Blatch on Bordeaux 2005 – how the vines were grown

As usual Bill Blatch of Bordeaux merchants Vintex ( has generously published the most detailed report I know of the most recent Bordeaux vintage. It clearly takes an enoomous amount of work as it is dated 21 nov 05 – 03 jan 06. I have made only the smallest editing modifications to it and hope that you find it as fascinating and valuable as I and many wine professionals do. I have put those phrases I find most striking in bold.
If it could, Bordeaux would settle for a 2005-type vintage every year. It was a truly extraordinary year, easy to manage, without complications and the almost permanently fine weather ended up by providing a wine of most unusual concentration. And the owners are all wearing the kind of smile that suggests they have something very special in the cellar.
However it was not without its anxieties, the principal one of which was the lack of rainfall. Over the 12 months from November 04 to October 05, it rained a whole 48% less than the 30-year average.
The 2005 season’s monthly rainfall and temperatures
                          Rainfall                      2004/5 temp over
           2004/5      Average    difference   average temp
                  mm           mm
11/04  11.2        106.8      -91 %                 – 0.6°C        
12/04  68.0        106.7      -36 %                 – 0.9°
01/05  32.2          92.0     -65 %                  +0.5°
02/05  38.4          82.6     -53 %                  – 2.7°
03/05  38.2          70.0     -45 %                   +0.2°
04/05  90.4          80.0    +13 %                   +1.5°
05/05  16.2          83.8     -81 %                   +1.7°
06/05  32.2          63.8     -49 %                   +2.7°
07/05  20.0          54.5     -63 %                   +1.5°
08/05  14.4          59.5     -76 %                   +0.3°
09/05  56.2          90.3     -38 %                   +0.5°
10/05  55.2          94.0     -41 %                   +3.0°
          _____        _____     _____                   _____
Total   472.6 mm   984.0   -48 %                   +0.6°
Yet there were very few instances of the vines actually shutting down, and at the end, very few vats showed any of the jammy character normally associated with shut-down. It wasn’t as if the vine was not used to lack of water. Such a dry year came as no surprise to it. After all, it had been in drought mode since spring 2003 and was used to dry soil as it went into the 2005 season, and as the year wore on, drier and ever drier, it got even more used to it, pushing its vigorous roots further into the subsoil to find nourishment. In addition, under such conditions, the tiniest rain shower at the right time could invigorate it just enough for each important sequence in its development and, as if to order, these arrived at precisely the right time: the April showers precipitated the budding, the little showers of 21-22 May the flowering, those of 27-28 Jul the véraison, those of 8-12 Sep the final ripening of the Merlots, and of 25th the Cabs, and the mid-  and end- August showers in Sauternes the first stages of botrytis.
The vine’s cycle started late at budding, then caught up at the flowering and, just as we were expecting a short hang-time as in 2000, a long, dry, regularly warm summer with no excessive heat spun out the bunches into small clusters of reduced, hard-skinned grapes that could ripen and concentrate gently and at their leisure with the result that the hang-time ended up normal or even a bit long after all.
The big fear was that sooner or later the rainfall would catch up, and that, as had happened in 1976 after a similarly extremely dry (but hotter) year, the harvest would start under a downpour, quickly bloating, splitting and even rotting the grapes. In the end, the unhoped-for happened and the long dry summer ran into a long dry autumn and the longest and most relaxed harvest period of all time.
If 2005 has been a very dry year, it has not been exceptionally hot – just 0°6C over the average (see table above). Spring and early summer were regularly 1°5 – 2°C over the average, August and September just slightly over. The only real bursts of heat came right at the beginning and right at the end of the growing season in June and in October, the former getting the grapes off to a fast start, the latter putting the finishing touches to the red harvest and ensuring a fabulous final botrytisation in Sauternes.
The two opposite features of the 2005 season, on the one hand such perfectly and regularly warm unstressful weather, and on the other such extreme drought conditions, have created wines that similarly combine two features: They are extremely concentrated yet strongly tannic, very rich yet totally vigorous, heavy-set yet fresh-flavoured; whilst the top dry whites have softness combined with liveliness; and the Sauternes are tremendously rich and powerful yet superbly fresh.
