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  • Guest contributor
Written by
  • Guest contributor
29 Jan 2015

Instead of an article from our archives this Thursday, we travel back in time only as far as last year. We are delighted to announce that the Blatch report is back, but with a difference. This year Bordeaux wine merchant Bill Blatch was prevailed upon to write his report under the auspices of the association of top estates, so be warned that it may be slightly less forthright than usual. I'm not quite sure why it took two months to publish.

Back in July, Olivier Bernard asked me if I would like to draw up a vintage report on behalf of the Union des Grands Crus. I have been producing my own little report on the harvest for many years now, but this would be different: much earlier and also from the point of view of the Grands Crus, using the members' own impressions. I immediately accepted such an authentic approach with pleasure. The following is therefore the story of the vintage as I witnessed it through many conversations and visits as the vintage unfolded. It is an extraordinary story, beginning extremely auspiciously, then creating serious concerns during the summer, before concluding with a glorious end of season and some well-earned very good wines.

Bill Blatch, 11 November 2014

A beneficial winter

It all started with the second-wettest winter in 50 years and the warmest in 24 years. Such high winter rainfall and temperatures were extremely welcome, setting up the year ahead for a well-nourished and early cycle.

The precipitation was twice the norm for January and one-and-a-half times the norm for February. After three very dry years, which had accounted for some very small yields, it was ideal for replenishing water tables that would provide the vine with everything it needed for the dry spring ahead.

The warmth was to be of even greater importance than the rainfall, encouraging the vine to make a very early start. This would give it a comfortable advance, indispensable for the summer slow-down that was to come.

Winter temperatures fell below zero only eight times rather than the usual 26, all in November and December. Temperatures were 3.8 °C [6.84 ºF] over the norm in January and 2.3 °C in February. The pruning programme was thus relatively unaffected by frost, so everyone could prune at will.

A very promising spring

Spring kicked off with a flourish when the daytime temperature shot up on 7 March to 20-21 °C [68-70 ºF], a full 6 °C [11 ºF] above the norm. Such warmth after such a mild winter would have inevitably provoked an immediate budding right then if it hadn't been for the cold night-time temperatures that followed. So it wasn't until the end of this period mid-month that the budding really started, still a full two weeks ahead of the norm, and two days ahead of the exceptionally early 1990 and 2011.

Such an early start to the season was most welcome, increasing the chance of early ripening and early harvest, historically giving the best shot at top-quality wines. It also made growers nervous because of the increased frost risk, but in the end, apart from a few isolated bits of frost damage in some low-lying parts of the vineyards, primarily in Graves and Sauternes, the rest of March and the whole of April remained safely above 5 °C [41 ºF].

In fact April turned out not only very warm but also very dry, especially mid-month, and this temporarily slowed down the vine's growth. It was, however, quickly restored during the subsequent showers and by the end of April, we had not lost any time and most of the vineyard managers were already laboriously cutting out the excess buds and entrecoeurs [lateral shoots], in spite of the low yield that was expected at this time, surely a consequence of the bad weather in June 2013 for the initiation florale.

May became a cool, damp month, with a strong spike of heat in the middle, just before the flowering was to start. Such variable conditions are never conducive to effective flowering and they accounted for some coulure and millerandage, especially on the earliest Merlots and Sémillons. However, thereafter UGC members reported that the main body of the crop flowered fast and efficiently during the very hot first half of June, with several days well over 30 °C [86 ºF], also with excellent air circulation. This was all very positive as the budding's two-week advance had been maintained at completion of the flowering, confirming the prospect of an early harvest.

The only negative consequence of such a hot April and damp May was a very vigorous oidium [powdery mildew] and especially [downy] mildew pressure, which would stay with us right to the end. It required extreme vigilance, especially as many Grand Cru estates are now partially or totally organic or biodynamic and are required to economise on sprayings. Preventative rather than curative treatments did the job best but a fast reaction time and immediate availability of machinery and personnel were essential and needed to be programmed efficiently into the other laborious vineyard work of canopy topping and constant topsoil or grass control. There was much debate about the use of contact or systemic treatments, both very expensive. The mildew seemed only to attack the younger upper leaves and so could also be largely eliminated by canopy management. It became a long and costly battle but successful in that no one reported it getting directly to the bunches, so even in those patches of vineyard where it occurred, it affected only the upper leaves, not the grapes. Overall, with constant effort, and very precise timing of treatments, UGC members managed it well, as in 2000, enabling their vines' foliage to perform perfectly right to the end.

Summer, the big disappointment

The reaction of many members during such dangerous conditions was to do the first de-leafing as soon as possible in order to provide better air circulation for the clusters, in spite of their great length this year. A sudden spike of 31.5 °C [88.7 ºF] heat on 21June that would be followed by a more severe spike of 35.3 °C [95.5 ºF] on 17July (the hottest day of the year) caused occasional blistering of exposed tender bunches, but members later said that this early de-leafing was clearly a totally correct decision, allowing the great majority of the bunches to take maximum advantage of such a fabulous June.

