As the red-wine harvest draws to a close, there's a sense of relief and quiet satisfaction in Bordeaux, if not the euphoria of a great vintage.
It has been a long season and nerves have been frayed right to the end: we've had what seemed like three seasons in the space of two weeks. What should be picked and when? 'The weather doesn't know what it's doing', said Lilian Barton at Langoa. 'I wonder if weather forecaster is the only job where you can keep making mistakes and still never get fired', tweeted Frédéric Engerer of Ch Latour.
Three weeks of October sunshine were too much to ask for in the end, and that's the problem with comparatively late harvests. After a delayed start and a wet spring, Bordeaux had already had its fair share of luck, with two months of fabulous summer sunshine right up until the last week of September.
Since then it's been a bit up and down. If any grower says they were able to pick à la carte (as and when they liked), then they must be talking about the dry whites, which were harvested under clear skies in mid-September.
That said, the Merlot and Cabernet grapes I've seen on the sorting tables at the leading estates, from Pauillac to Pomerol and from Margaux to St-Émilion, have been in remarkably good shape. They don't have the joy, the concentration or depth of flavour that you find in great vintages, yet they are healthy, thick-skinned and tasty. The question now is the quality of the tannins in those skins and in the pips - château by château, block by block. As for vinification, gently does it.
The first serious appellation to harvest their Merlot is usually Pomerol, along with parts of Pessac-Léognan, and they didn't begin in earnest until the first week of October. Petrus were working on their old vines on Friday 5 October when I popped round (as you do) to see bunches of pristine Merlot arriving in their new reception area. It was hot work for the pickers outside in the 28 ºC heat.
Before then, it had been unseasonably quiet in the vineyards around Bordeaux, with the crus classés of the Médoc also bringing in their first Merlots at a leisurely pace during the first week (see my 5 October report).
Then on Sunday 7 October we had some unscheduled rain (hence Engerer's tweet). Not a vast amount and probably not enough to stand out in any weather charts but, coupled with the tropical humidity we had over the next few days, enough to create perfect conditions for the dreaded botrytis (dreaded for Merlot, that is, not for sweet white).
There is nothing more likely to send vignerons scrambling for their tractors and harvest machines than the prospect of imminent rot at harvest time, and so it proved. Cue lines of trailers at the co-operative in St-Émilion and far beyond. Further up the limestone slopes, and higher up the food chain, the premiers grands crus classés of St-Émilion also began en masse, with some bringing forward their start dates by a few days. By midweek, most of St-Émilion was in full swing.
'The Merlot is ready now but the Cabernet Franc isn't ripe. We need to wait a week,' said Stefan von Neipperg as he presided over the harvest at La Mondotte (right), one of two of his properties which were promoted to premier grand cru classé in September. Other PGCCs such as Troplong Mondot and Beau-Séjour Becot (pictured top left) also started on Wednesday 10 October. 'The Merlot was looking très jolie and we would have started this coming Friday. With this humidity and warm nights we cannot wait', confided a cellar master.
(The clammy weather was perfect for mushrooms, too. One eminent oenologue took a break from his busy schedule of château consultations to gather a box-full of cèpes.)
Then the weather changed and the temperature dropped. On the Thursday, by way of example, I harvested some Merlot, and the juice at 7 am was 17 ºC. Doing the same on Saturday, at the same time, the juice was at 6 ºC. The cold snap should at least have inhibited the spread of botrytis.
Meanwhile, the final Cabernet Sauvignons were being picked at Châteaux Margaux and Lafite earlier this week, as at many great estates along the D2 in the Médoc. There was no rot to speak of, and what little there was was easily removed in the vineyard. Paul Pontallier was his usual optimistic self at a sunny Château Margaux on Monday, and the Cabernet Sauvignon on the twin sorting lines didn't let him down. 'It's a very good vintage, if not a great one: a lovely summer and September with rain just before harvest, which is completely normal.'
At many châteaux, the array of new sorting machines and new-fangled destemmers is mind-boggling. The same is true, incidentally, of the right bank: even small St-Émilion crus classés now have optical sorters. Bordeaux, at this level, has changed enormously in the last five years.
The 2012 vintage has all the hallmarks of an older-style, classical vintage - October harvests for both the Merlot and Cabernets were not unusual in the past. We can expect yields from leading châteaux to be low, however, and stricter selection for the grands vins might affect the volumes further. With lower yields nowadays, better viticulture and precision sorting - let alone technological advances in winemaking - it will be fascinating to see how the wines turn out.
As for the market, that's an entirely different matter.