort of.

Bernard Magrez buys Clos Haut-Peyraguey

First up, a few words on Romer; there’s a great deal of potential for confusion here, as neither Romer nor the slightly better known Romer du Hayot have featured very much on Winedoctor over the years. Just to briefly clear things up, Romer was a Sauternes estate that was classified as a deuxième cru in the 1855 classification of Sauternes and Barsac. Then, if I recall correctly, the estate was broken up as it was divided between heirs, and the major part of the estate came to the Hayot family. This became the Romer du Hayot we know today, and which I list among the second growths on my page on the 1855 classification of Sauternes and Barsac. Meanwhile the other parts of the estate remained as Château Romer. I would think both are entitled to the deuxième cru ranking today, although Romer du Hayot does not even have a château to its name, this having been demolished during the 1970s when the autoroute was routed through the Sauternes vineyards. The vineyards of both are located just on the other side of the autoroute from Château de Malle.

So why “sort of”? Well, as soon as the Société d’Aménagement Foncier et d’Établissement Rural (more conveniently known as SAFER), an organisation intended to protect the interested of young (and perhaps financially disadvantaged) vignerons, learnt of the transaction between Bernard Magrez and proprietor Anne Farges, it intervened in favour of François Janoueix, a young vigneron who had also been interested in buying the estate. The sale was off; Magrez was, unsurprisingly, furious.

Nevertheless, unabashed, he continued his search for a property to buy. I believe Sigalas-Rabaud was considered, although it was – as we all learnt this week – Clos Haut-Peyraguey on which he settled. Proprietor Martine Langlais-Pauly was on a roll here, as quality at this estate has been climbing higher and higher in recent years. I visited in July, and saw no indication that the property was for sale; the only element of my visit that didn’t go to plan was the absence of Martine, with whom I had personally made the appointment. I didn’t think it suspicious at the time (what can I say….I’m used to being stood up!) but with the benefit of hindsight I wonder if negotiations regarding the sale of the property – which has changed hands for an undisclosed sum – took precedence?

I look forward to seeing what changes Magrez makes at Clos Haut-Peyraguey, and assume that – being a well established first growth – it will continue an independent existence within his portfolio (Magrez is not averse to amalgamating properties, or earmarking one for the production of a second wine for another). In the meantime I will update my Clos Haut-Peyraguey profile as soon as possible.

Opalie from Coutet

In July I spent a day making flying visits in Sauternes, to Coutet, Clos Haut Peyraguey and Yquem. Perhaps the major discovery of the day was a tasting of a new wine, poured at Château Coutet by proprietor Aline Baly, called Opalie. I am reminded of this tasting this evening by Twitter activity – prompted by the official launch of Opalie this week.

The first official vintage is 2010, although there was a trial run in 2009, the results of which were not deemed satisfactory and the wine sold off; I think the oak was a little heavy-handed, although Aline didn’t go into details. The name is derived from the plural of opalus, which as Aline explained at the time was a deliberate ‘gemstone’ association. The fruit is sourced “from the best parcels” of the Coutet vineyard, says Aline, unlike the previous dry white, the Vin Sec de Château Coutet, which was always sourced from vines in Pujols, distant to the Coutet vineyard, and thus had the Graves appellation.

Coutet Opalie 2010

The production is limited to 3000 bottles, and the wine is produced in a new cellar equipped solely for this wine. As is the case with all Coutet wines, it has been made with consultation from the Mouton-Rothschild team. And in keeping with this, the price will not be anything other than wallet-busting I think.

Opalie de Château Coutet (Bordeaux) 2010: A blend of 50% Semillon and 50% Sauvignon Blanc. Aromatically this is fresh, fruit-rich and fragrant. A very confident nose, showing Semillon rather than Sauvignon Blanc character. There are notes of honeyed white flowers, but also some new oak here. The palate is full with a creamy edge to it, showing golden fruit bound by a marked oaky grip and some solid substance from the 14.5% alcohol perhaps. Substantially framed, with good acidity and a solid, grippy finish. But I find the oak to be dominating the character of the wine somewhat; otherwise my score would be higher I think, as the raw materials are very good. 16/20 (July 2012)

Speaking (if that’s the correct verb) with Jancis Robinson and Jeannie-Cho Lee on Twitter, both felt the oak to be less obtrusive than I did, with Jancis suggesting it may have integrated over the last few months. I hope I get a chance to retaste to see if that’s the case.