Winter 2004-2005
Let’s start where we left off last year, when a long dry autumn had culminated after the harvest in a very wet second half of October. This, apart from April, would be the last real rain we would have until the end of November, 13 months later. The rest of the winter months remained obstinately dry, as the almost permanent high pressure system over the Eastern Atlantic warded off any rain-laden depressions. Last year, this system had been centred further out to sea, pulling Mediterranean air from the South-East into Bordeaux, resulting in a warm winter. This year, it was centred further East, often over much of Southern Europe, bringing colder North-Easterly air into the region. Although the frosts came two months later this year, just before Christmas, they were deeper and more prolonged. There were only 4 days of frost in December (the average is 7), but 8 in January (8), 9 in February (7), and 9 in March (4).
A few interludes of warmer Atlantic weather, especially 11th-13th February, brought the usual fears that the sap was beginning to rise too early, but then a long chilly period from 16th February to 11th March, especially the very hard -8°C frosts 28th February – 2nd March, ensured that the vines remained totally dormant.
Most of the pruning had been completed by now under perfect conditions, and everyone was pleased with the quality of last year’s wood, even though it had sap in it until very late, as witnessed by the presence of leaves in December. With such a minimal frost risk, very late pruning (which is a form of anti-frost insurance) was less prevalent than last year, but those who did wait had to do it in a screaming hurry when the temperatures suddenly shot up mid-March. 
Spring, budding and early growth
As the long cold period came to an end mid March, and just as France was running out of electricity, spring was suddenly upon us. A showery 14th March was followed by a week of extraordinarily hot sunny days, culminating in 26°8C on Sunday 20th, almost beating the March heat record of 1981. The whole of Bordeaux moved out to the beach for the weekend, to get some rest before everyone arrived for the spring tastings.
But meanwhile in the vineyard, in spite of the heat, there were no swellings or rising sap. The vine refused to budge, still locked into its winter mode by the big freeze and by the total absence of moisture, and it wasn’t until the end of March brought some welcome showers that the budding began, now one, or in some cases, two weeks late. This lateness in the start to the vine’s cycle was to become one of the main features that would make 2005 Bordeaux different in style from the very early-starting vintages such as ’89 or ’90.
April was a warmish month. It was also quite wet, in fact the only month of the whole year to go over the average rainfall figure. At first the budding went fast, generally getting to second leaf by 8th. But there followed a series of cool nights which slowed everything down again, so that by 21st, even the Merlots still only had 4 cm or so of growth on them. It was all very frustrating: We were already late and were now getting later still.
Then, from 22nd April, we got four days of hard rain, followed by a week of very hot sun, up to 28°C. This time, the vine didn’t hesitate and, especially on the Right Bank, in Sauternes and in he Entre-Deux-Mers, where it had rained more than on the Left Bank, the vegetation galloped ahead during the first week of May.
The embryo bunches quickly appeared. It was generally a large “sortie” (the vine was not yet through with catching up after the two short crops 2002 and 2003) and many growers snipped off excess bunches at this time. However, there were far fewer counter-buds than last year, making the work of de-budding much simpler. The bunches looked medium-sized and quite short, as opposed to the very long ones of 2004, but the embryo grapes were already smaller than usual, creating a similar loose effect – and, with the continuing summer drought that was to come, they would stay that way all the way through.
May continued warm and totally dry and by 23rd May, when we saw the very first signs of the flowering, some of the lateness had been caught up.
Early summer and flowering
The remainder of the lateness was caught up in the sudden extraordinary heatwave of the final days of May. On 27th, the thermometer got to 33°4C, just short of the May record of 1922. The combination of April’s rainfall and this sudden heat got the flowering started everywhere and it was then over in record time during the first constantly warm days of June.
