The 2013 harvest has kicked off in France, with the Roussillon region beginning to pick this season's grapes on Monday. Roussillon is normally first out of the gate, although the start date this year is 10-15 days later than normal, due to a cool spring.
Domaine de Rombeau was one of the first producers to start picking. At around 8 a.m., pickers arrived to hand-harvest muscat grapes, which are destined to be made into dry white wine. It will be released onto the French market on the third Thursday in October – a month before Beaujolais launches its Nouveau wines.
Pierre-Henri de La Fabrègue, the owner of the Rivesaltes estate, expects yields to be up by 20 percent compared to 2012. “The grapes are in perfect health. There is no disease, no fungus, no spiders,” he says.
Wine growers in and around Rivesaltes are often the first to begin the harvest. Located in the country's southernmost department, it is one of the sunniest areas of France and the muscat grape is an early ripener.
But Domaine de Rombeau doesn't have many muscat vines: there are only five hectares planted on the 100-hectare estate.
One producer who did not want to be named claimed that local growers could take the risk of harvesting these vines early as a “publicity stunt” at the height of the summer season, when tourist numbers are at their highest. “We’re not in Burgundy where the parcels are small," he noted, giving producers the luxury to pick a block early.
But Marc Guichet, of the Pyrénées-Orientales chamber of agriculture, argues that Rombeau has to harvest his grapes so early in order to keep alcohol levels down to 12 degrees in the hot, dry climate.
He expects that more of the region's growers will begin their harvests in the next week, beginning with the white grapes. Most local producers say that red varieties won’t be ready for at least another three weeks, but they're not worried.
“We’re really late, but it’s not serious," said Catherine Jeannin, owner of Mas Crémat in the village of Espira-de-l'Agly. "The vines are looking magnificent."
Roussilon expects that this will be a good year for whites and rosés but it’s still too soon to predict how the red wines will fare.
Growers are praying for warm days and cool nights to allow the grapes to ripen physiologically and retain acidity.
However, Guichet noted: “We could get a deluge – during the equinox, it happens. We could have hail storms, an attack of grape moths, a humid spell.” All of these could all affect the quality of the crop.
“It's always the last days before the harvest that it plays out,” added Guichet.
The Pyrénées-Orientales region, which includes Roussillon, produces 700,000 to 800,000 hectoliters of wine each year.