Loire Valley Harvest Report

Charles Sydney will probably not be an unfamiliar name to most Winedoctor readers. Charles works as a courtier in the Loire, making connections between vignerons and retailers, and even fashioning a range of special cuvées – working with a number of his vignerons – under his La Grille label, which has achieved some very good shelf positions in the UK. He’s always ready with a report on the Loire harvest. I received this message from Charles on October 8th. My apologies for taking so long to publish it here.

Over to Charles:

Bit grey out there today, so we’re back in the office with a chance to catch up on the harvest.

First things first : we’ve watched Muscadet, Touraine, Sancerre (harvest pictured below) and Pouilly coming in and quality looks really, really good.

The 2012 harvest in Sancerre

Which is almost miraculous after a year when growers have faced everything from spring frosts to hail, mildew and – worst of all – a drought that lasted all through the summer and right up to the first days of picking.

The result is a teeny harvest in Muscadet – at a mere 20 – 25 hectolitres/hectare it’s around 50% down (which is just what the guys in Muscadet didn’t need), but with a quality that I don’t remember being priviliged to see before… lovely ripe, golden, almost viscous juice with bags of flavour and a nice touch of acidity to balance. Sort of 2003 crossed with 2010.

In the Touraine, Sauvignon yields vary from 18 to 50 hectolitres/hectare – a range in part due to the pressures of frost and much to the individuals’ willingness and ability to keep things under control. The juice is great – loads of flavour and a tingle of acidity.

The 2012 harvest in Sancerre

Meanwhile, up in Sancerre and Pouilly things are looking even better, with just enough rain pre-harvest to soften the skins enough to let the guys press the grapes! Yields look OK (say 50 hectolitres/hectare) and quality is looking lovely with hardly a rotten grape to be seen (as pictured above). Jean-Marie Bourgeois compared it to a cross between 2002 and 2009.

‘Ouf!’ as they say!

Vouvray and Montlouis are sort of starting – and we’ll keep our fingers crossed for the reds.

More anon!

Thanks for this report Charles. It loks as though in the Loire, as with my experiences during my recent visit to Bordeaux, the dry whites are promising much. Yields may be down (bad news for the growers, but not usually for drinkers, despite theoretical concerns about availability) but the juices sound rich and flavoursome and, importantly, as they were in Bordeaux, rich in vibrant acidity.

The concern here, as it was/is in Bordeaux, is with the later-picked fruit for the red wines and of course – in both regions – the sweet wines. I don’t feel a great deal of optimism for either at present.

Two from Thieuley

Two wines tasted here, from Château Thieuley. I visited this estate some time back, perhaps six years ago now, but never got around to writing it up, which was remiss of me. The property is a source of good value Bordeaux, which – as I keep reminding myself – really does exist. As is often the case, however, at this level, on these soils, the white wines often outclass the red. Hence my preference for the whites here, from two recent vintages.

It was impressive to see a wine at this price point (about 10 Euros I think – both were bought in France) bottled under DIAM taint-free cork. The Thieuley team – once headed up by Francis Courselle but his daughters Sylvie and Marie now hold the reins I believe – obviously mean business.

The 2010 went really well with some pan-fried salmon and home-made hollandaise I whipped up (I found eggs and butter in the fridge….how could I resist?) when in Bordeaux the week before last (was it that long ago already – how time flies). The 2008 did a similarly good job with some half-barbecued-half-steamed cod with chilli flakes at the poolside. You get the idea. Bordeaux works very well with fish; you just need to make sure its the right colour (the wine obviously – the fish can be any colour you fancy).

