A complicated year, a complicated harvest. After a fraught growing season in 2013 (see my pre-harvest report
for a detailed overview), most Bordeaux châteaux and vignerons have had to bring in their Merlots rather sooner than planned, before the dreaded rot sets in. Some Cabernets are following in quick succession (as at Ch Lafite-Rothschild in Pauillac, pictured below) but now that the sun has come out, there's a ray of hope for those who can hold on for a little while longer.
It's all a far cry from the à la carte
harvests of 2009 and 2010, when you could pick and choose at leisure. 'Une année compliquée' is a polite way of describing 2013 and can be used by owners and managers without giving their public relations people a headache. It's really code for a bit of a shocker.
We know already that yields are low. The weather at the end of September and for the first days of October then proved, unfortunately, to be ideal for the development of botrytis - otherwise known as rot. Sultry heat and too much rain over the weekend of 27-29 September was perfect for the champignons
in the bunches to thrive and forced growers on both banks to be extra vigilant and, for most, to take swift action.
In many cases they've had to harvest red grapes long before they had had a chance to ripen, and only the tiniest estates in places such as Pomerol can bring
in everything at the same time. Out in the vineyards, it's been all mud-clogged wellies, short-sleeved shirts and waterproofs. Until this week, that is, with the welcome arrival of chilly, bright mornings and sunshine in the afternoon.
Last week, in the clammy, sweaty conditions with hardly a breath of wind, you could see the rot spreading in some parcels of the thin-skinned Merlot within a horribly short time. A small percentage of rot on the bunches (as with the Merlot in Margaux, pictured) could explode to 50% rot or more in just a few days.
But it was not all bad news, as some vineyards - indeed, some rows within the same plot - coped far better than others. What's made the difference is complicated: the precise timing of the late flowering in June (heavy rain mixed with some sun), the extensive work in the vines (such as de-leafing, removal of shoots or crop thinning at the right moment), the terroir (notably the soils and subsoils), the choice of grass or ploughing between the rows, the effectiveness of anti-botrytis treatments (the most important spraying against rot occurs towards the end of the flowering), exposure to any breeze before the harvest and a host of other factors could all have made a small but crucial difference. Even the most ambitious and
resourceful châteaux, however, could not hold back the effects of the humidity for long.
As one would expect, the earlier-ripening vineyards of Pomerol and Pessac-Léognan were picking last week and even their young Merlot vines, which ripen first, the week before. (Le Pin picked on Wednesday 2 Oct, the same day that L'Église-Clinet wrapped up. Pictured is Alexandre Thienpont, leading from the front at Vieux Château Certan the following day.)
What was more unusual - and this was down to the threat of the botrytis spreading - was to see so many châteaux in St-Émilion and up and down the Médoc harvesting at the same time as the more precocious terroirs. That rarely happens.
Teams of pickers for the crus classés (the team at Cos d'Estournel, pictured top left, was 80-strong) worked like ants alongside the towering machines in less prestigious sites nearby.
The queue of tractors and trailors (above) outside the co-op in St-Émilion stretched way back, and it was the same story in the so-called 'lesser' appellations. Consultant oenologists were being rushed off their feet.
Then, just as it seemed that the vineyards which had survived the rain and the humidity from the last weekend of September could hold out, more rain came on Thursday 3 and early on Saturday 5 October. This second burst of rain has proved too much for some plots that have been on the edge of rot, forcing châteaux to pick, even on Sunday.
This week, the skies are clear and the sun is shining, so some of the later-ripening vineyards and varieties (especially some Cabernet Sauvignon, the mainstay of estates such as Mouton-Rothschild, pictured below) could profit. If the rot holds off.
I'll report back as the harvest draws to a close.