Too much rain in the Summer of 2007, frost in April 2008, hail (twice) in May 2009 and, yes, drought in 2010. “What next,” asked a friend, “rivers of blood?”
Welcome to viticulture, Bauduc-style, and 2010 will be remembered as the year of the drought. (Cue monsoons during the harvest.)
We’ve seen half the normal rainfall in the five months since the beginning of April compared to the 30-year average in Bordeaux (see weather graphs in this article). Remarkably, the young vines have kept up with their older counterparts and look surprisingly healthy: with the lack of damp in the air, the risk of mildew has been reduced – unlike in humid Augusts like 2007 and 2008, for example – so most of the leaves look green and verdant with minimal spraying. But yellow leaves around the fruit zone tell a part of the story, as some of the vines have effectively shut down and the grapes have stopped ripening in certain parts of the vineyard.
Of course, these problems resulting from the lack of rain are avoidable. Firstly, choosing to rip out crappy old vines and replacing them with young ones lead to this. Guilty as charged, but I’m glad to see the back of 3 metre-wide rows of Cabernet Sauvignon on vigorous rootstock (SO4 to be precise) pumping out bunches of grapes that never ripened properly and tasted of green peppers. I’m fond of our new Sauvignon Blanc (featured in all these photos taken today), planted on low-yielding rootstocks in 1.8m wide rows.
The old vines, with deeper roots, are quite happy. More importantly, we could irrigate the young vines but we are forbidden from doing so by law. This archaic notion – if we were in New Zealand or South Africa we’d be watering our Sauvignon Blanc for sure – has its roots in the Appellation Controlée system that was created in France in the mid-1930s. It was decreed that no irrigation would be allowed in any AC area, which is not the case for ‘lower’ quality levels like Vins de Pays which also allows for higher yields.
The theory put about is that by not watering the vines, the roots have to dig deeper in their search for moisture, resulting in a mature vineyard that is more faithful to its terroir (a handy French word for soil, sub-soil, altitude, slope, meso-climate and growing environment, to name a few components). I’ve said this many times to visitors here (although a little unconvincingly, it has to be said). This may be true, but when you see vines being unduly stressed by lack of water, ‘faithfulness to terroir’ is a minor concern, whereas we are concerned about fruit quality, vine health and, of course, the quality of our wine that goes to our customers.
I spoke yesterday to Jean-René Matignon, the long-time winemaker at Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron, about how things were going up in Pauillac. I touched on the sécheresse (drought) and the reasons for irrigation being illegal. He told me that the ruling was in place because in the old days – and vignerons might well take advantage today – growers would water their vines just before harvest in order to inflate and dilute their grapes and their volume of wine, and completely compromise quality. (Couldn’t a watering ban after the end of July stop this?)
We live and learn and despite being a supporter of many of the rules that are laid down in triplicate, I’m becoming a bit of a sceptic. Next year, if we see a repeat of these conditions, watch out for drip-feed systems at Bauduc – and Vin de Pays or Vin de France or Vin de Table or Vin de Sod the Rules or whatever on the label. Not sure anyone really gives a damn, just so long as we deliver. As for this year, if you see ‘dry-grown’ written on the back label of our 2010 white, you’ll know it was said through slightly gritted teeth.