For the past decade, I have spent harvest time at the same Burgundy estate, sorting the grapes and sticking my head in the fermentation tanks to see what's happening. This year was my 10th consecutive harvest, and in some respects it was one of the most challenging.
It all started promisingly: a warm and sunny fall in 2012 was followed by a cold, cleansing winter – just what the growers wanted. In March, a couple of unseasonably warm days touched on 25°C (77°F): was this the sign of another precocious flowering and harvest?
It turned out that the answer was a resounding no.
April, May and a large part of June were cool, wet, dark and miserable – very wet indeed – as the ducks of Nuits St. Georges discovered. Flowering, in early June, was disrupted by a little rain. It was not damaging in terms of quality, but certainly affected potential quantity – as the tiny millerandage-affected bunches and coulure (unfertilized berries, which lead to fewer berries per bunch) attested.
Late in June, the summer finally arrived, and fine weather followed in July and August with weeks of 30°C (86°F) and higher.
But Burgundian growing seasons have not been without drama in recent years, and this year, the weather was ready to play a cruel trick on producers – from the northern edge of Meursault onwards north to the border between Aloxe-Corton and Ladoix. The afternoon hail on July 23 was the most devastating of three storms, adding insult to injury, with parts of Volnay and Pommard laid waste for the second year in a row.
In the 36 hours that followed, I have never seen producers so depressed, nor have I ever before heard them suggest giving up their profession. It was without doubt the low point of the year.
Outside of the hail zone, producers were rather more optimistic: a small but high-quality harvest beckoned for Côte de Beaune whites and Côte de Nuits reds. The weather was generally much drier than the 2012 vintage when producers had to spray, spray and spray again. The lower humidity ensured that disease pressure remained relatively low during the summer months – and, of course, the dry weather encouraged the grapes hit by hail to shrivel, desiccate and drop to the floor.
The yields were miserly again, but it looked as though there would at least be something to harvest – albeit in October, the latest harvest in the Côte d’Or since 1991. However, the late harvest was no surprise to Laurent Ponsot: “On June 6, I decided to start the harvest on October 8. We did so and it was just perfect, as usual," he explains with his tongue-in-cheek smile.
So, why was the 2013 harvest so challenging?
1. Maturity was far from consistent: some grapes weren't close to being ripe while others seemed just fine, which resulted in a more drawn-out harvest than usual. It was more like two weeks versus the standard seven to 10 days.
2. The weather in September and October didn’t help. Harvest began with pickers in T-shirts enjoying sunshine and 20°C-plus (68°F) temperatures. The early weather forecast suggested a sustained pattern of good weather would arrive after some mid-harvest rain. Instead, it got steadily colder and wetter; there was even a little sleet and ice in the Hautes Côtes.
3. Then there was the grape selection process. Whites were comparatively easy to sort, with most of the selections made in the vineyard, leaving little to do back at the winery. The reds were far more variable, because unripe grapes and botrytis could be found in all but the finest or most lovingly cared for vineyards.
In most vintages, grape sorting – known as triage – either in the vineyard or at the winery is the key to delivering great wine. This year, the triage teams earned their pay: in the past decade, only 2004 and 2007 have needed such meticulous sorting. Yet some vines delivered dream-like fruit – saved from rot by small or missing berries that allowed a drying breeze to penetrate their bunches.
However, a few pinot vineyards in the Hautes Côtes could only produce fruit destined for sparkling or rosé wines rather than red this year: they ran their own races between maturity and rot – in which the rot won. Indeed, some grapes were harvested at less than 11° of potential alcohol in the middle of October; others were never harvested at all.
What, then, are we to make of 2013? In short, low yields and highly variable reds, much better whites.
The yields range from zero for some vineyards subjected to hail, to "reasonable." However, many conscientious growers have harvested just half their normal yields.
Dominique Lafon, of Domaine des Comtes Lafon, says: “Most people are short of crop, with at least 30 percent missing in the Mâconnais. For me, it’s worse – more like 50 percent." He adds: "Yields in Meursault were better, but not by much. Of course, we have only 20 hectoliters per hectare in Volnay – but that’s still more than in 2012.”
Similarly, Caroline l’Estimé, of Domaine Jean-Nöel Gagnard in Chassagne-Montrachet, also reports slightly higher yields in 2013 than 2012, but at Domaine Dujac in the Côte de Nuits, it's a different tale.
“We are making even less wine [in 2013] than in 2012," Jeremy Seysses reveals. “The low quantity is really due to the poor fruit set. The bunches and berries were very, very small, but ironically, this is probably what saved us from botrytis wreaking more damage.”
Whilst it’s clearly too early to define the potential character of the 2013 wines, both whites and reds seem to have achieved balance and show some attractive characters. “Lots of color, pure red fresh fruit, really clean and elegant – [they are] not like the ‘thick’ wines from 2012," says Nicolas Rossignol in Beaune. While they may be "less concentrated" they are "really pleasant," he adds.
L'Estimé agrees: “Tasting the juices during the cuvaison [alcoholic fermentation] showed good fruits and no hard tannins. It’s a nice surprise!”
Seysses also sees an upside to uneven set: “The 2013s have great texture. Millerandage in pinot always results in good texture – as in 2008 and 2010, for instance.”
Playing the "comparative vintages" game, Lafon gets the last word: “If you chewed the skin of the reds, there was just a hint of green – a bit like 1993 – but these days we can work in a finer way than 20 years ago. I’m happy with my reds, but I’m excited about my whites.”