The red wine harvest has got under way in Bordeaux, shortly before the end of an exceptionally sunny September. Merlot, the most widely planted variety and the first of the reds to ripen, has started to come in from the more precocious terroirs and from younger vines on drier soils. Yet there’s no rush. The forecast is for more sun this weekend, and most chateaux and growers are holding off for ’optimum’ ripeness after the relatively cool and humid summer.
Even at this late stage, the vintage is still too early to call. The next two to three weeks will be crucial as most of the Merlots have yet to ripen fully and the Cabernets will soon follow.
’Il faut être patient et flexible.’
Many of the top estates in Pomerol and on the left bank (above) tentatively started picking their early Merlots this week under blue skies, although we’ll see a lot more activity from next week onwards. The dry whites, which are always the first to be harvested, were picked from the start of September in Pessac-Léognan and later in the Graves and the Entre Deux Mers; what’s left is being brought in now. The only possible downside was that the weather was almost a little too warm for these whites: the autumnal chilly mornings only kicked in from Tuesday 23 September.
The season has been one of ups and downs. A bright early start with the budbreak in April, then a chilly, damp May slowed things down, followed by the critical June flowering which was almost uniformly good; but a variable and occasionally wet July and a cooler, cloudier August left everyone relying on a fine September. Thankfully, that is what we’ve had. It’s been a hot and dry month, other than uneven rain on 17 and 18 September: Léognan had just 10mm, St-Estephe 20mm and St-Emilion almost 50mm, against a Bordeaux 30-year average for the month of 84mm.
So Bordeaux needs one final period of good weather for ripening the Merlots and Cabernets, and during the harvest itself. My feeling is that there’s less risk of rot for the reds in 2014 than in 2011, 2012 and 2013. It was the onset of botrytis in damp conditions that forced many people to pick earlier than they would have liked in those years, although 2013 was some way short of ripeness compared to the two previous vintages.
The concerns are more for the ripeness of the tannins in the skins and the pips, and the noticeable tendency for some Merlot grapes to flétrir or wither on the vine before they ripen. If it rains, there’s also a risk of dilution of course – the grapes are plump enough already.
(Let’s not get too technical about the pips turning from green to brown. I never forget the despairing way Anthony Barton once said “these days, it’s all about the pips.”)
Worse though is the undoubted impact of downy mildew in many vineyards, stemming mainly from the humidity in the summer air from mid-July to late August. The Bordeaux vineyard today is a a patchwork of green, healthy vines and others which are browned off and rather sad. In other words, it’s extremely unlikely that 2014 can be a great vintage across the board.
Yet for those who have put the work in and are blessed with a decent terroir, 2014 could be a more than handsome vintage if the weather holds for a little while longer.