At first it looked like a perfect flowering. Young vines and old vines, Merlots and Cabernets, good clones and less good clones: all flowered in just a few days. Then, over the ensuing two weeks, it became clear that there had been some coulure and millerandage [poor and uneven fruit set] after all on all varieties but as usual especially the Merlot. Maybe the heatwave had been too sudden just before, or the nights too cold during the first hot days of June, or the drought coupled with the evaporation effect of all this heat did not provide quite enough energy for the vine to support such a sudden flowering. Anyway several grapes were lost in most bunches, further loosening them and ensuring that the ‘05 vintage would no longer be a large one. There were still plenty of bunches, just fewer grapes on each, and the need for crop-thinning became less acute.
And all month long, the sun kept on beating down, registering an average temperature of 22°C, which made it the hottest June after 2003 (23°1C) and overtaking 1976 (21°3C). Yet, as the pasturelands turned to savannah and the trees’ leaves shrivelled and Bordeaux’s new tramway system failed in the dry hot days of the remainder of June [inc Vinexpo!], the vines were oases of bright green and vigorous foliage in the middle of all the yellow and brown, clearly enjoying the extreme conditions.
The explanation seemed to be that the subsoil had already been dry after such a rainless winter so the vine’s roots had only gradually been able to provide nourishment when everything heated up, whereas in 1976, the vine’s roots had been wallowing in excess ground water when similar heat and drought conditions suddenly arrived.
One big advantage of such dryness was that sprayings could be kept to a minimum. Apart from a light mildew attack early in the season and a very dangerous grape-worm attack in May from the first generation of the cochylis and eudemis moth (which many now combat by mating disruption rather than by sprayings – the French prefer to call this “sexual confusion”), there were no other real dangers. Oidium was never a problem and the subsequent grape-worm generations were very harmless. So, growers could get away this year with less than half the normal sprayings. Of course this was excellent for the ecology (and economy) of the vineyard and was especially good for Sauternes where all the natural microscopic fungi that interact with the botrytis development could do so totally unhindered, and this must have accounted to some extent for the total purity of botrytis at harvest time.
June ended up with a count of 21 days over 25°C (the average is 10.1, and only the record hot year of all times 1921, at 25 days, beat it) and of 10 days over 30°C (the average is 2.9 and only 1976, with 15, beat it); sun hours totalled 270 (a full 20% more than the average) and maximum daily temperatures were a whole 4°6C over the average, and rainfall was less even than the parched June of 1947. How much longer could the vine stand such punishment?
High summer: July and August
Happily, its resistance was not put to such a test. July continued hot and totally dry but less extreme. Unlike for our poor East Coast American friends suffering in that killer July cauldron, the number of really hot days was only marginally higher than the average. However, sun hours continued at 20% over the average – 2005 was to become the year of light rather than of heat – and rainfall continued at zero apart from two patches of isolated light storms.
In hot dry years, thunderstorms are a permanent danger, and 2005 was no exception. Already on 13th May, a violent storm had turned to hail over Monbazillac destroying 500 hectares of crop and two nights later 400 hectares in Buzet. Again, on 25th June, a violent storm had happily only dumped deluges of water on the Médoc and on 27th, a vicious hailstorm followed a similar track as in June 2003, starting over Arcachon but it had veered off just in time over mostly forest land. It had been a close call for many Graves, Entre-Deux-Mers, Sauternes and Right Bank vineyards and only patchy damage had been done. Again, at 2 am on 4th July, a big storm had some hail in it over St Emilion (the same system that disrupted life for our friends in Northern Europe that day), and St Emilion got hit again (about 10% hail damage on the côte and immediate plateau) on 28th by a storm that had started over the Northern Médoc as just heavy rain.
All these storms were cumulatively much less violent than the 2003 ones, and, more important than trying to assess the damage they caused is to look at the geographical differences in the rainfall they brought, for this year, they were just about the only source of water for the vines. The July storms brought 25 mm to the upper Médoc but almost nothing to the Right Bank, Graves and Southern Médoc, accounting for earlier grape concentration in these areas, with less juice, thicker skins and higher acidities. Later, this would also partially explain the lower yields on the Right Bank than on the Left.
