There’s a sense of cautious optimism as the last of the red grapes are harvested in Bordeaux. While 2014 isn’t a great year, it could prove to be a really good one for many chateaux. An excellent flowering in June, a mixed summer, then a gorgeous September and first few days of October all give the impression of a ’bookend’ season that started and ended well.
On the face of it, the timing of the harvest and the size of the crop is almost a return to normal, if there is such a thing. The dry whites were picked in September and the reds in late September and first half of October, producing a decent yield of healthy grapes.
Yet it hasn’t simply been a case of harvesting ’à la carte’, as some Bordelais like to boast in great years like 2005, 2009 and 2010. I’ve been lucky enough to drop in to see the harvest being handled at scores of leading chateaux over the last few weeks and here are some observations.
Five glorious weeks
I caught up with Christian Moueix in St-Emilion at the beginning of October, before they picked at Ch Belair Monange. “It’s a good vintage – very good in fact” he said, speaking mainly of his Pomerols. “And a miracle compared to what we thought at the end of August.”
After a fairly lacklustre summer, we’ve had the best September and start to October that I can recall in 16 harvests here.
The good weather lasted for more than just September. After the August veraison (when the grapes changed colour), Bordeaux enjoyed a 38-40 day sunny spell for the crucial ripening period in the build up to the harvest. For example, Léognan, to the south of the city of Bordeaux, saw a consistent level of rain in May, June, July and August: 69mm, 71mm, 67mm and 73mm respectively. In 38 days from 29 August to 5 October, however, just 14mm of rain fell there.
“September and the start of October have completely transformed the vintage”, according to Jean-René Matignon, who celebrates the end of his 30th vintage at Pichon Baron today as they pick the last of the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Petit Verdot.
The picking order for the reds can be quite predictable across Bordeaux yet it seemed more variable this year. Traditionally, the earlier ripening Merlot vineyards of Pessac and Pomerol are the first to come in. Then St-Emilion and the left bank estates pick their Merlots, before the Médoc concentrates on Cabernet Sauvignon and the right bank on the later-ripening Merlots and Cabernet Franc.
This year, however, it has been more random, partly as a result of the varying levels of rainfall in September but also because chateaux could afford to wait while the sun was still shining.
Many of the great estates of the Medoc began harvesting their Merlots in bright sunshine in the last week of September, including Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Palmer, Montrose and many others. Some, like Leoville Poyferré, started harvesting Merlot the following week on 1 October, the same day that Lafite and Mouton started their Cabernet Sauvignon.
On the right bank, Pomerol picked earlier than St-Emilion as usual, starting mainly in that last week of September. Petrus (above) picked on 3 and 4 October, at the same time as L’Eglise Clinet, with Le Pin on 2 October.
The sunshine and blue skies sadly departed on Monday 6 October, yet most of the forecasted rain stayed away until Thursday 9 October, giving a great many chateaux on the left bank and in St-Emilion a chance to harvest in overcast but dry conditions. Some Medoc estates such as Lafite and Leoville Barton wrapped up on Wednesday 8 October while others, like Cos d’Estournel, finished on the Friday. Several chateaux in both St-Emilion and in the Médoc have carried on into this week.
There was almost zero botrytis on the grapes at the umpteen vineyards I visited from the last week of September to 10 October. It was rot-free from St-Emilion to St-Estèphe, from Pomerol to Pauillac. This contrasts with 2011, 2012 and especially 2013 when there was often a compromise between waiting to pick ripe fruit and having to sort and remove any rot-affected bunches.
With less risk of rot, growers have had the chance in 2014 to push for the best level of ripeness until there was nothing more to be gained. Bearing in mind, though, the early start to the growing season in April, it’s no surprise that some vines were visibly flagging by the end.
It was ’un autre monde’ 30 years ago, remarked Jean-René Matignon, referring to his first vintage at Pichon Baron in 1985. The extraordinary array of sophisticated sorting equipment in use today demonstrates this: most harvest reception areas at the top estates have changed completely in the last 10 years a lone. And it doesn’t stop there. ’Come and see my yeast booster,’ said Thomas Duroux of Chateau Palmer excitedly, whilst at Cos d’Estournel, access to the floor above the spectacular vat room was restricted. ’Not even our consultants are allowed up there – we have 35 separate patents on the kit we designed’ Aymeric de Gironde pointed out intriguingly. (It was good to see, by the way, Cos owner Michel Reybier joining in on the harvest lunch with their team of 80 Spanish pickers.)
After three years of declining yields, 2014 production levels are a cause for mild celebration. ’Les cuves sont pleines’ Denis Durantou of l’Eglise Clinet was happy to report. Most Bordeaux appellations are restricted by law to making around 55hl/ha, and many Crus Classés are talking about ’normal’ yields of 40-48hl/ha.
Not all though – both Thomas Duroux of Ch Palmer in Margaux and Jean Michel Comme of Ch Pontet Canet in Pauillac estimate they’ll produce only about 32hl/ha. (Coincidentally, both vineyards are biodynamic, and the vines looked remarkably vibrant and healthy last week given the pressure of downy mildew faced by chateaux in Bordeaux from late July onwards.)
One unusual aspect of this year is the widespread occurrence of flétrissement (withering) of the skins of Merlot grapes in some parcels. There are several schools of thought as to what caused this, from the heat spike in July, the hydric stress in September, to a deficiency of magnesium and dry stems as a result of climatic conditions in the Spring across the Gironde. These relatively unripe and shrivelled grapes were often the principle target of the tables de tri and sorting machines, for those who have such luxuries.
One positive aspect of the vintage, depending on your point of view, is that it is not a uniform one. If the joy of wine is in its diversity then perhaps, despite all the modern technology employed today in Bordeaux, we will find wines of markedly different character in 2014. The varying patterns of rainfall and the negative impact of downy mildew in some vineyards will have made a significant difference.
Compare St-Emilion to St-Estèphe for example. Vincent Millet of Ch Calon Segur in St-Estèphe highlighted that, with all the talk of a damp summer, they’d had just 30 mm of rain each month in July, August and September. In St-Emilion, on the other hand rainfall was 85mm, 87mm and 60mm respectively in the same period (we had a whopping 125mm in July at my vineyard, mainly thanks to a freak storm on 25 July).
Even then, most of that September rain on the right bank fell on 17 and 18 September, providing useful refreshment to the vines some three weeks before the harvest began. In Margaux, meanwhile, there was no rain on 17/18 September but localised showers on the 7 September. These factors all make a difference and tasting the first vats of Merlot reveals there are clear regional characteristics to the wines.
How does 2014 compare?
Jean-Claude Berrouet’s first vintage at Petrus was 1964. He was there during this year’s harvest, joking that he is better known these days, since his retirement, for being the father of the current winemaker, Olivier.
’Every year has been different. No two years have been the same but I do think this year will produce elegant, classical wines. They should suit the British.’
Let’s hope so.