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After disastrous 2017, French winemakers cheer ‘incredible’ 2018 vintage

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Fall is wine harvest season in the northern hemisphere. Most vignerons in France are smiling, thrilled that 2018 isn't a repeat of miserable 2017, when they harvested the smallest crop since World War II, no thanks to massive frosts, violent hailstorms, and scorching heat waves.

[NEW YORK] In Saint Emilion, at Chateau Corbin, winemaker Anabelle Cruse-Bardinet is exuberant about this year's harvest. Spring frosts devastated her vineyard last year, as they did to many other chateaux in Bordeaux, and she made no wine at all. "We are going to make an incredible vintage in 2018," she emailed. "We had a dry and sunny summer, giving grapes good concentration and very ripe tannins." It was the hottest July since the great vintage of 1947.

Fall is wine harvest season in the northern hemisphere. Most vignerons in France are smiling, thrilled that 2018 isn't a repeat of miserable 2017, when they harvested the smallest crop since World War II, no thanks to massive frosts, violent hailstorms, and scorching heat waves. (Surprisingly, the quality of the grapes that survived was outstanding in many places, including Bordeaux.)

This year, besides winning the World Cup, France is also one of the big winners in the global harvest sweepstakes. Over the past 10 days, I've emailed winemakers and trade organizations in France's major regions to get the latest updates. The farther north you go, the better the grapes look.

Since harvest won't finish until next month, everyone is keeping eyes on the sky—and smartphone weather apps. Here's the outlook from various regions in France:

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Market voices on:

Alsace

This cool, northeastern region had one of its earliest harvests in history, and is on track to make great wines. "Vintages like this one can be counted on one hand," says Jean-Frederic Hugel of well-known Famille Hugel winery, where harvest began on Sept. 5. "The wines will be rich, with a lot of concentration, and spells of cooler weather maintained bright acidity. And it will be a generous vintage with good production."

The sole worry was the very dry conditions during the summer's heat, but just enough rain fell to keep the vines going.

In the past few years, Alsace pinot noir has become "a thing," and examples from 2018 should be stunning.

Bordeaux

Twice a day, Château Mouton-Rothschild's managing director, Philippe Dhalluin, checks in with Meteo-France, the national meteorological service, for details on the local weather forecast in Pauillac. On Sept. 10, his pickers began harvesting merlot; for cabernet, Dhalluin estimates a start around the end of the month or the first week of October. "Everything looks perfect so far," he says.

Not all parts of Bordeaux were equally lucky this year. Gavin Quinney of Château Bauduc points out that one of the worst hailstorms in recent memory battered vineyards at the end of May and struck in Sauternes and parts of Graves on the day France won the World Cup. For others, a soggy, warm June encouraged the spread of mildew, which can result in serious grape loss.

Still, the overall crop in France is rebounding 25 per cent over 2017, according to the French agricultural ministry. For wine consumers, this is very good news.

Just don't expect prices to go down. This is still Bordeaux we are talking about.

Burgundy

For many growers here, harvest started three weeks early, thanks to marvelous weather during the growing season that boosted ripening. Picking early is a boon to winemakers who worry about when the inevitable fall rains will begin. Most winemakers are happy, especially when it comes to the whites, which Laurent Drouhin of Joseph Drouhin says have floral and fruity flavors. The super-hot, dry summer saved the day after a humid spring that threatened mildew, and rain at the end of August kept acidity in the grapes.

In Chablis, Julien Brocard of Jean-Marc Brocard winery says the taste of the unfermented grape juice is immensely pure. When it comes to reds, says Paul Wasserman, whose family company, Le Serbet, handles dozens of top Burgundy producers, this will be a darker, riper vintage with good structure. The Côte de Beaune had better conditions than the Côte de Nuits, where two hailstorms caused substantial damage.

Champagne

Enthusiasm is high, with such grower comments as, "I might not see another one like this in my lifetime!" For the fifth time in the last 15 years, picking started in August and is almost finished. Early ripening also reflects the way climate change is altering the growing season.

The Taittinger family reports that the ripeness levels mean richness and lush aromas in the wines. Early morning temperatures of only 32F ensured good acidity in the grapes, too. And the quantity is big enough—perhaps 10 million bottles more than last year—to allow vignerons to rebuild their depleted stocks of reserve wine, according to Thibaut Le Mailloux at trade organization Comité Champagne. These are essential in creating top-quality, non-vintage house blends.

Hubert de Billy, the fifth generation to run famous Champagne house Pol Roger, sums up 2018 this way: "After talking with my father Christian, born in 1928, we have never seen such a remarkable harvest in terms of both quality and quantity. After 1988, 1998, and 2008, the years ending in "8" truly keep on rocking."

Loire Valley

Optimism reigns. Wine trade organization InterLoire collected grape samples from all the region's various appellations such as Muscadet, and predicts wines of "excellent quality."

The weather tale here is pretty much the same as elsewhere in France: sun, no rain, and high temperatures that accelerated ripening. Best of all, after two difficult years with small crops (and lots of worry), most vignerons will produce significantly more wine. Sadly, because of rainy, humid weather in June, some organic producers that don't use preventative chemical sprays lost a lot of grapes to virulent mildew.

Rhône Valley

In a weird turn of events, the harvest in the northern part of the Rhône started before it did in the south. Vignerons began picking reds last week, about seven to 10 days earlier than usual. The region's trade organization, Interprofession des Vins Côtes du Rhône and Vallée du Rhône, reports "the vines are in excellent condition." That's despite burning sun and super-dry conditions.

In 2017, 371 million bottles of Rhône wines were sold; 2018 will produce much more. Quality looks very good, especially in the north. In the latest Rhône hot spot, Crozes-Hermitage, Laurent Combier of Domaine Combier is "anticipating a bright future for the wines."

Provence

Don't worry about the region's popular rosés. This year is another good vintage, and you'll have plenty to pick among next summer, though rain (and some hail) hit a few unlucky growers. Harvest started at the end of August, which is early but not a record, explains Patrick Leon, winemaker and manager at Château d'Esclans, the maker of ubiquitous Whispering Angel rosé. Leon predicts that the wines will be fruitier, with less tart acidity and slightly lower alcohol than those of 2017, which means we can just drink more.

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