We were not to know that these final days of June were to be the last of the summer until September. July saw a meagre three days over 30 °C and August none at all, when normally we would have expected at least 13 such days over these two months. So July got itself a bad reputation with visiting holidaymakers. Twice in June we had watched the weather become violent, with terrible hail damage in the Northern Médoc on the night of 8 June and very heavy rain further inland on 22-23 June. July would witness two more extreme but very local events, on 19 and 25 June, the first wrecking the St-Émilion jazz festival and causing some hail damage on properties in the eastern part of the appellation, the second causing flooding and mud-slides at the UGC's three southern Graves properties. But, in spite of their newsworthiness, these were all isolated events and in the end July temperature and rainfall figures were not excessive: they ended up just about on average. It was just a dull, damp month, with small showers, little and often, on 16 of the 31 days, and with a 12% deficiency of sun hours. Those of us who have lawns saw them remain green all summer long. We have had many Julys like this in the past: 1997, 1998 and 2004 sprung to members' minds at this time. But in each case, August made up for it. As for each of these vintages, it was now that the vine started to give priority to its foliage rather than to its grape-ripening function, and this just as the véraison was starting.

Consequently, the colour change was spun out well into August. The very beginning of véraison on some isolated grapes was first noted by some Pessac-Léognan and Pomerol members in the middle of July. The heat of such a fine June had preserved the two-week advance of the budding and flowering and by July's final week, véraison had begun everywhere. It seemed to go well at first, but then got delayed partly because there was still plenty of moisture in the soil at a time when hydric stress would have been more appropriate for effective ripening of the grapes, and partly because of the coolness of August. Some mentioned also that the warm nights and the cool days of July did not provide sufficient daily temperature variation. So there were fears at this time that the harvest would also become too spun-out to ripen properly and to stay healthy if the weather were to remain cool or get wet in the autumn.

August turned into another grey month, reported at the time as a wet month but in fact it was cold rather than wet, a whole 2 °C [3.6 ºF] below the average for the temperature and only 85% of average sun hours. It was only slightly wetter than usual but all the rainfall came from extremely localised storms while the Médoc remained almost totally dry. At this time members in most areas noticed that the grapes were swelling significantly, that the mildew and oidium pressure showed no signs of abating, and above all, that we had now lost the two-week advance we had enjoyed at the beginning, because the wet conditions had caused a potassium and magnesium deficiency in the soil. This could of course be corrected but the worst was feared if this weather were to continue. In addition, proprietors started to realise that this would no longer be an early harvest; more importantly that there was now a great disparity of ripeness among the bunches. There followed an early and extremely painstaking second thinning-out of all laggard bunches, often accompanied by a second de-leafing in order to further aerate the harvest. And, as if this was not enough, at the end of the month in many parts of the Bordeaux vineyard, there was a widespread virulent attack of leafhoppers that required immediate attention. All this summer work was very painstaking, on everyone's high-density vines, but it was considered totally necessary and was performed without hesitation and at enormous expense. The fight would be long, and everyone knew that whatever they did, an exceptionally fine autumn would be needed for the harvest to come good.

An incredible, glorious autumn

How could we have possibly hoped for the turn-around that was to happen? Towards the end of August, the high-pressure systems that had been so weak in July and August ballooned over Europe, chasing away the Atlantic – and our – depressions and enabling our weather to change at long last. The long-range forecasts became suddenly more confident as we cruised into the longest Indian summer of all time. From the end of August until the last day of October, the sun shone almost permanently, the endless succession of hot, dry days alleviated only by several isolated and very local but violent thundery days, especially on 5, 17-18 and 25 September and by some very light night-time showers during the period 4-16 October. The only really noticeable steady rain was on the morning of 9 October. This felt like high summer at last and the figures now confirm that feeling: at 26.8 ºF [80.24 ºF], September's average maximum temperature was a whole 9% more than August's and 3% more than July's; and at 265 sun hours, September was 27% sunnier than August and 9% sunnier than July. At 22 mm [0.87 in], September was 3.6 times drier than August and 2.3 times drier than July. It was also the third driest September of the last 100 years, after 1921 and 1985, and the third hottest after 1921 and 1961.

After a full week of this weather change, the dry white harvest could start. The earliest estates harvested 3-8 September, most just in the cool of the mornings, before the day's heat (27-31 °C [80.6-87.8 ºF]), and in totally dry conditions, with the Sémillons, unusually early this year, right behind the Sauvignon Blancs. Most estates harvested 9-16 September again under hot (26-30 °F) and totally dry ideal conditions. The heavy storms over the town of Bordeaux on 17and 18 September were no more than light showers in members' white-wine producing areas, so the remainder could continue harvesting at their leisure right up to 25-26 September also in totally dry but slightly cooler conditions (21-28 °F). Immediately, there was a general feeling that these dry whites had more than fulfilled their mandate. All talk was of the aromas, the freshness and also the power. The UGC members producing dry whites were the first to smile after all those doubts of August.

