I know that I say this every year(!) but it’s not just about the harvest, there are many factors that can influence a harvest, going right back to the growing season and harvest from the previous year:
- Autumn 2016. The harvest finished relatively late – for modern times – it was the end of the first week of October before most in the Côte de Nuits were finished – and the usual suspects (Ponsot, Damoy) went a little longer still!
- In mid-October we started to see some lovely colours in the vineyards – golden yellows and reds – not quite to the fairy-tale effect of 2015, but still very picturesque. The colours were probably a little shortened by the flip-flopping of the weather from pleasant to downright wet.
- November started with plenty of fine but cold weather – beautiful views of the vines too (03 November) – but the first frosts too. It was a frost in the first week of November that persuaded half the leaves to depart the vines (Vosne-Romanée 1er Les Chaumes, right). Daily temperatures of 5° to 10°C were common – which was about 10° cooler than the same time in 2015. The rest of the leaves seemed to hold onto the vines a little longer than in most years – despite that, there were plenty of domaines already pruning from the 1st November.
- December, unlike the previous year when it was possible to work in the vines wearing just t-shirts in the mid-afternoon, was cold and quite consistently cold too!
Beaune. Image from December 2016.
- January, like December, saw a lot of sub-zero temperatures; -8° to -12°C was a common occurence. The weather was cold and so nicely dry underfoot and in the vines. The vignerons up and down the land were content that after previous vintages where Autumn blended into Spring with no real winter, this year there was a ‘proper’ winter. But France is always complicated, and so it was for the vigneron(ne)s too. From my Big Red Diary article in January:
“A large part of France has an air pollution problem at the moment; whilst the cold weather is greatly appreciated in the vines, the first real winter for 4 years, the stable high pressure over France means that the air pollution simply doesn’t dissipate.
There is a new ‘prefectural decree‘ which now prohibits vineyard workers, among others, from burning “green waste in the open air” – so no more smoking wheelbarrows in the vines – a source of much comfort for people working in the sub-zero temperatures.
Apparently, this decree is valid as long as the concentration of particles in the air remains above a certain level. The growers have never had such a mandate before! You are also not allowed to throw another log on your fire in the house too as this is not classed as an ‘indispensable source of heating!”
- February saw the weather pattern change – it was an abrupt end to the sub-zero temperatures – seemingly the winter was over – it was warmer but also wetter – still, after two months of a ‘real winter’ the domaines were very happy. It wasn’t always wet though – one sunny day in Beaujolais I saw my first butterfly and lizard on the same day – it was easily 20°C in the sunshine, if closer to 15°C in the shade.
- March. Whilst still cold at night, March was warmer and drier than February. The vines were starting to flex, and the first buds in the chardonnay burst out from their winter sleep. Pinot noir buds, always a little behind the chardonnay were swelling by the end of the month, but very few were opening. Still, we were over a week ahead of the average year in terms of vine development.
05 April: Pinot in Volnay’s Clos Santenots.
Fiery image, right, from Caroline Parent-Gros
If the first pinot leaves in the Côte d’Or were opening at the start of April, in Moulin-à-Vent the gamay was further ahead – the vignerons there saying a ‘conservative’ 2 weeks ahead of the average growth schedule. The weather kept warm and sunny pushing the growth of the vines, but occasional interludes of weather kept the mind focused; a little hail in Savigny on the 11th, for instance. But this was literally a 6-7 week period of sun and 15-20°C – lovely weather. The blue skies were to continue, but a stark reminder of 2016 arrived too – frost!
In the second half of April most of France’s vineyards suffered due to frost – -8°C was not uncommon. The Côte d’Or all the way down to Beaujolais were kept on tenterhooks, always expecting the worst, but somehow surviving. On more than one day and in remarkable examples of ‘fraternité‘ many, if not all(!), villages and vigneron(ne)s came together, lighting pyres of straw in the vines at 5am. The fires were not really designed to increase the temperatures, rather they brought about a hazy fog of smoke (which wouldn’t have been ‘allowed’ in polluted January) – but why? Frost is insidious but the real damage is done when the sun touches the leaves and stalks touched by the frost – essentially burning the vines. Blocking out the sun for a day or so, does allow some measure of recovery-time for the leaves/buds. It seems that it worked in the Côte d’Or – and Cyprien Arlaud chose to use ‘candles’ in his Clos St.Denis vines – Chablis-style.
