The Art of Leaf-Stripping

Nearly all the top Châteaux are at it, as are most quality-driven estates in Bordeaux.  The practice of effeuillage is not something one reads about on a back-label (not that there are many of those on top-class claret) but it’s an important job at this time of year. Over the last week – with the help of a dozen experienced seasonal workers – we’ve been busy removing the leaves from around the fruit zone, so that the bunches get a good airing for the rest of the growing season.  The general idea is that this will help the grapes to ripen over the next few months, with the added bonus that the risk of bunch rot is reduced.

The leaves are plucked away from the grapes on the cooler, morning-sun side of the row of vines at this stage, because sudden exposure might cause sun-burn on the grapes facing the mid-day and afternoon heat. Many top vineyards complete the job on the other side in early September when it’s slightly cooler, but that phase seems to be less critical. We’ll decide on how to play it then.

I have been a big fan of effeuillage since coming to Bordeaux and watching in despair as rot spread quickly around the bunches of merlot that were shrouded in a heavy canopy of damp leaves in late September 1999, before the grapes had ripened. Angela and I, along with Barbara Abraham MW who had picked an unfortunate week to stay at Bauduc, frantically cut out any rotten bunches before the harvesting machine sped through the vineyard.  

Since then I’ve also had the chance to taste the difference in grapes from vines which had been left untouched, and others from those where the leaves have been removed from the bunches in July. For me, it’s nuit et jour, especially with merlot.  

The only top estate that I can think of that doesn’t systematically practice effeuillage is Chateau Sociando-Mallet, and at Léoville-Barton they don’t always go for it, so great wine can still be made without it.  (This is merlot at Pichon-Lalande a few days ago, following effeuillage). But for us, and quite frankly we don’t have the same great terroir, it’s essential – more so in damper years like 2007. So far, 2008 is a ‘late’ season, meaning that with every stage being a bit behind, we won’t harvest until later than average. My feeling is that leaf-removal could make the difference, although it’s just one of a hundred tasks that can have an impact.

This year, like in 2007, nearly all our vines have been de-leafed around the bunches by hand – none by machine – whereas from 2000 to 2005, most of the work was done using a machine I bought in 2000.  A very good bit of kit it is too (shown here in 2003), but there’s a big gap in quality between the work by hand and the results of the machine, which can damage the grapes.  If we can afford it, we’ll trade ours in next spring and replace it with a more efficient, newer model. (We’ll have to be careful about how we advertise on e-bay, as a carefully maintained effeuilleuse – or well-built stripper in good nick – can have a very different meaning.)

I would prefer to do our best parcels by hand and the rest by machine, as we can’t afford to behave like a Grand Cru Classé when we have the revenues of a sweet shop.  Over the past week since Bastille day last Monday, a national holiday, we have had between eleven and sixteen experienced saisonniers on the case, handling around 100,000 vines. 

It’s an expensive call to do all this by hand, but looking on the positive side by breaking the cost down to a few centimes per bottle, it should prove to be worthwhile. Hopefully. 

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