5am, Friday 10th September, 2010. The start of our twelfth harvest.
How time flies when you’re on a rollercoaster. Incredible to think back to the beginning of September 1999, when we arrived here for the first time – with a harvest to bring in and a local school to find for four year-old Georgie. Now our not-so-little girl is weekly boarding at a Lycée in Bordeaux (pictured left, with mum, leaving for the start of term).
One thing I’ve learned at harvest time is that it’s all a matter of taste. At this time of year, we’re not talking about wine tasting, or blending, we’re talking about tasting and checking the grapes themselves. Every few mornings during the build-up to the harvest, we collect sample grapes in small plastic bags and hand them in to the lab, conveniently located at the end of our road, for a full analysis on sugar levels, acidity, PH and so on. We get the results by mid-afternoon. Sugars on the rise and acidity falling, hopefully. Technically, hit the right crossover point and one can get close – assuming nature marks the spot with a handily-placed X.
For me, tasting the grapes is far more important than merely assessing the numbers (the laboratory oenologist kindly scribbles instructions on the results before faxing them, which we tend to ignore). I was at Château Larcis Ducasse in St-Emilion last week with guests from our farmhouse and David, the young general manager there, told me that they don’t even analyse the grapes until after they’ve made their decision about when to pick, which is based purely on tasting the grapes.
So vineyard manager Daniel and I regularly set off around the vines at Bauduc with one of our two expert oenolgists (outside consultants who have to remain nameless because they help us out in, er, an unofficial capacity). It helps being conscious of the time restraint of our expert advisors for decisions to be made quickly. It’s a busy time of year for them.
It’s been a seriously dry growing season, with just 156mm of rain here in the six months since the beginning of March 1st to the end of August, compared to 363mm in 2009 – and 2009 was a dry year. Our young vines have suffered in the drought conditions as we’re forbidden from watering them by law, now that they are all in production.
Daniel though has done a great job in turning the soil regularly in some of the young plantations, giving the vines a better chance of having moisture reach them, as what little rain there has been has seeped more easily into the ground. If we’d had a lot of rain, the plan would have back-fired, as the churned up soil would easily have turned to mud, making it too muddy for the tractor to get into the sloping, narrow rows to treat the vines.
Although many of the lower leaves around the fruit zone have yellowed and dried out on the younger vines, the Sauvignon Blanc grapes were in remarkably fine shape for the most part. Some were small from the lack of water.
With light rain earlier in the week, from Monday 6th to Wednesday 8th September, we decided to pick the Sauvignon Blanc, from 5.5 hectares of young vines planted in 2007 and 2008.
We used to pick by hand during our first five years, but found that we lost flavour and risked oxidation from warmed-up white grapes by picking under the midday sun.
So, with the improvement in the machines and kit, we’ve been harvesting most of our white by machine in the early hours, from 5 am to around 9 am, long before the heat of the day. It’s a great advantage having the vines surround the winery (better known as the chai), meaning that it’s just minutes from vine to chilled stainless-steel tank. The first grapes for 2010 came in on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th, mostly before dawn – lovely, cool and fresh. The machine, which we hire from Guy the driver-owner, vibrates the grapes neatly off the vine (see the before and after shot, above and below, right).
The grapes went straight into the chilled ‘skin-maceration’ stainless steel tanks, before we ran off the fresh juice from the skins some 12 to 24 hours later, and pressed the gubbins in our 5000 litre press. We then let all the juice settle – called débourbage – and we’re about to add our chosen yeasts as we wait for the stainless tank to warm up a bit, before cool fermentation at a relatively cool 15˚C.
Here’s a summary of my ‘harvest tweets‘ over the last week, with the best part at the end, from http://twitter.com/GavinQuinney:
Been out tasting young Sauvignon Blanc. Decided to harvest this Friday & Sat, from 4-8 in the morning. Cool. #vintage2010
Just off to collect The Apprentice from airport. CV says Capt 1st XV & 1st XI at school & can drive tractor. You’re hired.
@Timatkin Vintage of the century? Too early to say. I’ll let you know after breakfast.
We harvested more Sauvignon Blanc, 5am-9am on Friday & Saturday, than our entire crop of SB ’09. Drought better than hail.
@hamishwm Better than I thought. Picked 5ha of young vines, worried about too much sugar & low crop (too concentrated). Pleasantly surprised
Bauduc Bondholder dinners the last 2 Saturdays, tours of vines here last 4 days, & started harvest. Risk of peaking early.
Some welcome rain in Bordeaux a week ago, sunshine since. Forecast is fine until this weekend then sun again. #vintage2010
Pressed 180hl (2000 cases) of Sauvignon Blanc from 5 hectares.10 ha of white to go. In ’09 (post-hail) we had 120hl, total. Glass half full.