Meanwhile, the Merlots had been losing no time in catching up on ripening. The summer had perhaps been more detrimental to growers' moods than to the vine's own performance, which, provided it had received constant attention, had been less dormant than it had appeared during these two difficult months and it now seemed ready to accelerate, some going from 10% to 13.5% potential alcohol in these first three weeks of September alone.

Apart from a few very early young-vine pickings, the Merlots could wait out the rain of 17-18 and start on Monday 22 September under radiant skies. For once, those who could afford to wait were not in too much of a hurry to pick their Merlots: there wasn't an ounce of grey rot nor any danger of it under such dry conditions, especially in the by-now-arid Médoc (although Margaux and the southern Médoc were actually very happy to have their vineyard revived by the local 5 September rain, even at the expense of some hail). Consequently, harvesting could be put back again and again, and these extra days put the finishing touches to the ripening, allowing the tannins to fine down and soften.

First off was Pomerol, quickly followed by Pessac-Léognan then, for once, the Médoc generally preceded St-Émilion where Merlot harvesting lasted for a record whole month, from 22 September right up to 20 October. This lateness of the St-Émilion Merlots was apparently due to its particular soil structure, the cooler limestone soils pushing back ripening, and the heavier clays requiring more recovery time than elsewhere after the local mid-month showers and the isolated storm of 25 September. Each member's philosophy of total ripeness was also certainly a factor. It didn't really matter as all options were possible under such fine conditions.

On the other hand, with the Médoc's continuing drought, the left-bank Merlots were mostly finished by early October. Certainly the quite recent parcel-mapping of each member's vineyard played a major role in deciding the order of picking so that each was at maximum ripeness. The grapes of each parcel were tasted and analysed daily in order to assess the optimum picking moment. And even after all these attentions, the complex sorting tables, often two or even three, plus sometimes an optical one too, could put the finishing touches to the absolute regularity of the harvest. Everywhere there was satisfaction at the frank red-fruit aromas of these Merlots, some lighter (often from the heavier clay soils), some much more concentrated (often from the more filtering soils), but all of great purity.

Then there was a gap while we awaited the Cabernets. Many members reported that the Cabernet adores this kind of Indian summer harvest with its very long hang-time and slow ripening cycle. For we had gone from a two-week early budding to a one-week-late harvest, a full tree-week extra hang time. As for the Merlots, the left bank generally harvested first, most finishing by Friday 12 October, some pushing on into the following week, again in very leisurely fashion, whereas the right bank Cabernet Francs were a week later, most finishing on 17 October, some continuing almost into November. Apart from the steady rain of the morning of 9 October, the occasional showers across the whole region from 4 to 16 October were very light and had no effect on the harvest. There was still no sign of deterioration of the grapes in the form of rot - only, as in 1986, of some wrinkled skins - so, as for the Merlots, they could be picked at will. The Cabernets, Franc as well as Sauvignon, appeared smaller, more concentrated and fleshier than the bigger Merlot grapes, again especially those from the more gravelly or more filtering soils.

Meanwhile, down in Sauternes, the relentlessly dry conditions of September prevented all but a few individual grapes from botrytising and necessitated a 1988-style series of tiny fastidious pickings until the showers of the week of 6 October provided hope of a more substantial onrush of botrytis. As in 1997, in September there had been a big attack of acid rot due in part to perforation by wine-flies (including the newcomer Drosophila suzukii), necessitating a big nettoyage (negative harvest), but also allowing, as early as 10 September, a small harvest of individual botrytis grapes plus a few good shrivelled ones too. Simultaneously, a large crop of excellent ripe but unbotrytised grapes was picked for these properties' dry white wines. None of the September showers fell on Sauternes: the Sauternais would have loved to have had that Pomerol storm of 17-18 September or that Graves storm of 29-30. So the harvest continued in drought conditions, grape by grape, as each individually botrytised, a painstaking, laborious and costly exercise that accounted for no more than a few hectos per day and that lasted right up until at last it rained on 9 October

This rain unleashed a widespread botrytis boom and a much more serious wave of harvesting could start during the unusually hot 27 °C [80.6 ºF] days that followed. The beautiful dry days of 20-26 October, with their much colder nights, often down to 4 or 5 °C [39-41 ºF] , saw the biggest part of the harvest, uniformly at 20-22% potential alcohol, and of total purity – provided that the utmost care was taken to eliminate acid rot, which had again taken hold and which was to account for much of the final diminished yield, generally 8-10 hl/ha. Most finished by 26 October, some in cooler areas such as Fargues, picking into the first days of November.

