The 2014 Harvest in Bordeaux
After my Tuscan harvest trip, I had two days in Bordeaux in September 2014, courtesy of the Graves and Pessac-Léognan appellations. This was part of an annual event for the wine press and this year fell at the mid-point of the harvest. The Sauvignon, Sémillon and early Merlot had been harvested, while the older-vine Merlot, Cabernets and Petit Verdot were still to be picked. The best news of all was that the weather was absolutely perfect: cool nights to preserve acidity and warm (25ºC), sunny days with the promise of more of the same to come. After a very difficult, wet year, the spirits of the growers were definitely rising. As wine drinkers, we should brace ourselves for the publicity which will all be about how a miraculous September saved the vintage and produced fine wines … which we should buy!
In general, the business of growing vines and making wine is highly mechanised in Bordeaux. Vineyards are large and uniformly planted in serried rows with high density. Typically these days there are 10,000 vines per hectare, ie the vines are planted one metre apart and between rows. The canopies are low and immaculately tended, ‘hedged’ and topped on a regular basis by machine. After the tall vines of Piemonte (Nebbiolo has the longest growing season and needs the extra leaves for photosynthesis) and the medium ones of Tuscany, it is as though you are visiting a vast miniaturised vine theme-park. High quality white grapes are picked by hand but the great majority of reds are picked very effectively by increasingly sophisticated machines. These work by shaking the vines in the fruit zone so that ripe fruit drops off. The newer machines then have in-machine wizardry which blows away leaves and stalks, and even sorts good grapes from small or under-ripe ones. What arrives at the winery door is pretty high quality destemmed grapes ready to be crushed and conveyed into fermentation vessels.
Grape reception areas in this famous wine area are highly organised for fast, efficient working. The level of further selection of grapes depends on the ambition and budget of the producer. At first growth Haut-Brion, they have just supplemented the traditional sorting table (which means actual human beings picking out substandard fruit) with the latest generation optical sorting. This is the final complement to data gathering in two ways: first, they monitor every square metre of the vineyard with electrical pulses to determine the soil composition half a metre below the surface and its effect on the all-important rate of drainage. Secondly, they have a satellite imaging system which gives a detailed map of leaf maturity. Thus, long before a grape is picked the chateau has a detailed map, plot by plot, of potential ripening. This is a form of precision viticulture with as little as possible left to chance, though of course the winemaking team will also walk the vineyard regularly and taste the fruit.
But not everything is super smart in Bordeaux. Part of its charm is the proximity of grand chateaux and simple agricultural buildings. On the one hand, you have Ch. Haut-Brion (top photo) with an illustrious history and a chateau to match; on the other, you have people making good wines in ordinary settings, for example, Ch. de Lionne (photo). The challenge of making good wine is the same. The resources are very different though the small scale and a personal touch can be an advantage which larger estates lose.
White wine is a specialism of the Graves which runs south from the city of Bordeaux. New technology is making its mark here too. The Bordelais, having noted the success of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand, are working hard to improve the freshness and fruitiness of their whites. This means very careful pressing and the exclusion of oxygen. At Ch. Rocquetaillade La Grange the large machine parked out of doors is there to pump inert gas (nitrogen) into the press so that even at the point of pressing the grapes the juice is not exposed to air. At Ch. Bouscaut I had a long conversation about developments in barrel technology (number of staves, measuring tannin potential, even undulations on the inside of barrel staves to increase wood-wine contact) but that is a subject for another day.
It has been fascinating to follow the 2014 harvest in Europe. In a way, it has been more interesting because it has been a difficult year. The real test of the vintage will be the bottles that we open over the next few years – or in a few cases, decades. But I am optimistic that due to the commitment of growers and the developments of new technologies we can look forward to a lot of good wine.
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