Loire 2012: Muscadet
The sensible vigneron always looks for winter rain to replenish the water tables if parched, and for cold weather to ensure the vines achieve a deep dormancy, as well as killing off over-wintering vineyard pests. The 2011/2012 winter served up a little of both, with heavy rain in December 2011 and a severe cold snap in February 2012. Snow fell and coated the vineyards in a soothing white blanket. The overnight temperatures were sub-zero for the first two weeks, hitting notable lows on the 4th and 9th of the month, with the lowest reading of the year, -8.4ºC, on February 12th.
March was dry with the occasional cold spell, although this cannot be said of April which saw four periods of heavy rainfall during the course of the month, totalling 105.5mm, well above average. Some areas upstream of the Nantais also experienced frost, especially on April 16th and 17th, which of course has the potential to cause significant damage to the new growth's tender tissues. Reports on this in the Muscadet region were variable, however, with Marie Chartier-Luneau of Domaine Luneau-Papin reporting a little frost in March rather than April, and Rémi Branger of Domaine de la Pépière denying any frost problem at all. The Muscadet vineyards were also largely spared the hail that hit some regions upstream.
Nevertheless, even without extensive frost or hail, cold and wet weather during spring can be harmful to the emerging buds and young leaves, and as May and June were also wet the weather certainly interfered with the subsequent flowering and fruit development. This rolled out in an uneven and stuttering manner, with Domaine de la Pépière reporting a four-week flowering period, a marked contrast to the more typical five days. As a consequence, the growing season began with reduced flowering and problematic fruit set, giving coulure (failure of fruit development) and millerandage (unevenly sized, 'hen and chicken' fruit), and this was a significant contributor to the low yields seen this year, as well as subsequent heterogeneity of fruit ripeness.
Mildew was also a problem, again related to the wet weather during May and June. Things didn't really pick up in July, which was slightly cooler than is usual, and it was also wetter than average, with two episodes of heavy rainfall on the 7th and 13th pushing the total for the month to 61.2mm. This depressing spell of damp weather finally came to an end when summer-proper finally arrived at the end of the month, with a prolonged period of warm and dry weather, with several episodes in August and September where the daily temperatures exceeded 30ºC, and the rainfall for the two months was way below average. The conditions were great for fruit ripening, and many started picking from mid-September onwards (picking generally kicked off between September 17th and 20th), bringing in fruit with 12º - 12.5º in many cases, but up to 13.5º in some. The fruit was largely in before the October deluge arrived; here as elsewhere in the Loire, October was warm and very, very wet. Despite the many difficulties, most vignerons - such as Jo Landron (pictured above) of Domaine de la Louvetrie, Rémi Branger and Marc Ollivier, the Luneau-Papin family and others - were upbeat about the fruit quality and the still-embryonic wines.
So the problem here was not the state of the fruit; the grapes were healthy, and the conditions had engendered fine fruit flavours, the juice rich in potential extract and acidity. The issue with the 2012 harvest was the volume, which is remarkably low. The official press release from InterLoire suggested a 25% reduction, but it is in fact more severe than that, with many domaines reporting less than 25 hl/ha, more like a 40-50% reduction. Domaine de la Pépière declared about 23 hl/ha, Domaine Luneau-Papin about 25 hl/ha; some were much lower, and indeed anywhere between 12 and 25 hl/ha seems to have been possible. At the lower end of this range these are the sorts of figures you might expect for a botrytised sweet wine, Quarts de Chaume or Sauternes, where the berries are very dehydrated by noble rot (and note that these bottles sell for a lot more money than a bottle of Muscadet). (19/2/13)