Château Thieuley Blanc (Bordeaux) 2010: Bottled under DIAM. A very pale hue in the glass. The nose is very much dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, which brings a fairly grassy element to the aromatics, along with slightly richer, sweeter notes of white grape and melon. Some of these latter characteristics must surely be Semillon related though. There’s also a slightly smoky, sandy feel to it that I rather like. The palate is gently fleshy, but with good firm, dry and savoury grip giving it shape and substance in the mouth, and showing a lot of bite without seguing into greenness towards the finish. A very attractive wine, with plenty of pithy bite to it, showing all the character and punch of the 2010 vintage. Long and gently spicy finish. 16.5/20 (October 2012)

Château Thieuley Blanc (Bordeaux) 2008: Bottled under conventional cork. A blend of equal parts Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from vines grown on gravelly-clay soils, fermented in stainless steel, with temperature control. The nose here is fresh with bright fruit, the aromatic character currently dominated by the Sauvignon Blanc, with something of a stony-steely edge to it. As the nose suggests it has a very clean style on the palate, fresh albeit with a supple weight, and also a rather green and herbaceous edge to the fruit. Not unattractive, although surpassed by more recent vintages I think. 15/20 (July 2012)

Cos d’Estournel: New Spa, New Manager?

For many years now, Jean-Guillaume Prats has been the public face of Cos d’Estournel. In fact, the association between Jean-Guillaume and the estate in question has been so strong that I have on occasion found it easy to forget that he is manager here, not proprietor. His presence during the primeur tastings was always confident, forthright and ultimately charming as he delivered what was always one of the more positive spins on the latest vintage.

Jean-Guillaume Prats at Cos d'Estournel, April 2012

The Prats family did indeed own Cos d’Estournel up until 1998, when it was acquired by the Merlaut family’s Taillan Group, an organisation best associated with Chasse-Spleen and Gruaud-Larose, to name just two of their properties. Two years later Cos was sold again, this time to Michel Reybier, a name better associated with luxury spas, apartments and hotels than vineyards. His hotels and spas can be found in Saint Tropez, Paris and Geneva. And although he owns vineyards in Hungary, Cos d’Estournel remains the jewel in the crown when it comes to the viticultural side of the operation.

For the past few years Jean-Guillaume Prats has been overseeing a huge amount of building work at Cos d’Estournel, more so than at many other cru classé châteaux. Other estates have seen renovation and restoration, but the work at Cos d’Estournel goes on and on. On my most recent visit to the estate just a few weeks ago, the cranes were still in position, lorries and other construction vehicles dotted about the screened-off building site at the back of the domaine. The picture below was taken even earlier this year, in April 2012. You have to wonder – with the château’s golden sandstone now restored and gleaming in the Bordeaux sunshine, and the multi-million-euro cellar with its laser-welded stainless steel milk vats finished years ago, why the work goes on. The word in Bordeaux is that Cos d’Estournel will be the latest addition to Michel Reybier’s portfolio of luxury accommodation, a vineyard and spa combined. Well if it’s good enough for Smith-Haut-Lafitte (home to luxury spa Les Sources de Caudalie), why not Cos d’Estournel?

Crane at Cos d'Estournel, April 2012

In his time since he was appointed manager, in 1998 at the time of the Taillan takeover if I recall correctly, Jean-Guillaume Prats has shaped Cos d’Estournel into a dark, extracted, saturated, concentrated, occasionally inky example of St Estèphe. The wines divided opinion; some loved them – Parker and those who emulate his scores in particular – but others were less convinced. I would include myself in the latter category. I don’t deny that Jean-Guillaume has had a great deal of success with the path he has taken, but personally I think the style he has given us from Cos d’Estournel works fine when souping up the rather dull and austere wines of the Médoc – so hats off to him for his rather attractive and drinkable Goulée – but a more sensitive hand might, for my palate, be more beneficial when working with a great terroir like that at Cos d’Estournel.

I know a few others feel the same, and so the news of his departure – which filtered out of Bordeaux on October 15th – will no doubt be met with a mixed reaction. Some will no doubt be disheartened, and shocked to hear of his departure in the middle of harvest. I don’t think this is the result of a heated mid-harvest bust-up though, like that between Pinguet and the Hwangs (OK, that wasn’t mid-harvest, but it was certainly acrimonious), as Jean-Guillaume won’t be leaving in the middle of the harvest (an event that did befall Lafon-Rochet only a few years ago – catapulting Basile Tesseron into the hot seat) until January 2013. Rumour has it that he has his eyes set on pastures new, away from Bordeaux (rumoured to be Spain). This will mean new blood at Cos d’Estournel, and I wonder what effect that will have on the style of wine. Whatever happens, I wish the charming and ebullient Jean-Guillaume well with his future career.

