Rhône 2017: The Drought Factor

Travels in Wine / Rhône

Rhône 2017: The Drought Factor


Marcel Orford-Williams had no need for a brolly visiting the Rhône in 2017 where the drought-like conditions have led to a tiny crop of, thankfully, high-quality fruit

Parched vines near Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Parched vines near Châteauneuf-du-Pape

I made my first trip to the Rhône in June last year to assess the 2016 vintage, timed deliberately just before the intense summer heat which makes tasting so uncomfortable. It was also a good chance to see how the 2017 crop was developing.

The weather was, however, already warm and forcing the vines into stress mode, right in the middle of flowering. 'We need rain!' was the constant refrain.

My second trip, to Provence this time, was in late August with the family and strictly on holiday with masks and snorkels. Still no rain. And the alarming combination of heat and drought brought the constant threat of fire. Inevitably several hundred acres of woodland in Provence and Corsica were consumed by fire but luckily there were no casualties and no vineyards were hit.

Bastia, Corsica with forest fires in the background
Forest fires raging near Bastia in Corsica

The third trip followed immediately in September. By this time most of the 2017 whites were picked. The harvest had started ridiculously early at the beginning of August. Holidays were cut short and teams of pickers hastily assembled. But growers are now used to this new fact of their existence: that every vintage is completely different to the last one!

Still no rain.

But, luckily, night-time temperatures were cool throughout August and that had a beneficial effect on the quality of the harvest.

The fourth trip came in October. Rain? Barely a drop. For some, the last significant rainfall had been in April. Such was the severity of the drought that certain grape varieties were struggling to ripen. This was the case for grenache in the southern Rhône and Languedoc.

Olives in the heat in Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Olives in the heat in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Why not simply irrigate?

Irrigation is now effectively legal in France, yet only about 10% of vineyards are watered and that is mostly in non-appellation land. Ultimately, the problem is one of cost. Moreover, water is not always readily available in such drought conditions and other crops take priority. Young vines are especially vulnerable to water stress because they only have shallow roots and are unable to search deep for water. Older vines dig deeper and are more self-contained. There is also a reluctance to irrigate as there is a positive link between vine stress and quality – most of the finest vintages are years of near drought. But growers are beginning to wonder just how sustainable making wine can be in these testing conditions.

Finally, the rain eventually did come. One very famous Châteauneuf grower who claims never to pick his reds till after rain, waited until November to harvest, a month or so after everyone else. I was there in November walking among those unpicked vines in the rain.

A vintage marked by the sun

In some years, there is a sense of near panic or even impending doom as vignerons battle it out with the elements to save their crop. Not so in 2017. With no rain and none forecasted, growers were free to pick and choose when and where to harvest their fruit.

Tiny crop in 2017, but what fruit did survive the drought has made delicious wines with the colour and sweetness that only comes from sun-drenched grapes
Tiny crop in 2017, but what fruit did
survive the drought has made delicious wines
with the colour and sweetness that only
comes from sun-drenched grapes

For many the effects of heat, drought, poor flower set and, for some, the added misery of spring frosts, was at best half a crop. Besides the obvious economic challenges this brings, such a small harvest presents all sorts of added challenges in the cellar such as ensuring all vats and tanks are properly filled.

But at least the quality of the fruit that did make it is high! The vintage is certainly marked by the sun: the wines have the colour and that sweetness that only comes from sun-drenched grapes. Yet, the wines are not in the slightest flabby; on the contrary, they have good acidity levels. Unquestionably great in the north. More variable in the south where the drought was more severe but I'm working hard to secure good stocks of the most successful wines.

Look out for our en primeur offer in the New Year – they'll be some glorious wines!

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Members' Comments (3)

"Just to say that I thought this account of 2017 superlatively good. Lots to think about!"

Professor Martin Dodsworth (26-Sep-2018)

"Marcel - Thanks for the interesting report. I hope this doesn't mean that the wines are ever higher in alcohol but would be interested in your thoughts?"

Mr John R Alpine (11-Feb-2019)

"Thank you for your comments Mr Alpine. On potential alcohol, the key to making good wine is balance - a wine at 12% can taste more alcoholic than one at 15%. What stood out about the 2017 vintage (and the 2018 we have recently been tasting) was this equilibrium; irrespective of the drought conditions and concentration the alcohol was in balance.

The Southern Rhône is a warm region and not the home of low alcohol wine but more than this,... Read more > the struggle for winemakers is that Grenache can only ever be high in alcohol and sufficient ripening does not occur at gravities much less than 14.5% abv - the skill is to produce wines that do not taste alcoholic.”

Marcel Orford-Williams (13-Feb-2019)

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