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Loire Valley 2016: The Frost

Earlier this year the vignerons of the Loire Valley experienced one of the worst frosts for decades, probably the most destructive since the catastrophic frost of 1991 in fact. In this terrible experience they are not alone of course, as many other regions have had a trying time this year; Chablis and other parts of Burgundy were also particularly hard-hit.

Over the coming month or two, as vignerons complete their harvest work, we will finally see the true and exact extent of the damage. Up until now the damage assessments have been nothing more than estimates, but once the vats are full (half-full is more likely I am afraid) the vignerons will know their final yields for the vintage, and we can see how these stand compared with the norm.

I will be out in the Loire Valley next week, only for a couple of days sadly, but I may be able to see a little harvesting, and perhaps pick up a few vibes. In the meantime though, here are a few data points from Bourgueil, Chinon, Vouvray and Montlouis, gleaned from some visits I made a couple of months ago.

Loire Frost 2016

In all parts it seemed as though there was considerable variation, with some losing a vast proportion of their crop, others losing a ‘mere’ 20%. Jérôme Billard (pictured above) of Domaine de la Noblaie was one of the lucky ones (if you can call any of this ‘lucky’).

“I knew 2016 was going to be difficult, as we had such a mild winter. It was so mild that our almond tree, which sits in the courtyard of the house, flowered on December 26th. The frost came at a tricky time as we have had a string of short vintages, the four preceding vintages being variable in quality but all were 30-40% smaller in terms of volume than what we were hoping for”.

The frost only affected the lower sections of Jérôme’s vineyards; above the tree line which separates the upper slopes from the vines on the plain there was no damage. Total loss across the entire domaine was estimated at between 10% and 20%. The problem in Jérôme’s eyes was not solely the frost though, as subsequently he had mildew on leaves and berries, and also a touch of black rot. He deleafed (and planned to green harvest too – this will have been done long ago now), and when I visited in July the vines were looking in rude health.

Loire Frost 2016

Elsewhere in the region his peers were not always so fortunate. On the other side of the Vienne, Matthieu Baudry lost 50% in total. Mirroring Jérôme’s experience the worst-hit vineyards were those on the terraces, and any lower flatter land (so Les Granges and Les Grézeaux then), where the loss was estimated at 70%. The damage was less significant on the slopes. Anne-Charlotte Genet of Charles Joguet gave a similar report, estimating loss of 60% of the crop. Up the road just past Bourgueil Benoit Amirault (pictured above), the son of Yannick Amirault, was singing from the same hymn sheet.

“We had no frost on Le Grand Clos, which is positioned well up the slope. But we had lots of damage secondary to the frost elsewhere. The vines worst hit by the frost were those on the terrace, below the road. Overall we lost about two-thirds of the crop to the frost”.

Moving upstream to Vouvray and Montlouis, François Chidaine (the focus of my tasting report today) lost 70% of the crop in Montlouis, 50% in Vouvray and 80% on his Touraine vineyards. Whichever way you look at it, that’s another massive blow for François. Similarly, Jacky Blot reported losing about 70%. Vincent Carême, meanwhile, considers himself fortunate to have lost perhaps 20%, no more than that. His estimate may perhaps be a little more accurate than others because he has frost insurance (I am not sure about the others – I confess I didn’t think to ask) which means he has undergone a vineyard inspection by an assessor. Vincent also told me that François Pinon’s vineyards were very badly hit, which would be disastrous. If I see François anytime soon, I will check this out for myself.

Now, as spectators, all we can do is wait to see how the harvest goes. If I learn anything new during my visit I will post it here.

The Three Ages of The Bordeaux Drinker

I think I may have entered my third age as a Bordeaux drinker.

If you’re not familiar with the three ages of the Bordeaux drinker, don’t worry, neither is anyone else. This is because I just invented it earlier today, in a moment when my mind was wandering more than it should have been.

The defining moment that separates the first and second ages of a Bordeaux drinker comes when he or she encounters and becomes interested in the wines for the very first time. At that point there is an ‘entry vintage’ at which one dives into the region. It doesn’t have to be a massive en primeur purchase of thirty cases, a few bottles will do. It just has to be enough to connect you with the vintage, so that you experience the wines in their youth, before – provided you bought more than one bottle – you can then come back to the vintage again (and again) in the future.

This vintage draws a line in the sands of time (no-one can ever accuse me if not mixing my metaphors). Wines that were made before the ‘entry vintage’ are only ever experienced as they head towards maturity, without any understanding of how they tasted when young. These vintages belong to your more educated peers, but this is your ‘first age’, wines which you can only experience in retrospect, each one that comes along a little glimpse into this walled-off era. After the ‘entry vintage’, however, these vintages are yours. This is your second age, an era of vintages and wines you know much better. You meet them in their youth (and your youth!), and follow them through the years, as they mature.

Bordeaux

There comes a moment when the second age transitions into the third. This moment is, I think, more difficult to pin down, because we all jump in at different levels when we start, and we all have differing volumes of mature wine in our cellar. The third age begins with the realisation that our entry vintage, the vintage that we once aspired to, is now the vintage that we should drink. I don’t think there is one exact moment this happens, it is perhaps more of a gradual realisation, and I suppose it depends on when you consider a wine ‘mature’. For some it might be ten years. I think Bordeaux of decent quality develops well over a much longer time span than that, at least fifteen or twenty years, and in some cases of course much more. Regardless of how we define it, by now I am certainly securely into my third age. I have watched the young vintages that drew me into Bordeaux develop from embryonic, tannic young wines into mature wines that demand drinking.

The third age should be the era in which we can buy with the greatest confidence, as having had this experience surely brings a deeper knowledge of the region, a greater level of trust in our own palates, and perhaps the confidence to buy based as much on our own beliefs and palate self-awareness as much as the vintage reports, tasting notes and scores coming out of Bordeaux. Sadly, I am not sure my own third age is progressing as I once imagined it would. The problem is, with Bordeaux pricing as sky-high as it is, I think this confidence and self-awareness is now more often directed more towards finding good-value alternatives to Bordeaux, rather than the best the famous (and expensive) châteaux of Bordeaux can give us. But that is a story for another time, I think.