Bordeaux 2012: Setting the Scene

I have visited Bordeaux three times this year, April for the primeurs, three weeks in July, and last week a third harvest-time visit. Today I begin a few reports from the most recent of these visits, starting with today’s update from Sociando-Mallet. First, though, I thought it would be appropriate to set the scene with a brief recap of the growing season so far, to at least provide some context prior to this and other forthcoming reports from my trip to the region. I will produce a more detailed report on the vintage next year, to accompany my definitive primeurs report on the vintage and wines, but for the moment brief synopsis of the 2012 story-so-far should provide sufficient context.

Bordeaux 2012: The Story So Far

By the time of my visit to Bordeaux in October 2012 the vintage had already proven to be a difficult one, even before a single grape was plucked from its mother vine. In a reversal of what was seen during the 2011 growing season, which was characterised by an unexpectedly hot spring, the weather during the first half of 2012 in Bordeaux was wholly disappointing; in particular spring was cool and wet, impairing and retarding flowering. And this inclement weather persisted right through until mid-July, bringing a constant threat of mildew, and the use of sprays to hold at bay the advancing army of mould spores was a necessity. This meant for the vineyards managed along ‘conventional’ means the use of chemical fungicides, although it saddens me to think of chemical treatments as being ‘convention’, and for the organic and biodynamic adherents copper, a toxic heavy metal arguably no kinder to soil microflora than synthesised chemicals. Whichever poison you prefer, you can be assurred that the vineyards were heavily dosed with it through spring and into early summer.

Bordeaux 2012: dried mildew, July 2012

In mid-July, however, the weather turned. This was to my personal advantage as I spent three weeks in the region during the summer, and I was able to leave my family contentedly sunbathing at the poolside while I dashed off for appointments at Lafleur, Tertre-Roteboeuf, Teyssier and the like. What residual signs of mildew there were in the vineyard soon dried up (the leaf above shows a few brown spots, all that was left by late July), and the vines could get on with the job of ripening their fruit. There were, however, three major problems with this. First, the cool weather impaired fertilisation and development of the fruit, so some bunches were a mix of small undeveloped and larger normal berries (millerandage, sometimes called ‘hen and chickens’ or the less common but no less charming ‘pumpkins and peas’). I didn’t spot many such bunches during my visits in all honesty, but there were some here and there, such as those pictured below in the vineyard of a Margaux cru classé estate. Secondly, uneven and stuttering flowering resulted in a staggered fertilisation and fruit set, so that there was a greater degree of variation in ripeness of the berries on the vines than is usual. Thirdly, because of the delay in flowering, the vines were several weeks behind schedule.

Bordeaux 2012: millerandage, October 2012

I believe that, come the more detailed reviews of the vintage during next year’s en primeur circus, this late and uneven flowering will be regarded as the defining moment of the vintage. Although as the harvest neared the ripeness of the fruit on the vine appeared to gain some homogeneity, by early October most fruit – not just the later harvested Cabernet Sauvignons, but the Merlots too – was yet to ripen fully. The whites were brought in towards the end of September, but in early October, at a date by which in 2011 the entire harvest – dry whites, reds and sweet whites – had been completed, in 2012 most of the red grapes (and sweet whites) had yet to be picked. The Bordelais watched the skies and the regular Météo reports with more than a hint of anxiety. They needed several more weeks to fully ripen their fruit.

Would the weather gods show kindness?

This, in a nutshell (as indicated above, I will pen a more detailed report for my primeurs review next year), was the situation as I arrived at Château Sociando Mallet in early October 2012. For my report from that visit, see my Harvest Report from Sociando-Mallet.

Bordeaux 2012 Harvest

I thought today I would post a few comments on the Bordeaux 2012 harvest, and “harvest reports” in general, to complement my rather hurried “Lafite Picks” post made yesterday. I’ve made a few visits in the last 24 hours, and tasted a lot of berries on the vine. I’ve tasted some 2012 musts and also some 2012 wine (white wine only, at this stage!).

None of which really allows any comment on the state of the 2012 vintage. We all know there is a lot of hype around Bordeaux, especially around the top 250-or-so cru classé (or similar level) châteaux. I’m not here to promulgate any overly positive message that the Bordelais might want to put out. But I can talk about what I have seen in the last few days, and what that might mean. But on the whole, speaking bluntly, it is too early to say anything on the quality of the 2012 vintage. And even where I can comment, my thoughts can’t be extrapolated across the whole region.