September ended with 265 sun hours – the norm is 182 - and with an absolute record of just 22 mm of rainfall; October at a whopping 194 sun hours and a mere 42 mm of rainfall. These figures are from the meteorological station in Mérignac. In the Médoc, it was even less, coming also after a much drier summer than elsewhere. It was totally exceptional and beats all the other driest autumns of this century:

Sept-Oct Sept alone
2014 63 mm 22 mm
2009 83 mm 49 mm
2005 111 mm 56 mm
2010 117 mm 24 mm

The red wines

Since such a glorious autumn allowed for both maximum ripening and also maximum concentration, alcohol levels are naturally high, generally 13.5-14.5% for the Merlots, and 12.5-13.5%, sometimes more, for the Cabernets. Yet the cool summer weather and the prolonged functioning of the vines' foliage have determined the style of the wines with their low pHs and at first high acidities, coming from the low summer temperatures and from the prolonged functioning of the vines' foliage. The wines will therefore give a sensation of power but also of great freshness. Much of the musts' acidity was malic, so the wines lost total acidity during the malolactic conversions, and anyway always have a tendency to lose tartaric acid. So the very interesting power and softer tones are now taking over, leaving only the low pHs to account for the freshness of style. The tannin levels of certain Merlots are moderate on account of the difficult véraison, but are showing a soft velvety character and are of excellent quality on account of all the pushing-back of picking dates. This permitted more or less saignées (bleeding) without risking over-structuring, principally on those Merlots where compensation of grape size was necessary. There is generally extreme satisfaction with the Cabernets, Francs as well as Sauvignons. They are less variable than the Merlots and often show great density and tannic structure together with profound aromas. Yields are generally satisfactory on the left bank, in the 40s hl/ha, and are slightly less satisfactory on the right bank.

It is well known that vintages can never be identical, but harvest time inevitably brings back to us memories of previous experiences which quite naturally evoke comparisons to other recent vintages. Back in September, 2014's combination of power and freshness at first made members think of 2001, similarly the result of an indifferent summer and a magnificent, if cooler, autumn. But, as the harvest continued, and especially now that we can assess the superb Cabernets more clearly, these 2014s generally have considerably more power and riper tannins than that. Some, especially in the more dominant Cabernet Sauvignon areas, and on certain later-harvested right-bank Merlots, mention 1996, 2006, 2000, and in some cases even 2005, because of their more solidly integrated tannins. Occasionally, there is even just a little something of 2010 in this vintage when the depth of power combines with such freshness.

The dry white wines

The Pessac-Léognan UGC members consider this to be a great dry white Bordeaux vintage. Such optimal harvesting conditions after such a cool summer were very beneficial to the Bordeaux style of dry white wines, which requires a certain florality and acid balance as well as power and fullness. These 2014s combine both perfectly. It is a vintage of finesse and sprightliness, but with considerable power, the Sauvignons regularly measuring 14% and more. Yields are generally low.

Sauternes

As for the dry whites and the reds, the combination of power and acidity is set to put 2014 Sauternes on a very high level. Both parts of the harvest have produced remarkably similar musts in terms of residual sugar, in spite of the great differences between the tiny pickings of September and the more massive ones of October. In the wines, the differences will be found in the acidities, very strong in the September picks, less in the October ones, and the assemblage of both will nevertheless make for very lively wines, almost to the level of the 2001s. There is also a big difference of style between the two, the first very fresh and fruit-driven, the second much more complex, and it is this complexity running through the purity which will certainly make this a great vintage.

Olivier Bernard, president of the UGC, adds :

Starting on 27 August, 60 days of beautiful weather dramatically changed the course of the 2014 growing season, ripening the grapes week after week to reach complete maturity in all varieties. Rich, fruity grapes with very good acidity, the heritage of a rather cool summer, account for the great success of the 2014 vintage!

Further to an early spring and a fairly low number of buds, a temperate, sunny, and wet summer set in and lasted until late August. This weather naturally tended to slow down ripening. Such unusual conditions called for meticulous, constant work in the vineyard to protect the vines and help them to produce the best possible grapes.

Fortunately, summer-like weather arrived in the last days in August and lasted until the end of October. The radiant sunshine was accompanied by dry wind that helped to concentrate the grapes, whereas cool evening temperatures refined the tannin.

All grape varieties attained new records of maturity, including Cabernet Sauvignon, which was picked in prime conditions, mostly during the second week of October.

Yields were reasonable. Our wines display great colour, fruit, richness, concentration, and freshness. The quality of this vintage is due to two main factors: a less-than-perfect summer that guaranteed freshness and an Indian summer of historic proportions conducive to ripeness and concentration, as well as wonderful balance. In short, 2014 benefited from two summers in a row to produce a great vintage!!!