As you know, farmers are never happy, so forgive us for wanting just a smidgen of rain as we’ve had precious little since the second week of June. It’s also been blisteringly hot for long periods and, as few people realise, us Appellation Contrôlée vignerons are not allowed to irrigate our crops. Still, other than the younger vines on drier soils, the rows look remarkably green and lush here, so we remain positive for the Autumn harvest.
We’ve seen half the normal rainfall since the new season’s growth kicked off with budbreak at the start of April. The Autumn and Winter of 2014/2015 brought 25% less rain (356 mm from October 2014 to February 2015, inclusive) than the 30-year average (470 mm), so it’s not as if we began with a water surplus. Since then we’ve had much less rain than normal, each and every month:
March 2015 40 mm v 64 mm (30 year Bordeaux average)
April 2015 – 51 mm v 78 mm (ditto)
May 2015 – 26.5 mm v 79.8 mm
June 2015 – 46 mm v 63 mm
July 2015 – 15.5 mm to date v 50 mm
Total since budbreak, April to July 2015 – 139 mm v 271 mm
Note that these figures are local (20 kms SE of the city) and may not be the same for all Bordeaux regions, although it’s a similar story elsewhere – the last six weeks have been dry and hot everywhere in Bordeaux. Other areas, such as Margaux, Léognan, St-Emilion and Blaye, have also had half the normal rainfall since the beginning of April, or even less. The Northern Médoc has seen more rain than us, and that was in April, May and early June. I’ll publish the stats from other areas shortly.
The drought has blocked the development of the vines and slowed down the ripening of the bunches. We need some rain – not for too long, mind. Just a good, timely dousing, then a return to some sun.
In fact, even if we could ship enough water, and had the right logistics in place, we are not allowed to irrigate the vines under French Appellation rules; except to nourish the baby ones that is, as they are not yet in production.
Based on the reaction of numerous visitors I talk to, most people have no idea that growers and chateaux in Bordeaux are not allowed to water their vines.
We have 11 hectares/27 acres of Sauvignon Blanc at Château Bauduc, all ‘dry-grown’ by law. By way of comparison, almost all the Sauvignon Blanc vineyards in Marlborough in New Zealand are irrigated. Likewise, none of the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux is irrigated, except the baby vines. These grapes are also popular in California, of course: three quarters of the Napa Valley has irrigation. (I’ve been told this by Kiwi and American winemakers but do let me know if I’ve got that wrong.)
I should point out that this rule in France applies to growers who make Appellation Contrôlée or Appellation d’Origine Protégée wines, as in Bordeaux. It’s all about the terroir and typicité, you see. A wine should be true to the land, the climate, the vintage and all that. A cynic might think that it has more to do with controlling the amount of wine that the market can stand – 98% of the Bordeaux region, the Gironde, is Appellation Contrôlée – but let’s not go there for the mo.
Producers who make Vins de Pays and Vins de France (the smarter new name for Vins de Table), on the other hand, are allowed to irrigate. The yields can be much higher with these wines as a result and that’s one reason why they can be cheaper. When we drove down to the Gers and Vins de Pays de Gascogne territory to spend the night with friends the other day, I felt envious of the irrigation systems in some of the vineyards, in and around the rolling fields of beautiful sunflowers.
All these photographs were taken on 28 July 2015 at Bauduc and it’s remarkable how healthy the vines appear, not least when seen against the dried-out and straw-coloured grass. The vines that really do need irrigating though are the young ones on the more gravelly soils, like the row on the left below. Note how the leaves are wilting and turning brown and yellow, compared to the slightly older row on the right.
*Stop press – Wednesday morning, 29 July: we’ve just had a shower or two. Not enough but averses are also forecast for the morning of Friday 31 July; then a return to more sunshine for the weekend and 30+˚C from Sunday 2 August. Onwards and upwards…