Gavin Quinney reports from the vineyards and sorting tables of Bordeaux.
The red wine harvest is now under way in Bordeaux, shortly before the end of an exceptionally sunny September. Merlot, the most widely planted variety and the first of the reds to ripen, has started to come in from the more precocious terroirs and from younger vines on drier soils. Yet there's no rush. The forecast is for more sun this weekend, and most châteaux and growers are holding off for 'optimum' ripeness after the relatively cool and humid summer.
Even at this late stage, the vintage is still too early to call. The next two to three weeks will be crucial as most of the Merlots have yet to ripen fully and the Cabernets will soon follow. 'Il faut être patient et flexible.'
Grapes being received at Ch Gruaud Larose, 24 September 2014.
Sorting the harvest on the conveyor at Ch La Croix in Pomerol, 24 September 2014.
Many of the top estates in Pomerol and on the left bank tentatively started picking their early Merlots this week under blue skies, although we'll see a lot more activity from next week onwards. The dry whites, which are always the first to be harvested, were picked from the start of September in Pessac-Léognan and later in the Graves and the Entre-Deux-Mers; what's left is being brought in now. The only possible down side was that the weather may even have been a little too warm for these whites: the chilly autumnal mornings kicked in only from Tuesday 23 September.
The season has been one of ups and downs. A bright early start with the budbreak in April, then a chilly, damp May slowed things down, followed by the critical June flowering, which was almost uniformly good; but a variable and occasionally wet July and a cooler, cloudier August left everyone relying on a fine September. Thankfully, that is what we've had. It has been a hot and dry month, other than uneven rain on 17 and 18 September: Léognan had just 10 mm (0.4 in), St-Estèphe 20 mm (0.8 in) and St-Émilion almost 50 mm (2 in), against a Bordeaux 30-year average for the month of 84 mm (3.3 in).
Ch Lafite, 24 September 2014.
So Bordeaux needs one final period of good weather in order to ripen the Merlots and Cabernets fully, and of course we need fine weather for the harvest itself. My feeling is that there's less risk of rot for the reds in 2014 than in 2011, 2012 and 2013. It was the onset of botrytis in damp conditions that forced many producers to pick earlier than they would have liked in those years, although 2013 was some way short of ripeness compared with the two previous vintages.
The concerns are more for the ripeness of the tannins in the skins and the pips, and the noticeable tendency for some Merlot grapes to flétrir or wither on the vine before they ripen. If it rains, there's also a risk of dilution of course - the grapes are plump enough already. (Let's not get too technical about the pips turning from green to brown. I will never forget the despairing way Anthony Barton once said 'these days, it's all about the pips'.)
Worse though is the undoubted impact of downy mildew in many vineyards, stemming mainly from the humidity in the summer air from mid July to late August. The Bordeaux vineyard today is a patchwork of green, healthy vines and others which are browned off and look rather sad. In other words, it's extremely unlikely that 2014 can be a great vintage across the board.
Yet for those who have put the work in and are blessed with a decent terroir, 2014 could be a more than handsome vintage - if the weather holds for a little while longer.
Pickers getting busy at Ch Palmer, 24 September 2014.