10 Reasons why Bordeaux 2010 is not like 2009

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

002139_rainfall_2005_2010

dsc_065911. 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.

002139_temp_2005_2010

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.

dsc_07964. 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.

dsc_08875. 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.

dsc_09686.  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.

dsc_069917. 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.

dsc00246_28. 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.

img_05379. 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.

dsc_005610. 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.

dsc_09432. 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.

dsc_07393. 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).

dsc_08624. 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.

dsc_09936. 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

dsc_1024The 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

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26 thoughts on “10 Reasons why Bordeaux 2010 is not like 2009

    1. Gavin

      Hi Stephen
      Thanks and feel free to link. Hope things are going well with your Crushpad vines. Have you been to look at your vines in Margaux, assuming you still have them? I went up there on Saturday and was quite shocked by the effect of the drought in some areas. Yours, Gavin

    1. Gavin

      Nick, thanks for the comment. Hopefully we won't lose too many young vines but they are definitely parched and were in need of a drink long ago. The photos of the dry vines above were taken in Margaux, but it's the same scenario in many parcels of youthful vines up to St-Estephe. Regards, Gavin

  1. Sarah Abbott

    Thanks for this honest, balanced and well-written update Gavin. Jeez, are you never tempted to get the hosepipe out? (ONLY KIDDING). I am crossing all digits for September and October. Sarah Abbott MW

    1. Gavin

      Thanks Sarah
      The hosepipe has been kept in the garden, where we've struggled too, and another for watering the ubiquitous geraniums in numerous half-cut oak barrels around the courtyard by the chai (cellars). Looking to buy a much longer hosepipe for next year. Thanks for retweeting this, by the way.
      Best regards, Gavin

  2. Oliver Styles

    Hi Gavin,

    Good, and very informative post – thanks. Just one question: why do you think you feel the need to distance 2010 from the superlative 2009?

    Best

    Olly

    1. Gavin

      Thanks for the comment, Olly.

      Good question. I think my initial purpose was to make a few things clear as I keep reading stuff suggesting there could be another 'great vintage' on the way. It could be – but it'll be very inconsistent, and tricky, even with the right weather from here on in.

      Eg "Recent reports from chateaux and wine critics suggest that 2010 may be another strong vintage for Bordeaux. But if the 2010 vintage should match the quality of the celebrated 2009…." from the smart people at Liv-ex on 27 August, talking about Cos.

      Some people want to be informed, so I feel that, being on the ground, I should write about what's happening.

      I'm well placed to do it, of course, but if anyone has a chance to see some of the vines gasping for water in parts of Margaux or Pomerol, for example, they'll see that all is not rosy. Contrast this with some neighbouring sites – or go to some of the top clay-limestone St-Emilion terroirs from Beauséjour to Troplong Mondot, for example, or many miles away at, say, Lafite or parts of St-Estephe. (Remember how St-Estephe did well in 2003?) Compare the vibrant young vines at Troplong Mondot or Canon, say, with those of L'Evangile or La Fleur Pétrus in nearby Pomerol. I (geek) find it fascinating, obviously, and tasting the wines next March and April will be too. If that's your bag.

      Also, 2009 was a catastrophe for us in the vines, after we lost 80% to hail in May. Anything to distance ourselves from that… even if it's coping with a drought.
      Best wishes, Gavin

  3. Matthew

    There seems to be quite a bit of variance from one part of Aquitaine to another – and as you say the soils are different. Over here near Castillon, on the other side of St Emilion, the fairly wet June meant that everything stayed green and abundant until beginning of August, and even now everything is looking very healthy.

    1. Gavin

      Hi Matthew
      Thanks for the comment. The limestone under the clay around the Côtes of St-Emilion is doing a great job in providing just enough moisture to the roots of the vines there (sure, some of the vines are suffering), so I imagine the same would be true in the best bits of Castillon next door, with similar terroir. I'll pop over and take a look one evening or early morning. June was indeed wet in the middle (remember the early stages of the World Cup?) but after that it was dry for a long time. It feels like it's rained about four times since Spain lost their first match. Yours, Gavin.

  4. Hamishwm

    Gavin. Excellent notes and weather comparisons etc.

    Hope you have a less stressful harvest this year….or at least you have something to harvest!

    Cheers

    Hamish

  5. Stuart Tarrant

    Crikey, "I never knew there was so much to it" as Brucie would have once opined on a Saturday night of old. Seriously though, after the hype and hugely inflated prices last year, I opted for a few trusted opinions before selecting just one or two well priced EP options, looks like I will go back to them again for this year's round. As always, GQ is a good read in that respect!