- May was largely pleasant, and frost-free too, but it was also generally cooler than April – see here – only at the end of the month did the temperature start to ramp up. The combination of the cold finish of April and the cooler weather of May served to retard the vine growth a little – by the end of May the outlook was that the vines were now only about 1 week ahead of the average. A little light hail was noted in the Côte d’Or but at this early stage of the vintage, without obvious yield implications.
- June. The weather was perfect, if almost too hot for the flowering in the first week of June, abruptly finished by high winds and a couple of days of more stormy weather. Indeed the weather was largely glorious, but the last week of the month saw a very unseasonable 10°C and some stormy weather. With that cold as a backdrop, an announcement from Beaujolais seemed a little incongruous – “At this stage, 2017 is the second sunniest year since 1980 – just behind 2011” – but it was true, and the year so-far had been very dry – at the time I wrote “both pinot and chardonnay are in the best (volume) state that we’ve seen in late June since 2011.”
- July. It seems inevitable each year, but July brought hail. The worst incidence was in Beaujolais on the 10th – an excerpt from Interbeaujolais:
“From Beaujeu to Moulin-à-Vent, the corridor is almost identical to that of 2016. The area concerned is large but to varying degrees according to the zones: the north of Lantignié, Régnié (to a lesser extent), Morgon (Charmes and Corcelette mainly), Chiroubles (Grille Midi especially). Fleurie (Le Bourg, Les Quatre Vents, Champagne …) seem to be the most impacted appellations. Chénas and Moulin-à-vent are also affected. The hailstones were not large (certainly the result of using the diffusers), but the storm was associated with mini wind tornadoes that caused a real “sanding” of some vines.”
In Fleurie with more than a touch of black humour, producers commented that the hail had already harvested La Madone.
On the same day there was hail in Morey St.Denis – hours afterwards there were producers suggesting 40% losses, but a couple of days of reflection brought about a much more sober reaction; possibly 15% had been lost, but there was anyway a large potential yield on the vines – so it was more like a green harvest that they might not now have to make!
- August weather was stable and typically summer hot! And we were again to have a harvest starting in August!
- August 21 saw some of the first picking – in the Beaujolais area by crémant producers, who started a couple of days later in the Côte de Beaune.
- August 25 Olivier Lamy was once-more in the vanguard of early entrants into the vines. Between here and the 8th of September, the vast majority of the Beaujolais was picked. There was a big weekend rainfall in the Côte d’Or – almost 100 mm of rain – which helped those vines with ‘water stress’ and blocked maturities in this largely dry year – but it also allowed the grapes to suck up a lot of water too.
- September 02 saw the first serious excursions into the reds of the Côte de Beaune, even more were at it by Monday the 4th.
- September 06 saw the Côte de Nuits getting started – unusually close to the start of the Côte de Beaune, though they would continue until the 22nd – though a couple went longer.
- September 26 seemed to be the end with the last producers in the Côte d’Auxerre finishing – roughly a week after most of Chablis.
Chablis’ Homme Mort – 24 April 2017.
Chablis was a different story, where there was close to 10 days of continuous frost. In the vines – a little trace electrical heating and water-sprays excepted, the more tradition method to aid protection of the vines are ‘candles.’ Whilst this is effective, it’s certainly not ecologically benign, and it really isn’t best suited to days and days of cold – 400 candles per hectare are required (drone footage). If you carefully use them only between 4am and 9am, the might last for 2 nights – oh, and they cost 8 Euros each. Few domaines were fully prepared for such an event and the suppliers ran out of candles after a few days. Basic Chablis and certainly Petit Chablis won’t tolerate such a cost – that’s why at least 50% of Chablis, and im some areas 80%, were lost in 2017. Even the ‘protected’ grand crus areas will have lower yields – maybe 5-25% less. Insurance is not mandatory and many producers have insurance to cover hail, but frost coverage is much rarer and more expensive.