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Loire 2012: Le Grand Petit Vintage

I’m pleased to bring this report on the wines of the 2012 vintage in the Loire, from courtier Charles Sydney. Although it includes some really positive news on quality, the depressing state of play for the vignerons of Muscadet in recent years is made even clearer. Some of the figures and accounts of declassification in the final paragraph are also well worth noting. Over to you, Charles….

2012… a great vintage, making some of the nicest Muscadets, Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs we’ve ever seen.

2012… tiny yields.

So the name is easy : Le Grand Petit Vintage

Dry whites

Sauvignon & Muscadet : First things first : quality is good to fantastic in Muscadet, Touraine, Sancerre & Pouilly Fumé, with the Muscadets in particular promising to be among the best we’ve ever seen, with wonderful balance and complexity.

Unfortunately, a combination of spring frost, hail, mildew and just about any other evil worked together to push quantities way down in Muscadet where they’re between 13 and 25 hectolitres/hectare, which is less than half what they need. Muscadet’s yields are a problem and are compounded by the appellation going from 13000 hectares to under 8000 since the 2008 frosts. As bulk prices – i.e. prices dictated ‘by the market’ – have been pushed way below production costs, growers have ripped up or abandoned 40% of the vineyards. Luckily the serious single estates have survived so far, but we reckon that over half the region’s growers have gone bust or simply given up.

Hopefully the quality of the 2012s will show just how attractive this appellation can be. It may be heretical to say so, but ever lower prices may not actually be in the consumers’ interest and a couple of years with bulk prices for AC Muscadet at 1.20 euros/litre (around £5.99 in the UK) would give the region a chance of recovering – on the condition that the appellation also permits higher yields to let growers keep production costs down. If we can’t do that, the vineyard area will drop another 50% to 4000 hectares and simple quaffing Muscadet will be a thing of the past. (apologies – Phil tells me to lay off the moralizing!)

The Touraine was similarly hit, averaging 25 hectolitres/hectare across the appellation, though some of the more determined producers have managed to keep yields up – the result of investing in the right kit to spray effectively and in being willing to sacrifice weekends and holidays to spray whenever and wherever needed. Whatever – the wines are lovely.

Up in Sancerre & Pouilly, yields are less of a problem as the flowering was fine – and a little rain arrived end September just in time to help the vines recover from the drought, kick-starting the vegetation and softening skins. The result is a lovely vintage with sensible yields, sensible degrees (generally 12.5° – 13°) and perfectly balanced acidity – a sort of cross between 2002 and 2009.

Reds – Pinots

Our guys in Sancerre, Menetou-Salon and over in St Pourçain are ecstatic about quality, with lovely ripeness – and all the concentration that comes with low yields. As an example, with 35 hectolitres/hectare, winemaker Sylvain Miniot in St Pourçain has made some of his best reds ever – and reckons they lost more through the grapes being roasted by the sun and drought than they did through hail or frost!

I have to say that Alphonse Mellot, Domaine Vincent Pinard and Bertrand Minchin deserve a mention – they’ve made some of the finest reds we’ve ever seen at that end of the Loire.

Reds – Cabernet Franc

Starting two weeks later than average (and a month later than last year) was always going to be a gamble, so the rain end September that helped ripen the Sauvignons was less of a blessing here, especially as mid-October saw some 5 inches of rain in just two weeks. Initial expectations of starting picking around the 15th October went through the window, leaving growers – and you – with a choice:

The easy option is to pick early, avoiding any risk of rot and dilution – but with the risk of higher acidity and that green, ‘raspberry leaf’ herbaceous-ness we associate with unripe grapes. That’s cheap and safe – and definitely less exciting.

Alternatively, you hang in there, accepting slightly higher costs, happy that all the work you’ve done through the spring and summer will pay off : not just de-budding, de-leafing, letting the grass grow between the vines…but also being ready and willing to go out and spray effectively whenever necessary with the right spray in the right place at the right time – and with the right pulvérisateur (this is not a great year to show how sustainable organic viticulture is!).

All the red producers we work with had the balls to do just that : to wait and to pick as and when the vines were ready, happy to leave a percentage of the crop on the ground. Their gamble paid off as degrees, while not rising, didn’t drop – but tannins ripened and acidities fell. So, while there may not many great, concentrated wines to lay down, there are some fab, sweet-fruit drinking reds out there that the consumer will just love.

Chenin Blanc

First things first : there won’t be any great moelleux this year – but growers have stocks of the truly great 2010 and 2011 vintages, so that’s not really a problem.

For dry and off-dry Chenins, things are looking surprisingly good, though again, yields are
down.

In Vouvray and Montlouis the wines are fresh, clean and nicely aromatic. They’re certainly less concentrated than 2009 and 2010, but this should make for a pretty, consumer-friendly vintage – and growers like Jacky Blot, who did some serious selective picking at harvest (15 hectolitres/hectare across the Domaine de la Taille aux Loups this year) have made some superb ‘secs‘.

In the Anjou and Savennières, the dry whites are truly awesome. The best have that mix of complexity, gras and salinity that’ll make your mouth water. Everything was right – until they started to pick the first moelleux, and then it rained. ‘A great year to go frog-hunting’ quipped Claude Papin after suffering 180 mm of rain in three weeks – though things did change with wind and sun during the last weekend of October.

Some figures: Stéphane Branchereau produced 20 hectolitres of liquoreux in Chaume this year – from 7 hectares of vines. That’s less than one barrel per hectare. Claude Papin and his sons René and Christophe managed to bring in 3 barrels from Quarts de Chaume with a potential of 25°… but they’re going to declassify that and re-assemble it with their Chaume. And in Bonnezeaux, Gilles Bigot at Chateau de Fesles worked his butt off all year to make a great sticky – and then declassified the wines from his Bonnezeaux vines to ‘simple’ Layon. It’s not just Yquem that takes its reputation seriously!

So there you have it : Le Grand Petit Vintage.