In many parts of the Loire Valley , producers attest to a complicated 2023 vintage. While many producers began picking at the beginning of September, the harvest will continue into October.
It is challenging to succinctly sum up a vintage such as 2023, as it is very variable depending on the grape variety and the sector. For instance, there has been a good harvest in Azay-le-Rideau, but a more complicated one in nearby Chinon, despite their proximity. Even within the same parcel of vines there can be considerable differences.
The growing season
Overall, 2023 is a potentially very large vintage but likely to be of variable quality – a year when producers have faced challenges during the growing season.
Fortunately there was no serious frost this year. Bud break brought a large volume of potential grapes, and this was confirmed by a rapid flowering in dry and sunny conditions at the end of May and the first part of June. Later on in June is when the strong mildew pressure started, so it was essential to spray against it regularly and at exactly the right moment.
The most successful parts of the Loire this year are at the two extremes – the Pays Nantais (which encompasses the Muscadet appellations) in the west, and the Central and Upper Loire (which takes in Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and some of the lesser known appellations such as the Côte Roannaise) to the east.
Because the Melon de Bourgogne variety is early ripening, Muscadet producers were able to pick during the heatwave at the beginning of September before the heavy rains started midway through the month.
Vincent Lieubeau, winemaker at Famille Lieubeau in the Pays Nantais, said: ‘We started harvesting on 4 September during the hot weather. Our Muscadet is very good and concentrated, as the potential alcohol rose by nearly two degrees in just one week due to the heat. The yield is around 50hl/ha with 11.8% alcohol’.
Central and Upper Loire
In the Central Loire, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé it was very dry during late July and August, so producers welcomed the September rains that brought their grapes to maturity and swelled them. There was, however, a violent storm on 17 September which brought down trees in a campsite in Saint-Satur, meaning many of the picking staff had to find new accommodation – an additional pressure on producers.
Vincent Grall, of his eponymous domaine in Sancerre, said: ‘Picking started on 8 September, but it is difficult to find pickers. Our Sauvignon is around 12.5% potential alcohol.’
Benoit Fouassier, of Domaine Fouassier in Sancerre, said: ‘We started picking on 13 September. The Pinot Noir is fully ripe at between 14%-15.5% alcohol and our Sauvignon between 13%-14%.’
In the Upper Loire, Romain Paire, of Domaine des Pothiers in the Côte Roannaise, said: ‘We started picking on Tuesday 12 September. Rain on that Thursday swelled the grapes, giving us fully ripe fruit.’
In Saint-Pourçain, Domaine des Bérioles, Clos de Breuilly and Domaine Grosbot-Barbara have all had successful harvests. In addition, 2023 is the first vintage from the remarkable, steep, south-facing slopes of Mont Georges within the Saint-Pourçain appellation. The project to reclaim these vineyards, which were abandoned 60 years ago, has taken over 20 years to come to fruition, with the first parcel of Gamay and Pinot Noir planted in 2020.
It is noticeable that there is much less mildew damage here.
Anjou-Saumur and Touraine
The picture is different and more variable further west in Anjou-Saumur and Touraine.
‘2023 is like a vintage of 20-30 years ago, when very careful selection of grapes was essential,’ said Jean-Philippe Blot, of Domaine de la Taille aux Loups in Montlouis.
Antoine Daviau, of Domaine de Bablut in Anjou, describes it as ‘a year of extremes!’
‘We went from a lack of water in the early part of the season to an excess of rain. From 1 July to 28 September we had 220mm of rain,’ he said.
In Chinon, Jérôme Billard, winemaker at Domaine de la Noblaie, reported 172mm of rain between 1 August and 26 September, with 80mm falling between 11 and 26 September – a huge amount, considering 172mm is about a third of the average annual rainfall.
It is easy to see who was successful at containing the mildew and who wasn’t. There are parcels where there are virtually no leaves left, making it very difficult for the grapes to ripen properly.
Success was only achieved through spraying frequently. Daviau sprayed 11 times, as did Vanessa Cherruau of Château de Plaisance in Chaume. Billard sprayed 14 times including four times during the 21 June – the most difficult week, while Lieubeau reported spraying 15 times. ‘Because of the regular rains we also had a busy job keeping the grass and other vegetation under control. By August we were exhausted!’ he said.
Ivan Massonnat of Domaine Belargus in Anjou and Domaine de Beauséjour in Chinon, said: ‘We succeeded in controlling the mildew except for the Coteau des Treilles, which overlooks the river Layon, because our caterpillar tractor broke down at a critical time, so the vines have lost almost all of their leaves.’
Most worrying is the incidence of acid rot, also called sour rot, which can turn wine into vinegar. Pickers had to carefully examine bunches and cut out acid rotten grapes, easily recognized as it turns white grapes orange. Unfortunately the affected grapes may well be hidden inside the bunch and not visible unless the bunch is cut open. Naturally this presents a challenge for those that pick by machine. Jean-Hubert Lebreton of Domaine des Rochelles in Anjou said: ‘We cut off all the rotten grapes by hand before using our picking machine.’
The levels of alcohol are generally considerably lower here than recent vintages such as 2018, 2019 and 2020. The average to date is between 12% and 13.5%. Adrien Moreau, of Domaine Belargus, said: ‘We are around 12.5%, which since we use native yeasts will rise to around 13% by the end of fermentation.’
Due to the large volume of the harvest and the weather conditions, there are reports that some producers in Anjou are currently struggling to get their grapes above 9% or 10% alcohol.
The news is much more positive for Sauvignon Blanc and the reds – Gamay , Cabernet Franc and Côt ( Malbec ) in the Cher Valley in the Touraine appellation, where the grapes are both plentiful and healthy.
There will be little sweet wine made this year partly due to the conditions and the lack of consumer demand, although there may be exceptions from healthy parcels. The 2023 vintage will continue well into October.
Despite the difficulties, the grape juice and fermenting wines I tasted throughout the Loire were all clean with no off flavors – a testament to a very rigorous selection of grapes by some of the Loire’s best producers. However, overall it is very likely that there will be big variations in the quality of the finished wines.