I’m back at my desk after a couple of weeks in the Cape which, like the Loire, experienced a somewhat unpredictable growing season. Here’s the heads up on the 2011 vintage in the Central Loire from the generic body, Les Vins du Centre-Loire. It represents the producers of Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé, Menetou-Salon, Quincy, Reuilly, Côteaux du Giennois and Châteaumeillant.
Unusual and unpredictable weather for our classic wines. Summer weather in spring, autumn weather in summer: an extraordinary set of weather patterns shaped the 2011 winegrowing season. In April and May the vines experienced unusually rapid growth which continued right up until flowering; then things settled down again, and normal growth and ripening patterns resumed.
2011 is bound to go down as one of the earliest vintages since the famous harvest of 1893. Despite the weather, the wines are just as we had hoped and expected: full and supple on the palate with the classic Loire freshness, well-defined flavours and the potential to broaden out and develop over the next few months.
In the Vineyard
Temperatures were mild towards the end of winter and bud-break came early, around the first week in April. A very warm, dry spring (2.7ºC above average in April and May, rainfall down by 65%) caused an almost unprecedented rate of growth; each new phase followed the last at a frenzied pace, leaving only 53 days between bud break and flowering instead of the average 65. Flowering itself was rapid, three weeks ahead of schedule and was over by the end of May.
And then everything changed. Temperatures fell, especially between July 14th and August 15th. It became more humid; and not a moment too soon for the grapes on which the frenetic pace was starting to take its toll. The vines recovered well, took up the moisture they needed and quickly got back to normal.
The temperature rose again during the ripening stage; pockets of thundery rain sped up ripening but had a negative effect on plant health in certain places. Apart from the hailstorms which caused some severe damage in part of the Quincy vineyard on May 2nd, the weather was not quite so unkind at harvest time. Mildew and oidium, the two main vine diseases, were relatively superficial, and little remedial intervention was needed.
Early development and healthy foliage were among the first indicators of a high quality vintage. Despite rapid development in most areas, the ripening phase was slow. Patience definitely proved to be a virtue this year: in addition to monitoring the sugar-to-acidity balance which quickly reached the required levels, wine growers were well advised to taste the berries to assess flavour ripeness. Delaying in this way was a feasible option as the grapes were generally in good health, except for the 10% or so of parcels where botrytis made a worrying appearance.
Where grape health was compromised, débourbage (whites) and painstaking tri (hand picking) for the reds helped to “clean up” the harvest and maintain a high level of quality. The grapes began to show good levels of sugar (but not excessive, as in 2009) alongside relatively low acidity. Thanks to mild temperatures and an often overcast sky, freshness of flavour has not been compromised.
Harvesting was staggered over almost a month, and the weather was kind throughout. The terroirs which had suffered from lack of water during June and July were the first to be ready; the first grapes were picked from August 29th onwards, in Sancerre for whites and Pinot Noir in Reuilly for reds.
Reds and whites were harvested simultaneously. In the Central Loire most were harvested between 5th and 17th September with the last crops coming in on September 22nd. Never before has a harvest been over before the end of summer; not even 2003 and 1976 were quite this early.
2011 Vintage: First Impressions
Whites are soft and mellow with a lovely natural sweetness. They are beautifully rounded, and despite reduced acidity, freshness and balance are good. Flavours are already intense and elegant, but will open up more over the next couple of months. White flowers and fruit are the dominant flavours (citrus and white-fleshed fruit) with vegetal and spicy notes.
Reds are showing a vibrant, intense colour. They are well-rounded on the attack with expressive flavours of fruit (morello cherries) and flowers (peonies). Tannins are well-balanced and even, often a touch firm on the finish, but this will mellow over time and meld with the softness already apparent on the mid-palate.