Weighing up the Harvest

The 2012 white-wine harvest in Bordeaux is now under way in the early ripening vineyards of Pessac and Léognan (two towns which are clubbed together in a single appellation called, er, Pessac-Léognan). Famous châteaux like La Mission Haut-Brion and Pape-Clement, in the warm suburbs of Bordeaux, and others to the south of the city, like Smith Haut-Lafitte and Domaine de Chevalier, are starting with their Sauvignon Blanc this week.

At Château Bauduc, we are getting ready to harvest our 11 hectares (27 acres) of Sauvignon Blanc after the weekend, from Monday 10th onwards, touch wood. (Our 4 hectares of Sémillon will follow later.) We time it according to how the grapes taste on the vine and by analyzing samples of grapes from different parcels. Assessing acidity and sugar levels will give us a pretty good idea of how things are looking, and the fact that we are always about a week behind Pessac-Léognan is a useful marker. It’s safe to assume that they know what they’re doing after a few hundred years’ practice.

Let’s not forget either the small matter of the weather forecast, which is for sunshine until Monday, and possibly pants for a few days after that.

You might have read, in passing, that France is heading for the smallest harvest since 1991. The French agricultural minister is bound to have a handle on the bigger picture but rumours of our demise are unfounded. The yields around Bordeaux, while not huge, are not that bad. We’ve not had the same problems that they have had to face in Champagne, the Charente, and elsewhere.

It’s certainly useful to have an idea of how much wine we’ll be making for all sorts of practical reasons and, in good years, it’s like counting presents under the Christmas tree.

One reason for working out the volume, which many consumers don’t realise, is that there are strict limits in Appellation Contrôlée France as to how much we can produce per hectare. Quite why these production limits are announced by the authorities shortly before the harvest, and not before the winter pruning, is something I’ve never fully understood.

Estimating the crop size is not something you do every day, which makes the process quite interesting. We take some sample vines in each plot and lop off and weigh a few bunches, and gauge the size and number of bunches.

We can then calculate how much juice, and therefore wine, that we’ll get from each block. We have to factor in that some of our Sauvignon Blanc vines, which are all planted around the Château on the estate, are close together in narrower rows – the young ones we’ve planted – while the older ones are further apart. (Closer is better, we reckon.)

 

I’ll spare you all the estimates but here are a few notes on yield.

1. We will make about one and a half bottles of white wine per vine. (A question I get asked quite often by visitors.)

2. The number of bunches in 2012 is slightly higher than in 2011 but they weigh much more individually, despite a hot, dry summer.

3. The maximum yield for white we are allowed to make is 65 hectolitres (6500 litres) per hectare (2.5 acres). The maximum for Bordeaux red and rosé is around 55hl/ha, depending on the appellation.

4. We will make around 60hl/ha of white in 2012, although we do have more vines per hectare than the norm (less bunches per vine = better quality but more labour). Compare this to the 18hl/ha we cropped after late Spring frosts in 2008, and the 28hl/ha in 2009 after hail in May, which included higher yields from another vineyard which we leased that year, and you’ll see that things are looking cheerful.

5. There is no rot whatsoever on the Sauvignon, unlike last year when we had to cut out and dump over 10% of the grapes.

As I said to my wife Angela, the good news is that the white looks really good. The bad news is that, between the two of us, we’ll have a lot to sell. About 10,000 cases, in fact.

But that, as they say, is a quality problem.