In August, the storms of 17th brought about 25 mm to the Right Bank, Graves and Entre Deux Mers but completely avoided the Médoc, which, especially in Margaux and the Southern Médoc, now really needed water. The Médocains could not believe their luck, therefore, when, on 25th August, they had their own little three hours of light rain. “All we dared ask for was a few hours of light rain” commented one Pauillac grower, “and we got them”.
Meanwhile, the “véraison” had taken place. Jolted into activity by the 27-28th July storms, the vine quickly started the process of changing its grapes’ colour. Just as at the flowering, this rain came just at the right time, and the véraison happened uniformly fast, maybe slightly more efficiently on the Right Bank than the Left, where it got a little spun out: Most of the former were at half-véraison by 3rd-4th August, whilst for the Médoc, it was more like 10th. By 15th August, all grapes had changed colour and immediately took on a beautiful deep blue colour. They were now concentrated little berries: the average weight of 100 Merlot grapes was now about 130 grams, as opposed to 165 or 170 in 2004, and the sugars were rising fast.  
The extreme drought and the continuous sunshine never really shut down the vines during yet another month almost without rain. August registered only 14 mm of rainfall (the average is 59). But, in spite of the yellow grass and the parched river-beds (the rivers were lower even than in ’76 and ’47), very few vines showed stress, with the exception of some younger vines planted on lighter sandy soils, and these were easily identifiable by their curling, and sometimes yellowing leaves in the evening. This was a far cry from August 2003, when 20 days of vicious heat had dried up whole areas of vineyard, shedding the leaves altogether and roasting the grapes themselves. And later, there would be very few fermenting vats that would have dull or cooked aromas. As in 1982, a dry but not too hot August saved the vintage from such things, and the coolish nights helped preserve freshness and acidity in that critical post-véraison phase when the grape gradually becomes a ripe fruit. The month ended up at an average maximum temperature of just 27°3C, only 0°6C over normal, and at an average minimum temperature of 15°1C, only 0°1C over normal, whilst the number of days over 30°C was just 7, compared to an average of 6 and to 20 in 2003. Up to this point, many growers had been finding similarities to ’03. Now, such comparisons stopped, and henceforth, they talked more of a cross between ’03 and ’04: a similarly concentrated vintage to ‘03 but with more freshness and acidity.
There was also now less talk of making a ’76 if it started to rain. Since the late July showers and the two August storms, the skins seemed elastic enough to withstand some rain.  So, maybe there was now a chance of making more of a ’95 than a ’76, if the dreaded September equinox were to live up to its reputation by creating a downpour.
September, October and the harvest
By now, the white grapes of Pessac-Léognan were ready and Haut-Brion could kick off the harvest with a small pick of perfectly ripe, golden-coloured Sauvignons on 24th August, with others following over the next few days and the main body of the dry whites under ideal conditions from 5th September, having benefited from the overnight showers of 31st August – 1st September. The weather remained perfectly fine, but the high pressure system was weakening, and from 8th to 13th September allowed a few depressions to wriggle in and produce some showers. These were generally very light, and picking could continue throughout, but they did account for 42 mm of rainfall, which was (once again) perfectly timed to  be over by the time the Merlot harvest would really get under way. Apart from a few mm on the Friday afternoon 16th September and a short thunderstorm on Sunday 25th (when nobody was harvesting anyway) there was to be no more rain at all until the very last two days of the Cabernet pick. In Bordeaux, such regularly fine conditions throughout the harvest are exceptional, and they provided the perfect finishing touch to an already extremely promising vintage.
   The sun shone all day every day, and the harvest assumed the most leisurely pace anyone has ever known. The window of ripeness seemed to be open for ever; The first Merlots were picked on 7th September at Pétrus, the last ones on 7th October at Pavie. For a grape that has a reputation for being unripe at 10 am, ripe at midday and overripe at 2 pm, this was an extraordinary phenomenon. The usual explanation that the early pickers were too impatient to wait for total ripeness was not necessarily the case this year. It was more that the 2005 season had been very gentle and gradual, and the final ripening process continued at the same easy rhythm, especially when it got slowed down by the exceptionally cool nights of 17th – 22nd September. Also, the long drought had created different ripening cycles on different soils, the finer gravel soils taking longer than the heavier clay or chalk ones. And, above all, with the weather permanently set fair, no-one needed to hurry, harvesting programmes could be modified at will and the pickers could be sent home for the weekends if they wanted.
