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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Loire Vintage 2011: ‘Le Grand Ecart’ or 'The Splits'

A large puddle on the top of Les Monts Damnés: 30th August 2011
Note also how lush and green the grass is.

Rich and wonderfully ripe Chenin Blanc in the Quarts de Chaume: 28th September 2011

Here is the 2011 Loire vintage report from Charles and Philippa Sydney, who are based in Chinon. Many in the UK wine trade use the Sydneys as their eyes and ears in the Loire.  

I'm certainly in agreement with them that the vintage was complicated for many producers and that there was a big difference between the weather and the state of the grapes at the start of vintage to those picked later on. I haven't yet had the opportunity to taste any 2011s since the harvest. 

'Loire Vintage 2011: ‘Le Grand Ecart’ or  'The Splits'   
Apparently the wish 'may you live in interesting times' is considered a curse by the Chinese. Here in the Loire, times are certainly interesting, sometimes a challenge too, but equally hugely rewarding - especially in a vintage like 2011!

You'll have gathered from our preliminary report that the start to the vintage was 3 - 4 weeks earlier than usual (around the 22nd August in Muscadet) and less than even. To the extent that early September we gave serious thought to calling this the 'black and white' vintage to reflect the quantities of carbon and sugar being used to correct rot and an obvious lack of ripeness in wines picked in the hot, damp conditions of the start of the harvest.

You may also remember our report on the 2002 'Lazarus Vintage' when we quoted Pierre Couly saying that it was the first 3 weeks and the last 3 weeks that counted - and that the rest of the summer was, frankly, irrelevant...

Which sort of sums it up.... and explains the 'Le Grand Ecart' bit, 'The Splits' in ballet... with some wines showing the extremes of 1994's horrors and others exceeding years like 2005 and 2009 for quality and fruit.

Muscadet was ... compliqué. Given the financial problems of a region still trying to recover from the 2008 spring frost, too many people didn't have the money to treat against rot or mildew - and it showed clearly during the harvest when you could see a patchwork of brown leaves (mildew) contrasting with healthier green - and vineyards that had not been and never will be picked. Tasting the juice, contamination with géosmine was obvious, so it was a great relief to see those négociants who were buying in grapes (Lionel Métaireau chez Bougrier, Pierre Sauvion at GCF's Lacheteau) systematically treating the juice with carbon, racking it onto the lees of the 2010 vintage and boosting the fermentations with aromatic yeasts.

Tasting the wines 6 weeks later was a revelation - dramatic proof of the improvements in winemaking over the last 20 years, as the wines are fresh, aromatic and delightfully easy. Not long keepers, maybe, but they'll be fine until the 2012s come on stream next year.

Meanwhile, further proof of the improvements of the last 20 years was visible chez Pierre Lieubeau at La Fruitière and Jérôme Choblet in the Côtes de Grandlieu, where coherent, reasoned vineyard management allowed them to wait till the grapes were ripe, picking between 11 and 11.5% at harvest.  

For the sauvignons in the Touraine, things were clearly not easy either - with the word 'compliqué' on every grower's lips and serious choices needing to be made on how best to work the grapes as problems of rot and géosmine were widespread, not sparing growers in Sancerre or Pouilly either - while Quincy had to cope with yet another harvest decimated by hail.

For some growers, hand picking with a severe 'tri' selective picking was the answer - in others, I'd say quality was better assured with the new generation of machines like the Pellenc, which with their built-in tri assured a fine harvest with the ability to pick rapidly as grapes reached ripeness.

Despite the obviously difficult vintage, the results are good - big, easy-going wines with loads of fruit, lowish acidity (which may  upset the fans of minerality but which will most certainly please the average consumer) and plenty of concentration and flavour.

And then those 3 weeks of sunshine started to kick in...

The red cabernet francs of Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny are textbook examples of the importance of terroir - and of modern vineyard management: the early-ripening sand and gravel vineyards needed picking by mid-September as they were starting to show signs of rot. Up the slopes, however, better drainage and exposition meant the growers could wait, with Couly-Dutheil, Charles Joguet and Philippe Vatan each waiting until the last week of September to pick their better vineyards, bringing in grapes with (a) a big grin and (b) full phenolic maturity, with degrees in some cases hitting a neat 15°...

The results with these growers are real stunners, wines with huge, fat and soft fruit and that delicious sucrosité and low acidity that comes with genuine maturity - wines easily on a par with (and maybe better than) 2005.

Up river, the chenins of Vouvray and Montlouis are fine too - despite problems we associate with high density planting and its associated low foliage and grapes close to the soil, the vintage is fine, almost certainly better than 2010. There's loads of fruit, loads of flavour and a balance of acidity that'll make these really tasty wines to drink young.

Downstream, though, in the Anjou and - especially - in the Coteaux du Layon, the chenin blanc  has really shown the world-beating potential of the Loire, with Gilles Bigot at the Château de Fesles bringing in his first 'tri of Bonnezeaux at between 22 and 23° potential, while in Chaume young Stéphane Branchereau picked 20 hectolitres (that's 5 x 400 litre casks) with a potential of 32°.

Damn... we could have called this the 'smiley vintage' again!

A final point - prices.... Joe Punter won't have noticed, but over the last 4 years the guys have worked hard to hold or even reduce prices, which are often lower now than they were 10 years ago. This year isn't that different in that we expect your beloved chancellor to raise duty by another 12 pence - but it is different in that for the first time in over five years the pound has gained some ground against the euro, making our wines that touch more competitive - and effectively compensating for that *@xxarggh duty increase, so I hope you'll understand us relaxing a bit of the pressure and accepting the occasional price increase where necessary to ensure continued investments in improved quality.'


Jan-Tore Egge said...

Sounds like we could see some good cabernet franc wines, though the 15% bit makes me a little sceptical.

Jim Budd said...

JT. Will be very interesting to taste the 2011s. There should be some good reds but also very good sweet wines from Anjou.

James said...

Never seen mention of carbon being used in winemaking before. Is it that common in the Loire?

Charles Sydney said...

Hi Jim. Nice to see you use the report and like your pics too - but mine really were taken during the harvest (tho there are some shockers too!) and show the potential of the vintage.
ref Jan-Tore's comment, the answer is 'yes' - and not for the first time. we've got a number of growers who've picked reds at 14 - 15 (yes, 15) over the years - thanks to much better vineyard management and a willingness among more commited growers to seek maturity above tannin. Just look at years like 2003, 2005, 2009 and now 2011!
And no, James, carbon isn't used that often - fortunately! It's to clean any rot from the juice. The alternative could be (is) to fine with cream or milk, but these aren't legal additives (even if you're allowed to use casein!).
There are some lovely wines out there, some cr*p too, but so what's new? It just makes for an 'interesting' year!

Jim Budd said...

Thanks Charles. Although the Sancerre pic was taken shortly before picking started, the one from the Quarts de Chaume was taken during the harvest. Claude Papin amongst others were picking that afternoon.

Charles Sydney said...

didn't mean it that way, Jim - I know it rained ... hence the comments about rot and needing 3 weeks sunshine!just to say that there are pics of grapes as good as they come too and that the ones with my report were also representative :-)