  6. Stephen Bolger

    Gavin,

    Thanks for the ok! I was just visiting our left bank parcels today. I wonder in what sector you were visiting. The fruit there is actually looking quite good, as are all of the vines in the immediately adjacent blocks( behind Le Tertre and Monbrison, with parcels next to ours belonging to them plus Marojallia and Giscours). I was expecting some raisining and photosynthesis issues and found the canopy to be quite healthy. That's not to say that the hydric stress isn't there. All the parcels could use some steady rain for a few days.

    Vigor and the condition of the vine is good in Saint Seurin (our parcel surrounded by Sociando's vines), thanks to the clay subsoil and perhaps the rootstock. It's on our parcel in Pauillac (behind Pichon Baron) that we're seeing the most stress.

    We're doing a run of our right bank parcels tomorrow…

    1. Gavin

      Hi Stephen
      Thanks for the feedback. Re Margaux, I didn't look around du Tertre and Monbrison, off towards Arsac, right in the South East of the Appellation and away from the main drag in Margaux, I reckon. I ambled up the D2, as many would, up through Cantenac, Margaux and Soussans (all Margaux appellation too). Plenty of vines showing stress – young vines looking desperate (eg opposite the doors of Durfort's chai). Drive off to the left (back towards Rauzan Gassies) or to the right there, and there are some fairly serious stress issues, even in some of the vines located between Margaux and Palmer. Merlot leaves wilting and young vines seriously parched. Cabernet looks better, of course, due to later development and better resistance. No raisining (good word) of grapes just yet – but they'd be in real trouble if that happened this early. Not that I'm panicking but I would be very concerned – as we are here.
      Further north, as you say in Saint Seurin de Cardonne, there is less stress, except in the younger vines. Some fabulous terroir up there in this top corner of the Haut-Médoc, much of it exploited by Jean Gautreau, and his chef Vincent, of Sociando-Mallet.
      It's disappointing, and with a strong sense of waste, looking at the wilting young vines that are in production, with yellowing leaves – even at some First Growths – and then at the new plantations which can be irrigated like those at, say, Calon Segur, which look green, vibrant and healthy.
      So many vineyards look good, while many others are suffering. Really interesting – well, for geeks like us.
      Let me know what you think of the plots on the Right Bank. Stark contrasts everywhere – and some surprises. I'd love to have more of the right kind of clay, over the right kind of limestone. I wonder if the Chanel family are looking to lease a bit of Canon?
      Best regards, Chief Vinespotter

  7. Stephen Bolger

    Gavin,

    This is where it's obvious that you've got a few years more under your belt than me! You also set me up to give an example of why I've got a bit of a different perspective on Bordeaux. First, we've only selected cabernet sauvignon parcels in the Medoc. So I didn't even take a look at any of the merlot plots. Second, all the parcels I deal with are old vine (+35 years). But you are absolutely right, any of the younger plants are gasping, as I've seen from the 'coplantations'.

    And don't get me started on irrigation! I've had two conversations on the logic of the ban with locals today. "Sorry, we don't want you to use common sense to make the best wine possible"… while at the same time they complain about improving Bordeaux's overall quality. I'm off to Paris tomorrow for a guest spot on InVino BFM and I hope that they don't ask me the question about what it's like for a rank outsider to view the Bordeaux wine industry from the inside. Between irrigation, some of the thoughts we've exchanged on "Bordeaux Demain" or even the Pomerol production rulings, there's plenty of things to boggle the mind of any pragmatic businessman with a desire to see Bordeaux thrive… Oh to be my client, where they enjoy all of the beauty of Bordeaux winemaking with much fewer of the complications!

    Let's drive those 15 minutes to get together shortly to reinvent Bordeaux over a nice bottle… In the meantime, if you manage to secure a bit of Canon, call me!

  8. Dave Marra

    Not that I don't understand the logic behind your frustration re: the irrigation ban, but isn't the whole point of such a ban to preserve the integrety of the terroir/vintage? It's just like how it's illegal to put plastic sheeting over your vines if it rains. I know that winemakers want to make the best wine possible in all years, etc., etc., but as a wine DRINKER, I prefer for a wine (particularly the "classic" regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy and Barolo/esco) to reflect not only the characteristics of its terroir, but also of its vintage. If the vines were stressed due to drought, the wines should reflect that. I also understand that there are commercial factors at play here as well – will I buy very much wine from a vintage that shows the results of massive stress/raisining? Probably not.