Under such conditions, everyone could wait for the ideal moment before harvesting each parcel. Prior to the 8th – 12th September showers and the cold snap of 17th – 22nd, the sugar levels had been high but the acidities had been generally quite low. After them, the acidities actually rose again, and this made many hesitate about picking right away And there was also at this time a lot of discussion about the ripeness of the phenolic elements in the skins and pips: In such a dry year, a grape could appear to be ripe but was not totally, as had been the case in that very dry year ’89 when the earlier-harvested grapes had often contributed a touch of bitterness to the wines. 2005 was turning into such a dream vintage that nobody wanted the slightest thing to go wrong. In the end, with such a flexible picking programme, everyone had the luxury of analysing the grape’s ripeness to the nth degree, or of choosing which clan of consultant oenologists they would listen to – the advocates of early picking or of late picking – and never had the opposition between the two sides been so pronounced
Most of the Merlot harvest was in full swing by the week of 26th September, with the Cabernet Francs starting also at the same time. There was a collective sigh of relief as the month ended with most of the Merlots in, and the Cabernets starting. Once again, it ended up a very dry month: 56 mm of rainfall (usual: 90) with 2/3 of it in two days (9th and 25th). Once again, the rainfall was perfectly orchestrated with more on 8th – 9th on the Right Bank and Sauternes, just when they needed it (for the first to invigorate the Merlots immediately pre-harvest, for the second to initiate an onrush of botrytis) than on the Left Bank, and vice versa on 25th (just when the Cabs needed it to put the finishing touches to their ripening). Like August, September was warm without being too hot: 18°6C average daily temp (usual: 18°1C), with just 11 days over 25°C (usual: 11), and 2 over 30°C (usual: 2).
The first few days of October were cold and generally dry as the late-harvest Merlot properties finished their picking and most of the Left Bank Cabernet ones continued or finished theirs. Again the nights were cold and the afternoons hot under the influence of Northerly/Easterly air streams coming off the high pressure system that was now situated over Central Europe. The Cabernet harvest was generally terminated under the fine, clear skies that this system produced. From 12th to 18th October, it weakened and allowed some rainy fronts to develop, which meant that the final two days of the later-harvested Cabs were not ideal. However, the rain fell during the night and conditions were just about OK during the day. There were some Médocains – and not the least – who had finished their Cabs by the end of September and were wondering why these people had waited so long. Sauternes had already completed its 2nd or 3rd pick by the time this rain arrived, and, with the vineyard all clear of botrytis, could wait for further developments.
The red harvest now safely in, and the bulk of the Sauternes harvest having been picked on the 2nd trie early October, the second half of October then proceeded to warm up, under the influence of the Southerlies being sucked up from Africa and Spain around the high pressure that had shifted South over Italy, into the hottest last 10 days of October since the record 1921. This dry air caused morning fogs to form after the quite cool nights, and, in the afternoons, produced hot sunshine to 25°C, totally ideal Sauternes conditions for finishing the 3rd, 4th and sometimes 5th trie. Most finished by 28th October, but some continued well into November, especially during the very fine days and very cool nights that followed the heavy night-time rain of 3rd November.
So ended a text-book harvest period for all of Bordeaux. The sun shone almost permanently and the showers came exactly when and where required to add the final touch, and all this after a dry hot season, during which what little rain there was fell just before all the vital sequences of the vine’s cycle. What more could we have asked for? Although some had cursed the drought, it had been the most perfect year we could expect. And if any growers have made a sub-par wine, they only have themselves to blame. And if any have made a vegetal wine, they should be lined up and shot at dawn.
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Coming very soon: Bill Blatch’s report on how the wines were made and what they taste like so far.