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Harvest Reports: Useful or Useless?

There’s some interesting chat on Twitter today about reporting on a vintage before, during or after harvest time, and whether such early reports have any validity. Some say it’s too soon to make any meaningful comment on the vintage, and that journalists lacking in viticultural qualifications and winemaking experience are not in a position to comment anyway. Others, you will perhaps not be surprised to learn, feel different.

Any tasting report has to have some context; there are issues with primeurs samples, just-bottled wines and even older samples that have to be taken into consideration. The further in advance the report is of the moment when we will eventually want to drink the wine, the more caveats there should be. Harvest reports are really an extreme version of this; they have validity, and provide information, but the caveats are huge, and any ideas we might develop on the wine’s future would have to be very broad. Nobody, for instance, would start scoring at the point of the grapes having just been pressed (I can hear it now, “I give this fantastic Merlot juice a hundred points”).

Although the ideas formed may be broad, they are at least evidence-based. Here is a list of some useful information that can be gleaned from a harvest-time visit.

1. The growing season. A report on the weather during the season and through harvest can give a strong indication as to whether or not there is any hope for good quality.

2. Technical analyses of ripeness can be made, even out among the vines. Knowledge of sugar concentrations and potential alcohol can be informative; my Pithon-Paillé report coming tomorrow provides a good example.

3. Yields. Tying in with the weather report, information can be gained on the yields, and whether this reflects the growing season, or the wishes of the vigneron.

4. The condition of the grapes; are they clean and healthy, or are they peppered with rot? And if so, what’s the discard? What are the mechanisms for examining the grapes and excluding rot?

5. Otherwise, what is the fruit like; small hard berries with thick skins, or larger berries, with a higher juice-to-solids ratio?

Sorting at Sociando-Mallet, October 2012

6. Has the decision to pick been made on the basis of the fruit having reached optimal technical and physiological ripeness, or has it been rushed on by the threat of rain or some other problem?

7. Are the harvest dates relevant? Is it an early harvest, or a very late one? Either can have some influence on the style and quality of the eventual wines.

8. What’s the juice like, is it tasting fresh, rich and clean? Is it a bit green (like some I tasted in Bordeaux in the 2012 vintage)?

9. Visitors also see for themselves what’s going on in terms of selection in the vineyard, method of picking (machine or hand), sorting by hand, table de triage, machine-sorting (such as a Tri-Baie machine) or digital-optical sorting.

10. Finally, it’s also a good chance to connect with the vignerons. They may be busy, but it is one time of the year that you are guaranteed that they will be there, and not on holiday, or off showing their wines at one of the many Salons.

In short, no harvest report is a cast-iron guarantee of the quality of the wines that will result. It’s a first glance at the potential for the vintage. Reports should in my opinion be delivered in that context, expressing hope or concern for the quality of the wine, but no more than that. Harvest reports that declare “this is the vintage of the millennium” or indeed “this vintage is a wash out” are unwise and ultimately probably misleading.

2 Responses to “Harvest Reports: Useful or Useless?”

  1. The harvest reports that I put the most stock in are those reported by the vignerons themselves. The insight one can gain by hearing several vintners’ perspectives from a particular region provides useful high-level context for considering what the wine might become down the road.

    Clearly vignerons’ reports can be self-interested to varying degrees, but OTOH I’ve never heard one of them declare a “vintage of the decade” or century — those over-hyped claims always seem to come from the media or trade…

  2. Hi Kevin

    Thanks, that’s an interesting point, as that’s the exact opposite of some comments on Twitter, who disbelieved what the vignerons themselves had to say, with some journalists claiming they had witnessed outright lying or at least “being economical with the truth”.

    I’ve certainly spoken to vignerons whose words, or lack of them, need to be ‘interpreted’. Some aspects of the 2012 Quarts de Chaume harvest would be a good example of this. Usually, though, I find – like you – most give an honest account of what went on.

    I think it’s the journalists job to synthesise and ‘interpret’ where necessary. If a journo develops an expertise in one or two regions I think this is valid.

    I’ve definitely heard “Vintage of the Century”-type claims from the Bordelais.