Red October: Our 2010 Merlot Harvest

Our red wine harvest at Château Bauduc kicked-off at 6 o’clock in the morning on Friday, 1st October. One 2 hectare (5 acre) block of 12,000 Merlot vines was harvested in tiptop condition, and we were done and dusted by 10.30 am.

img_1701_2_21A team of eight manned the sorting table to make sure that no unwanted bits went into the stainless steel fermentation tank. (I say manned but the team was made up of one strapping lad known as The Apprentice, plus seven ladies.)  In addition, there was Daniel, Nelly, Ange, me – and Guy on his sexy harvesting machine.

With the dry conditions continuing up to the harvest, there was no rot on the bunches whatsoever, so we were able to pick by machine during the coolest, freshest part of the day.

dsc_01621This impressive monster has a built-in ‘de-stemmer’, so the only thing we had to remove by hand were rogue stalks or the odd leaf. If you have rot on the grapes – mainly caused by rainy, humid conditions in the build-up to harvest – machine harvesting can leave much to be desired. Transporting machine-picked, ripe red grapes in a full trailer, over long distances in the middle of the day, is also a no-no for me, as you can end up with something approaching a lukewarm smoothie. It’s okay for a Co-op, er, entry level wine.

img_1828In most of the elite Chateaux, grapes are usually picked by hand, then transported to the winery, where they are de-stemmed, checked by hand or by a sorting machine, and then crushed before they are pumped into the tanks. Our grapes, from vines planted in quite narrow rows that are just 1.5 metres wide, were harvested with a fast, modern machine, destemmed instantly, emptied within minutes into our stainless steel trailers and then driven straight to our winery in the middle of the vineyard. From vine to trailer, to sorting conveyor, to crusher and then to tank, in a matter of minutes.

dsc_1200_2Last week, I was at a Grand Cru Classé Château in Margaux – a 2nd Growth, no less – where they operate a similar system (pictured left), only with rather less sophisticated kit, in my humble opinion.

We hand-pick part of the crop as and when we need to, as we did last year, and we plan to do so again for ‘special cuvées’ in the future – possibly with teams of customers getting involved in the picking. Much of it is to do with the romance of the harvest, and the feeling that cutting off bunches by hand is better. For the moment, though, I recall Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux saying to me, “why treat grapes like caviar when we crush them straight away?”

Many visitors are surprised by how late the harvest can be in Bordeaux. It’s not unusual for Merlot to be picked in October, and the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon ripens after the Merlot. As I suggested in my August post entitled 10 Reasons why Bordeaux 2010 is not like 2009, which attracted plenty of comments, the harvest this year is almost a week on from 2009, despite the very dry conditions (note the parched grass – on 1st October – in the photo below).

dsc_0561People often ask me “How long does the harvest take to bring in?” to which the answer is always the same: we can’t start and then carry on – we have to wait for each parcel to ripen, and even with the same variety that can be several days apart. So, as we have two white varieties and three reds, the harvest takes over a month, even though we might pick on just ten days in that month.

It’s not just that each variety ripens at different stages (Sauvignon Blanc then Sémillon for whites, then Merlot, Cabernet Franc and lastly Cabernet Sauvignon for reds). One block of Merlot can be ten days later than another – and, as well as big differences in terroir having a crucial effect – from one part of the vineyard to another – you’ll always find Châteaux picking their young vines before their older ones.

img_15751Up until now, most top estates across Bordeaux have been picking just their young Merlot vines, and are just starting their older ones. Of course, some parts of the region have earlier ripening conditions than others – the gravelly parts of Pessac-Léognan, at the northern end of the Graves, and the clay/gravel terroirs of Pomerol, both have earlier ripening Merlots than, say, the cooler clay-limestone sector of St-Emilion. We’re about a week later than Pomerol.

Large estates in Bordeaux, or smaller ones like Pétrus with 99% of just one variety (Merlot), have an advantage in that with just red grapes to worry about, they can start picking their Merlot and carry on through to the harvest of their Cabernets, with minimal effort in the co-ordination of their team of pickers.

dsc_1487I remember in 2003, after a boiling hot Summer, we began picking our Sauvignon Blanc in late August, but finished our Cabernet Sauvignon the week after our son Tom was born. He was conveniently born on a Saturday (at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, no less), on 11 October. So it can be a long haul, even more so as we hand-picked everything that year, and it was tough trying to keep the team of locals together as there were big gaps between harvest days.

img_16853With Château Haut-Brion picking their Sauvignon Blanc on 1st September this year, and the Cabernets likely to be picked right up to the end of October in some vineyards, we’ve only just passed the halfway mark for Bordeaux 2010. As for the quality, everyone is très optimiste, to put it mildly. Let’s see what the weather brings.

One thought on “Red October: Our 2010 Merlot Harvest

  1. Matt Kane

    "We hand-pick part of the crop as and when we need to, as we did last year, and we plan to do so again for ’special cuvées’ in the future – possibly with teams of customers getting involved in the picking." – count me in! 😉