Bordeaux 2012 harvest

Firstly, on the whole, the white grapes for dry wines have all been picked. Other than on a few “nursery” or “library” vines (some château keep a row of all the local varieties, and sometimes more exotic varieties too, just for show) I haven’t seen any white grapes anywhere. And the white fermentations are on the whole well underway. Yesterday I tasted 2012 barrel samples at Château Brown in Pessac-Léognan, including Sauvignon Blanc (the fermentation begun in steel then transferred to barrel, with 13º potential and still 4 g/l residual sugar – shown above), Semillon (managed as per the Sauvignon Blanc) and an experimental batch of Semillon (fermented in stainless steel with oven-treated oak staves within). The last sample may sound unappealing, but it had such delicious fruit and vibrant acidity it was in fact the most delectable of the three samples. But all tasted good. So there is a potential for quality in the dry whites in 2012 I think, especially from those estates who delay harvesting and look for maturity most of all, so along with Brown that means Domaine de Chevalier and Smith Haut Lafitte. But more than this I can’t say. Nevertheless, it may be that just as the dry whites in the difficult-for-reds 2011 vintage were a success, the same may be true in 2012.

Bordeaux 2012 harvest

Reds are another story. First of all, most fruit remains on the vine. Yes, as I posted yesterday, some have started picking, always Merlot at this stage. But this is a vintage that is running close to the bone. Touring a vineyard with a Derenoncourt consultant today he advised waiting until next week to start one plot of Merlot, and waiting another week after that for a second plot. Thus on some estates harvest will not really get underway for another week or so yet. And then the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon will have to come in. Certainly, tasting the grapes off the vine, they on the whole remain green. The pips are green and covered in adherent flesh, rather than the drier, more brown mature pips. Some skins still taste thick and unripe. And some grapes – the Cabernets especially – still taste overtly green. Many estates will be holding off for several weeks yet. This is going to be a very late harvest!

Some have sent out the pickers though, such as Beychevelle and Lafite, as I stated earlier this week. Another is Sociando-Mallet, who I visited today. The reception area was a hive of activity, with crate after crate of grapes coming through, the fruit going across the twin sorting tables before destemming. I tasted some fresh 2012 Merlot must, still more grape juice than wine. The slightly disconcerting character I found here was an overt greenness to the wine, which along with the Merlot fruit character also had vegetal notes of celery. If I had tasted it blind I might have guessed we were in the Loire. A Loire co-operative, to be more precise. Let’s hope the Cabernet (like the bunch pictured above, in the vineyards of Château Serilhan in St Estèphe) and other later picked fruit shows better.

So, I will look forward to tasting the whites at the primeurs. As for the reds, I will cross my fingers. The Bordelais need more dry and warm weather for several more weeks yet. This harvest could even run into November – it woudn’t be the first time.

Lafite Picks

I’ve been here in Bordeaux for a few days – it’s a multipurpose trip, and I’ve been very busy doing other things Monday and Tuesday, hence the lack of posts since the weekend. Sorry! I have managed to swing by at a number of estates though, whenever there was a free moment. Even by just doing this I have managed to catch sight of a lot of picking activity.

On the better terroirs, fruit is already coming in; these will all be Merlots at this stage, the Cabernets (Sauvignon and Franc) will come in later. So up and down the Haut-Médoc there are harvesters everywhere. At Beychevelle there are signs telling drivers to slow down because there are large numbers of pickers crossing the road between château and vineyard. At Mouton-Rothschild, every spare corner of land around the estate has a camper-van parked on it, housing hundreds of pickers waiting for the starting gun to be fired. And there are coaches trundling up and down the D2, not full of tourists (well, one I saw was) but full of pickers being driven out to the next vineyard to be worked.

Picking at Lafite, October 2012

And they are picking at Lafite-Rothschild – this vineyard is just alongside the D2, as you head out of Pauillac up towards Cos d’Estournel.

Picking at Lafite, October 2012

Pickers fill buckets, which are emptied into the yellow hods, which are then tipped into a trailer ready for transport back to the cellars. On closer inpection the berries look (and taste) generally very good – although I have seen a few shrivelled berries I haven’t noticed any issues with rot or otherwise.

Hopefully today, with a little more free time on my hand now, a look at Pomerol or Pessac. Wherever the road takes me……!