The weather’s been warm, sunny and very dry, giving rise to reports – there’s a summary of them here – of another magnificent vintage on the cards (don’t yawn). Anything can happen before the Merlot harvest begins towards the end of September, and in October for the Cabernets, but let me explain why 2010 is not like 2009.
It is, of course, too early to say how 2010 is going to turn out as September is such a critical month, but some things are so evident – and significant – in the vineyard, I thought I should point them out.
10 key points so far
1. My friends at Liv-ex referred to 2010 last week as being ‘rather dry’. To the end of August, 2010 has been exceptionally dry, with half as much rain here as 2009 and less than half the 30-year average in Bordeaux, in the last six months. If 2009 saw just the right amount of rain – and ’09 was thought to be a dry year – 2010 has been too dry, causing stress in the vines which has often hindered, not helped, the ripening. Many vineyards, especially those with young vines, are showing serious signs of drought and stress.
2. April and May 2010 were very dry compared to 2009 and 2005, and with March rainfall being much lower than usual as well, water reserves in the ground from Spring rain were far lower – right from the start of the growing season.
3. It has been warm and sunny too, with less risk of mildew, which has reduced the need to spray. Temperature swings at important stages in 2010 have had an impact on the vines, compared to the more constant temperatures with cooler nights in 2009. May was significantly cooler than 2009 which, along with a surge in heat after the middle of May and other factors, impacted flowering (see below). June was a little warmer than the 30-year average in Bordeaux (18.6˚ v 18.3˚C here) and July hotter still (21.7˚ v 21.0˚C). Early July was unusually hot and, so far, August has been warm. If we had had more rain, it would have been fine.
4. Other than the drought conditions in 2010, the key difference with 2009 and 2005 is the uneven flowering and fruit-set; due to mixed weather in late May and early June, and other factors, the bunches of grapes are inconsistent from one parcel to another, and often from one vine to another. More on this below. Many vines are bulging with healthy, evenly sized grapes, whereas others have a bit of a mish-mash as a result of coulure and millerandage – grapes that either didn’t form properly or different sized berries in the same bunch. Uneven fruit set will mean, more than likely, uneven ripening.
5. There was a generous number and size of potential bunches from the start in most vineyards. Where flowering is successful, it’s a very good-sized crop. Yields are very inconsistent – high in some vineyards but much lower in others with poor fruit-set.
6. Many of the great terroirs, from Lafite Rothschild in Pauillac (right) to Tertre-Rotebeouf in St-Emilion (left, above), have vines in amazingly healthy state, but the vintage will not be as consistent as 2009 or 2005. For example, parts of Pomerol look parched, with Merlot leaves wilting, yet nearby, on the clay-over-limestone soils of the slopes around St-Emilion, the vines are getting just enough moisture from the limestone ‘sponge’ beneath the surface. If fine weather continues through to mid-October, there will be some exceptional wines, assuming careful selection.
7. Great wines could certainly be made if the fine weather continues, but with rain at the right moment. Some vineyards, like this one in Margaux (left), are badly in need of a drink. Young vines and those on dry soils have suffered terribly in 2010 (irrigation is not permitted if the vines are in production – see my rant here). Better adapted terroirs, which give the vines just the right of amount of sustenance, look superb.
8. Many of the leading estates have invested in, or put on trial, the new, super-dooper Tri Optique sorting machines – Mouton-Rothschild, Léoville-Las Cases, Pichon Longueville Baron, and Pétrus (right) to drop a few names – and these will come in handy when separating mature, ripe berries from immature, stunted ones. As well as the Tri Optique systems, which are the most sophisticated and expensive, there are other sorting machines which are designed to sift out the smaller berries – Mistral, Viniclean and so on. In 2009, many of these machines were being put to the test but there wasn’t much to sort – it was nearly all good.
9. The 2010 growing cycle began a week later than 2009 – partly due to a chillier March and much colder soils until the 20th March. (Pruning young vines here in March, left, should have been slightly warmer on the toes.) This late kick-off, and very dry weather, will result in a later harvest in September and October for the Merlots and well into October for the Cabernets. The later the harvest, the greater the risks.
10. Finally, there have been no hail storms in 2010 (touch wood) whereas in 2009, hail in mid and late May damaged up to 19,000 hectares of vines, a sixth of the overall surface area, to a greater or lesser extent. The Entre Deux Mers, the Graves, the Côtes, St-Emilion and Margaux took the brunt of the storms. So for some producers, the only way was up.
Notes on the flowering
1. Crucially, flowering across Bordeaux was impacted by a sudden rise in temperature after the middle of May 2010 (which was 2.3˚C colder overall than May ’09) and then colder weather returned. It felt like the vines had been jolted into action by the heat, only to go back to bed when it got colder again.
2. Flowering this year is very uneven and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why one vine or parcel is in great shape whereas another nearby looks grim. For me, the fruit-set in 2010 is very hétérogène – inconsistent, quite unlike 2009. Some old timers say that when there are a lot of big potential bunches, the flowering can be poor – ‘the bigger the bunches the lower the yield’, or words to that effect. That’s certainly true in patches.
3. Merlot is vulnerable to Coulure, when the flowers don’t open properly in cold or damp weather, are not fertilised, so the grapes don’t form. This can be seen on both sides of the Gironde in 2010 – from Pauillac to Pomerol, and from St-Julien (right) to St-Emilion (above, left).
4. Millerandage (called ‘hen and chicken’) is common too, both with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Individual berries in the same bunch are of varying sizes, and will remain at different levels of maturity. This is largely down to the chilly weather at the wrong moment. There’s been quite a bit of millerandage in Burgundy too, I gather.
5. Most of the Cabernet Franc I’ve seen, such as at Angélus, Cheval Blanc, Ausone in St-Emilion and at d’Armailhac in Pauillac, looks in very good shape.
6. The great terroirs seem to have succeeded far better than the lesser ones in the same commune, as far as flowering is concerned. The Cabernet Sauvignon on the gravelly knolls at Lafite and Mouton, for example, and other top sites in Pauillac, St-Julien and St-Estephe, looks superb. Likewise the Merlot on some of the clay-limestone slopes around St-Emilion.
7. In some of the lesser Bordeaux appellations, such as in the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, yields look substantial.
Roll on September
The weather over the next month or so can make or break a vintage: September sunshine saved 2002 and 2007 from near disaster, proved crucial in the great vintages 2000, 2005 and 2009, and had a significant impact on the very good vintages, 2001 and 2008.
So it’s all to play for.
All the above are simply my own observations, as I don’t like to bother managers and owners during the August holidays, with recent photos of vines and grapes all taken in Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac, St-Estephe, St-Emilion and Pomerol. The weather charts are based on our local weather station, south east of the city of Bordeaux. Figures will vary from one area to another (eg St-Julien is 70 kms from us, St-Emilion and Pomerol just 25 kms).
I’ll report back after I’ve spoken to a few wise folk – do follow me on Twitter for updates: http://twitter.com/GavinQuinney