Friday, December 4, 2009

The Rain in Tain

A vintner does much to ensure a good vintage becomes a better one. But, like all things agricultural, viticulture is ultimately at the mercy of the elements: You can’t fix a lack of sunshine and you can’t hold back the rain. Often the damage from uncooperative weather occurs over the whole season. Sometimes the damage occurs in just a few hours. That was the case in Northern Rhone in 2008, which produces wines such as Cote Rotie, Cornas, and Hermitage, and I was there to see it. 

In September 2008, Michèle and I were on a visit to the Northern Rhone Valley. On the morning of Saturday the 6th, we headed for Tain-l’Hermitage, a 40-minute drive from where we were staying, to do a little shopping before heading for lunch at Les Cèdres in Granges-Les-Beaumont. Tain-l’Hermitage is a town of 5000 inhabitants and home to the winemakers Chapoutier (biodynamic!) and Jaboulet, the Northern Rhone wine cooperative, as well as Valrhona, the chocolate-maker.

Black storm clouds were quickly gathering as we drove to Tain-l’Hermitage and the rain started to fall as we parked the car. We dashed from one store to the next, the rain becoming more and more intense, completing all of our shopping in a frantic 45 minutes. The rain had been falling for less than an hour but already the town had begun to close some roads because of flash flooding.

We left by a back road, heading east, along the steep hillside vineyards that rose up to the left of us on the northern edge of town. We crawled along; the rainwater was like a waterfall, rushing down the steep slopes, picking up rocks, small logs, and anything else that was loose in the vineyards, dumping all this debris into our path. Soon, the water on the road was six inches deep, the rain coming down so fast that it couldn’t drain away. Over 300 mm of rain fell that one day, more than the Northern Rhone Valley normally gets in the entire growing season.

I remember thinking that all this rain, this late in the growing season, would be disastrous. The grapes would become engorged with water, diluting the sugar and flavours, and resulting in weak wines. There was the risk of rot and disease afterwards in very damp conditions. In the initial news reports, the local vintners did admit that all this rain would be ruinous. But 2 or 3 days later, their PR machine had kicked in, and now the vintners interviewed on TV said, no, things were salvageable; 2008 would be a good year after all. Which would it be?

Now, a year later, we are seeing tasting reports for Northern Rhone 2008 wines. Vintners are admitting that 2008 was a difficult year. They received special permission to chaptalize (add sugar) to their wine musts, a sign that the grapes remained diluted with water right up to harvest. The colour and tannins will be lighter than normal. The very best vintners are like magicians in the cellar, and some may be able to salvage some reasonably good wines. Not wines for aging, but good to drink young. But one of these magicians, Jaboulet, decided not to produce their top-of-the-line wine, La Chapelle.

So, a vintage lessened if not lost, and a reminder that nature provides no guarantees.

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