In his final Bordeaux 2013 harvest report for Liv-ex, local winemaker and writer Gavin Quinney (@GavinQuinney) describes the ‘nerve-jangling’ end to a difficult harvest – for the red wines at least. All photos in this article are copyright Gavin Quinney.
The 2013 Bordeaux harvest is drawing to a close as the last
of the Cabernets and final Sémillon selections for sweet whites are picked.
Sighs of relief all round.
Few grapes are left on the vine now, although they only
finished the Merlot at Chateau Fleur Cardinale (above) in Saint-Emilion on Saturday.
They hadn’t even started the Cabernet Franc.
“C’est pas mûr [ripe],” said the cellar master as he gestured
towards the unpicked vines; the bunches were admirably free of rot, thanks to
the colder, later-ripening terroir.
I’ve tasted a lot of red grapes in the last few weeks around
Bordeaux and he just about summed it up. Most reds have had to come in before
they were ripe. This should have been a late October harvest, by rights, given
the extremely late flowering in June and retarded colour change that dragged on
into early September. (In between, we had a hot July and a pretty good August –
but don’t mention the hail).
If there are any successes, and there will be some, they are
triumphs over adversity. This has been the most difficult growing season for
red Bordeaux that I’ve seen in fifteen harvests, capped by nerve-jangling
conditions for the picking.
The threat of rot at harvest time is also the most acute I’ve witnessed. Many chateaux have picked healthy-looking grapes (such as Chateau Cheval Blanc, pictured harvesting Cabernet Franc above) in the nick of time, or sorted them as best they could. Seeing so many botrytis-affected bunches discarded beneath the vines has been a sad but necessary event.
It’s not that the 2013 harvest has been blighted by days on
end of incessant rain. What we’ve had is a series of two-day stints of rain,
starting with the last weekend of September (27-29), then 3-4 October (we had
75mm in two days here, 20 kms south east of Bordeaux) and more downpours over
the weekend of 12 October.
In between we’ve seen the windows for harvesting and,
simultaneously, dangerous periods of warmth and humidity which are ideal for
the spread of botrytis. (Even now, in the third week of October, it’s a clammy
19°C this morning.) The picking schedules have largely been determined by the
staying power of the grapes in any given parcel.
Some of the larger estates of Pauillac, St-Julien and
St-Estèphe can point to their more resistant Cabernet Sauvignon on the gravel
mounds near the Gironde. Healthy-looking Cabernets were being brought in just
before, during and after the weekend of 12 October at vineyards like
Lynch-Bages (pictured above) and Montrose (pictured below), for example, but this is by no
means late for Cabernet Sauvignon.
I’ve mentioned before that yields are generally low and
extremely variable. While the bigger production estates like these might have
reasonable but lower than normal yields (judging by the grapes, of around 35-38
hl/ha), I understand two important Pauillac estates are down at a tiny 15hl/ha.
Compare that to the legal ceiling of 57 hl/ha in 2013.
In the generic Bordeaux appellations, yields are even lower
than the recent official forecast, I reckon. Rendements of around 25hl/ha for red are commonplace.
The whites, both dry and sweet, have been more fortunate.
The dry whites were largely in before the damp and sweaty weather of the last
weekend of September, while growers in Sauternes and other sweet white
appellations have enjoyed having botrytis on their boots.
The initial selections by the pickers (they pass down each
row several times, snipping off only the berries that have been shrivelled by
noble rot) were very promising. The middle section was less thrilling after rain
diluted some batches but the final tries
this week should produce terrific, mouldy grapes and good quality juice. The
signs are very positive. (Rot
of the right kind is pictured above and below at Chateau Suduiraut).
For the reds, let’s not be too hasty to pre-judge the wines,
as there’s an awful lot of work to be done in the cellars before we get to the
assemblages for the en primeur tastings next Spring. I’ll cover the challenges regarding the
wine-making at a later stage.
It’s fair to assume, however, that with lower yields and
stricter than ever selections for the Grands Vins, there won’t be a lot of
great wines on the market next May and June.
Still, there’s always the World Cup in Brazil to look
forward to. Roll on 2014.