Vendange 2016 – Harvest Report by James

A view from the vines towards Mont Ventoux

Château Unang – Ventoux – Rhone

Season & Harvest notes 2016 :

A dry winter preceded the season, which was not reassuring as the south relies on decent winter rain (hopefully 100mm/month) knowing that the summer will be dry (less than 50mm/month). The rain fills the aquifers which can slowly release the winter’s bounty during the growing season.

A trailer full of syrahWith the mild, as well as dry, winter the season got off to a quick start and concerns that insect life (verres des grappes) and disease pressure (oidium or powdery mildew) could pose some issues. For the insect life, what were good conditions for them were also good conditions for the species that hunt them (ladybirds, etc.), so a degree of natural balance at higher populations was noted. There was a need to keep on top of powdery mildew.

Early morning startThe dry ended in May as the Grenache was approaching flowering. Cool temperatures in spring (including a light frost in the valley in early May affecting the Grenache Blanc) slowed everything down and looked very similar to the conditions seen in 2013, when the Grenache had a poor flowering year (we lost close to 50% of the potential fruit in some parcels that year to coulure or ‘shatter’). What little rain we had this year came at this point. This further cooled the ground and made it difficult for the vines to absorb the necessary nitrogen for a successful flowering. Frustratingly, the rain was little and often rather than really meaningful volumes. Sure enough, the flowering of the Grenache was not great and this was the first element signalling a light harvest for Unang in 2016.

First row of the day - Syrah CypressSince then we have been in drought conditions, with the rainfall at Unang for the months of June (20mm), July (15mm) and August (15mm) being very weak. With temperatures for the last two of these well into the 30°s the vines have not been having it easy. What little moisture there was in the ground proved accessible for our older, established vines so the degree of water stress was not extreme and the vines thankfully remained green. The estate at Unang exists because of the multiple springs that surface on the domaine, so there is some natural humidity in the ground, with more impact the lower down the hill the vines are. Also, the fact that we are high (up to 350m, and with surrounding hills of +700m) brings cooler air to the estate. The surrounding forest has an impact too. The cooler air from the shade of the forest slides down the hill to fan the vines. Aspect helps too – we face east and south – thereby avoiding the heat of the setting sun which can ‘cook’ the grapes in the late afternoon (the leaf canopy protecting them from a high sun to the south). The reasons above all contribute to the freshness of our wines.

Coffee break mid morningUnfortunately, we did plant quite a few hundred replacement vines this year and keeping them alive has been a challenge. Not being in production we have watered these regularly into September (when we had a slightly better 34mm of rain).

Two of the four harvest dogs Fonzie and PattySo drought was the second factor leading to low yields in 2016. The lack of rain meant that other diseases, notably downey mildew and rot, were not present, so the grapes were in great shape. The ever growing number of wild boar agreed – and helped themselves. These are becoming a real problem and despite the (underwhelming) efforts of the local chasse we are putting up more and more electric fences in August to protect our fruit. Boar numbers are estimated to have quadrupled in the past five years locally, a population explosion.

Full big trailer heading off to the Cave - Mont VentouxWhatever our issues this season, we have not been hit with serious frost, flooding and hail like some regions in France this year, with Chablis amongst the worst hit. That is brutal. Real suffering in our area was for those affected by wild (and not so wild, i.e. arson) fires because of the drought, and particularly when fanned by the Mistral wind. One fire near Marseille accounted for 900 hectares (you can see the result of this near the airport).

Second press of Rose at the end of the dayHarvest was expected to be early (mild winter), then late (cold spring), and then early again (drought). In the end we started with the rosé on 13th September and finished on 11th October – not so different from the 10-year average. The fruit was in excellent condition but the yields were low on the Grenache – about a third down on last year. Thick skins meant that over-extraction was a bigger risk than usual, and we have aimed (as ever) for our more elegant style.

Rosé squeezing out of the pressThe Grenache also suffered more as it is planted higher up the hill, where the effects of the drought were more marked than the lower lying parcels, and this means that they are the more remote sites (so more prone to being eaten by boar). Syrah is also less affected by shatter. The whites (also down in volume by a third) are expressive – with the Clairette, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne all performing well – and the rosé is both pale and charming.

the reduced team on the final dayThe low yields mean the sugar levels are slightly higher on the Grenache but that is balanced by our healthy acidity, assuring freshness. The key to securing this result was to wait, as the sugar was present from mid-September but the ripeness arrived weeks later.

Evening light over the cave towards the EastThere is really good intensity to the Syrah from certain parcels and a pleasing floral presence with both the Syrah and Grenache. So we are already feeling the quality of the vintage as the final grams of sugar to ferment. We shall know more after the secondary fermentation, currently there is no sign yet of this malo-lactic fermentation – which may now appear slowly (and finish next year?) as the temperatures are falling.
JK – 31.10.2016

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Comments

  1. Noël Bruyneel says:

    Very happy with this mail and hope your wines will be as exellent as ever

  2. Terje Totland says:

    Very interesting Reading. Thank’s a lot for shearing this story and, personally,I am pleased to read that the rose probabely will as excellent as ever.
    Good luck fightening the wild boar !

  3. Simon Murray says:

    Fabulous reading. I can whole heartedly support your frustration with the boar – each year is getting worse and worse for us as well with young trees and lawn being destroyed on a regular basis.
    We will be sure to visit again soon and continue to recommend your superb wines to all.
    Your neighbours across the valley.

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