As we come to the end of our harvest at Bauduc, we have hardly had a chance to reflect on an extraordinary vintage of triumphs and disasters. Everything looked great until the hailstorms in May. Then we lost a huge slice of the crop. Since the hail, the weather has been fantastic – so we were on the verge of a Perfect Storm: watching other vineyards enjoy a beautiful summer and early autumn, after ours had been badly hit. Salt on the wounds.
So how come we have made more white, more rosé and more red than last year?
Here’s how. It’s not a short or simple story, but this is France.
After we put the video of the hail damage on this site, we had numerous messages of support both privately and on the blog. The temptation to put everything on hold was strong. How about closing down our operating business, Vignobles Quinney, which leases the land from us? Then lease the vines out to someone else, and simply collect the rent from the vines and the farmhouse? Or shut it down and start afresh. Stuff the creditors – after all, to ‘phoenix’ a business is just standard practice in the UK, or so we hear.
Not so in France, said our accountant. The company has invested so much in upgrading the vineyard, the buildings and other fixed assets that the creditors would come after us personally. Even with a limited company, apparently. ‘Très dangereux’, said Monsieur Chassagne (who, incidentally, has done a much better job than our previous fellow). We didn’t need to be reminded that the biggest vineyard owner in France is Credit Agricole.
So, with renewed enthusiasm and cards from friends and customers saying things like ‘Never, never, never give up’ (Winston Churchill, obviously), we looked at the options more positively. We had to get over the fact, and the cost, that the vines need to be treated in exactly the same way as if they still had grapes on them this year. Otherwise, they’d get even more upset and fail to come back strong enough for future harvests. (Daniel and the team have done a great job in doing just that – in fact, I reckon our vines look in a much healthier state than many nearby vineyards who haven’t been hit by hail. You can see them at harvest time, four months after the hail.)
With all the normal running costs, but with a much smaller crop, how would that pan out? Not good – in fact, not good at all. Like Gordon Brown, we haven’t put enough aside for a rainy day. What do we do, we asked our accountant and a few neighbours, including the Président of the local Syndicat. As a château, and even with the hail damage, we’re not allowed to simply buy grapes at the time of the harvest – at least, not if we want to call the wine Château Bauduc. There’s only one thing for it: we need to lease more vines, without over-committing. But who from?
And the last thing we need is more vines when the team is already struggling trying to cope with our own, and I had already fired one vineyard worker last year and made another redundant. In addition, we’ve got 30,000 young vines that aren’t even in production yet, and they are a lot of work, plus 90,000 others.
What we needed was to find some great vines, on a great terroir, and have the vigneron lease the land to us – to conform to the legal red tape. Then we’d pay him to look after the vines. We’d work closely with him and then harvest the grapes. Simple. Oh, and we’d need to have a termination clause in the contract so that either party could cancel once a year. We found a Courtier (that’s someone who brokers deals between different parties, usually Châteaux and Négociants) who had drawn up just that sort of contract, and chatted to the man from the SAFER. The Safer, pronounced Saff-air, is the Government body that approves all agricultural land transactions. They have pre-emption rights on any sale of vineyard land, so they’re a powerful bunch. They sell vineyards on their site www.proprietes-rurales.com.
Now it was a question of finding the prospective growers – and we were by no means the only ones looking as many vineyards around us had been hit. I sniffed out a lead when talking to a grower, who had signed up with one négociant (négociants are the big merchants in Bordeaux – Castel, who until recently owned Oddbins, is one). He said that another of the big négociants had changed their policy about buying grapes. Previously this well known, highly respected firm had rented a winery, and were buying grapes.
In 2009, their lease had ended on that winery but they had stalled on a plan to build their own winery locally. So now they were only buying finished wine to blend together – many miles away – to make a well-known brand. That surely meant that some very good growers were left high and dry, as they didn’t have the kit to make wine. They’re just growers, not winemakers, and good ones at that. The breakthrough came when a list of these growers somehow, ahem, appeared from nowhere.
How did you get my mobile number, they said, usually sitting on a tractor. It’s not as if they’re on Facebook or Linkedin. ‘We’ve been phoning around since the hail and it must, er, have been a friend of a friend – I can’t remember’.
I went to see those that had vines available. Some had good vines, some not so good, but some great. The ones I liked, I had to try and persuade them with my cunning plan. I wasn’t interested in simply buying grapes like the négociants, these grapes were potentially going into the wine from my Château. They’d have a legally binding contract – and they all love a bit of paper round here.
Naturally, I was turned down by some but the plan slowly came together before the final date of signature on 31 July (which was subsequently delayed to 31 August as demand for the type of contract increased). All contracts had to be signed by both parties and the man from the Safer.
All we needed was some great weather for the harvest, and we were rewarded. As a rough guide to the impact of these new vineyards, from 13 hectares of our white vines surrounding the Château at Bauduc, we made 120 hectolitres of juice (16,000 bottles), or 9 hectolitres per hectare. Normally we’d make 5o hl/ha – with a maximum quota of 65hl/ha. So by adding 11 further hectares of quality vines to the portfolio, we increased the production 5 fold to 600 hectolitres (80,000 bottles). There’s a video of some of the vines we leased here.
We’ve also made plenty of crisp, fruity, pale rosé, and a lot of delicious red – at least, it tastes that way in the fermentation tanks.
Touch wood, our massive gamble of ‘double or quits’ has paid off. Now we just have to find ways to pay for it all.