    My point is, Bordeaux is not California or Australia, nor do I want it to be. I am fully aware of the "advances" being made in Bordeaux, and I am not totally pleased about some of them. To sum up my point, there is a quote I really like from Andrew Jefford's "The New France" (though I forget who he was quoting) that says something like, "it is more important for a wine to be true than to be good." While I do understand the commercial factors at play, I just don't see how a wine can be true if the vines' growing conditions can be manipulated. Of course, I am unlikely (as I said above) to actually BUY a wine that isn't good, but AM more likely to buy a good wine if it's "true" in the spirit of that quote.

    Aside from that – what a great post! I loved the amount of detail you went into – a great insight into the progress of the 2010 vintage. I also appreciate your candor – so much discussion re vintages in Bordeaux is pure hype and exaggeration, it's fantastic to hear a realistic overview.

    Cheers!

    1. Gavin

      Hi Dave

      Thanks for the comment, and your points are well made. I've given them a bit of thought as I hike around my vines, tasting grapes, and drive off around others in the region – hence the delay in replying in part. I suppose what I would say first of all is that my rant about the irrigation ban was really referring to my young vines (see Bauduc 2010: a dry old party), not everywhere in Bordeaux. I'm not trying to start a campaign for irrigation throughout the region – there would never be enough water and, if you'll forgive the pun, trying to alter a law in France that has been in place for decades would be like pushing the proverbial H20 uphill.

      I agree with you on most of what you say, but I'm not totally in agreement with “it is more important for a wine to be true than to be good.”

      That's debatable for sure – and I'm not advocating spoofing up a wine to make it taste of something that it shouldn't. I'd just like to be able to water my parched vines because the vines are suffering in the wrong way, the fruit would be better as a result, and my customers would prefer to drink better wine.

      Also, the vines' growing conditions are often manipulated. For a start, on the same issue, via drainage. Many of the top estates in Bordeaux have fabulous drainage and many of them are not all natural. I can think of scores of them with clever underground drainage systems, and terroirs that have been altered with the use of bulldozers and diggers prior to replanting. With sufficient funds, you can install complex drainage systems in existing vineyards too, no problem. Most of these systems were designed to prevent water resting in one place and waterlogging the vines during heavy rain or during the harvest, but they also have the positive effect, in numerous cases, of moving water around the vineyard to drier spots.

      Other vine manipulations include the trellising techniques, the constant husbandry – taking out excess shoots, de-leafing, green harvesting and so on – and don't forget spraying. 5-7 times a season against mildew alone (Bordeaux is usually a humid climate). Organic vineyards use copper and sulphur. I genuinely don't think that drip-feeding water manipulates a vine into something it shouldn't be. If that was the case, you could accuse the whole of Marlborough, NZ, of making fake wine. I love their stuff. Spoofulated wine is something else altogether.

      I agree with a lot of what you say, and I for one am fascinated by the extraordinary differences in the effects of varying types of terroir, dry or otherwise, in 2010. More on that in future posts.

      Kind regards, Gavin

  9. Erik

    Hi Gavin, thanks for the excellent and informative update.

    When you talk about the fact that everything still depends on the right weather over the next month, can you clarify what you mean by the "right weather..?"

    The forecast for the next 10 days at least is for sunny conditions and little rain. Do the vines still need rain or is it too late for that and now the most important thing is continued sunshine..? Would be interested to hear your thoughts on this…

    Thanks, Erik

    1. Gavin

      Erik
      Thanks for the comment and questions. So far, more than two weeks after writing the post, the weather has been kind. A few days of light rain from Monday 6th September to Wednesday 8th has certainly helped to refresh the vines. That has been the case in most areas, especially where the leaves of the earlier ripening red, the Merlot, have been wilting under the drought conditions. Even the vines at esteemed properties like Le Pin in Pomerol are looking healthier now than before that early September rainfall. From Thursday 9th September it has been sunny, so there is much optimism. Drizzle is forecast on 16th and 18th Sept, with fine weather returning from Saturday afternoon, 18th.
      Some rain is a help for the vines that are some way off maturity, but increases the risk of rot in grapes approaching ripeness. Our young Sauvignon Blanc, for example, is particularly vulnerable to rot spreading because it is almost ripe and about to be picked – but the Cabernet Sauvignon is a long, long way off. As ever, it's a marathon not a sprint, and a little sustenance at just the right milestones for each variety will be important. But it does depend on the terroir and the age of the vines.