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The vineyard challenges faced by growers have multiplied during the second decade of this millennium. Back in the good old twentieth century, a grower could rely on a rule of thumb that 100 days after flowering, harvesting would take place. The crop would average around 13° if it were SYRAH in the NORTHERN RHÔNE, and around 14° if it were GRENACHE in the SOUTHERN RHÔNE.

If 2018 is a precursor of a more regular pattern of events, that rule book can be scrapped immediately. The boundaries have enlarged enormously. Now SYRAH at over 15° is occurring at HERMITAGE and CROZES-HERMITAGE, while at CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE growers are looking for options such as COUNOISE, reverting to CINSAULT that was encouraged in the 1960s, or banking on MOURVÈDRE to tone down GRENACHE NOIR crop coming in at 16°.

However, the accepted norms in the vineyards are having to change – and fast. It is no longer an easy option to avoid soil working. PHILIPPE GRENIER has worked biodynamically at the DOMAINE DES AMPHORES for his SAINT-JOSEPH and CONDRIEU since 2002. Referring to the extraordinary “game of two halves” of 2018 - a lot of rain, then a lot of heat - he recounted: “there was rot pressure in 2018 in June because of all the rain, but we were on top of the mildew. Then, our working of the soils avoided evaporation later in the summer when the heat really rose.”

Far away from the RHÔNE in distance, but not in spirit, CHRISTOPHE BARON of CAYUSE vineyards [and HORSEPOWER, BIONIC FROG and others] spotted basalt lands on the OREGON-WASHINGTON STATE border in 1996, and planted SYRAH and GRENACHE on what had been hillside orchards before. He, too, has adapted his working methods in the intervening time.

“You have to work the soils. We have no rain during the summer. It’s so hot that things can’t grow, but if you don’t work the soils, you have a crust that leads to more evaporation. With 10-15 cm of loose soil, you create an insulating pad. I use a pulley system to work the soils that I bought in AMPUIS at CÔTE-RÔTIE. What I have changed from around 2005-06 is to keep the leaf canopy, since the bunches must be in the shade, and I also harvest a bit earlier.”

Even grass between the rows can be problematic, XAVIER GÉRARD at CONDRIEU pointing out that “in 2017 we had so much rain in the form of storms that it became very tricky for growers in late summer, those with grass growing rampantly between the rows.”

GAYLORD MACHON, a young and promising grower on the flat land vineyards of BEAUMONT-MONTEUX at CROZES-HERMITAGE, is questing for the right path, and gave me his take on vineyard practices: “I grow grasses one row in two. I had tried organic for half the vineyard in 2017, and wanted to be fully organic in 2018, but found that I was treating the vineyards every two to three days in the wet spring-early summer, which left a poor carbon footprint.

As a result, I am now going to be HVEHAUTE VALEUR ENVIRONNEMENTALE, which calculates the big picture of treating the vines, along with the impact for flora and the fauna. That means that I hope to be able to use just one synthetic treatment a year, and go through the vineyards with a treatment every two to three weeks, not every two to three days.”

Working organically since 2009 and biodynamically since 2015, SÉBASTIEN GIRARD of DOMAINE DE LA VILLE ROUGE at CROZES-HERMITAGE has also changed his approach to growing grass between the rows on his LES CHASSIS vineyards. “Before 2008, I grew grasses along every row, but since then I have cut back to one row in three – it was too wet to get into the vines after any significant rain, and I was finding you no longer had a smooth lawn of grass effect.

That’s why I now sow different clovers that serve to nourish the plants with nitrogen through the year, while barley helps to dry the soils. As for the harvest dates, 100 days doesn’t really apply now – flowering in the first week of June and harvest starting early September in 2017 and 2018 comes out at around 90 days, and nearer 115 days for 2016 when the harvest was in late September.”

Other respected growers are changing their approach to harvesting dates. JEAN-LOUIS CHAVE from HERMITAGE tells me that “the best decision I took in 2018 was to harvest early on my whites. People looked at me with amazement, as I was harvesting before the CAVE DE TAIN! I had a pH of 3.6 and a degree of 13.5°; that would have changed to 3.8 pH and 15.5° in a few days. We even harvested on a Sunday, the DAY of the SEIGNEUR. We’d only done that once before, in 1994, which was in effect a reaction to the 1993 experience [torrential rains].”

THIÉRRY ALLEMAND has for long been one of the first to harvest at CORNAS [along with the CLAPE family]. He tells me: “I want to revert to wines at 13.5°, instead of 14° to 14.5° which is so usual these days – so I am harvesting earlier.” THIÉRRY started his 2018 harvest on 3 September.

An observation from MAXIME GRAILLOT on the plain of LES CHASSIS at CROZES-HERMITAGE was also revealing in the longer context. “Since my Dad arrived in 1985, we had never harvested in August [the white crop] until 2009; since then we have harvested in August as well in 2011, 2015, 2017 and 2018.”

The old rule book of wines averaging around 12.5° to 13.5°, with pH levels at 3.5, has been thrown out of the window recently, and the race will be won by those who are flexible in spirit, mind and practice. The juggernauts of the wine industry will be the losers, except that they will add water, adjust acidities and mess around with the “product” in the cellar, much to the detriment of drinkers who do not stick to trusted family domaines.