There was a moment there in July when the Bordeaux chateaux and wine community were bracing themselves for another poor vintage. Nothing could compare with the horrors of 2013 which combined a cold spring (affecting the flowering in June) and horrendous hail storms in early August. But there was definitely an air of despair amongst the wine growers as they longed for the rain to stop. Everyone prayed for some late summer sunshine and by early September the press were starting to announce statements that reflected the return of some optimism as the sun shone. Bordeaux farmers are a resilient lot, they have to be because (distinct to almost all other wine growing regions) as they adhere to the rigours of the AOC system and its rigid limitations. This means they are often at the mercy of the weather. For us the consumer, this provides the charm and excitement of the vintage system which creates a distinctive interpretation of what nature has provided each year.
I wake up each morning at the moment to the hum of the harvesting machines around my home and across the region. The white grapes are all in now having been harvested in the first couple of weeks of September. The Merlot grape plant variety which is the dominant variety in Bordeaux, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, is the first to ripen and so we have already seen the harvesting of the younger Merlot grapes. Most of the “vignerons” whom we speak to say that they are aiming to bring in the majority of the Merlot around the middle of next week – the 1st to the 3rd of October so that they can take advantage of the sun that is forecast for this coming weekend. The Cabernet Sauvignon will likely be harvested the following week.
According to Gavin Quinney the owner of Chateau Bauduc in the Entre-deux-Mers, writing in Jancis Robinson’s newsletter: “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.’”
Quinney goes on to provide a helpful summary of the year’s weather upon which so much wrests when it comes to the strength of a given Bordeaux vintage. “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 has been a hot and dry month, other than uneven rain on 17 and 18 September: Léognan had just 10 mm (0.4 in), St-Estèphe 20 mm (0.8 in) and St-Émilion almost 50 mm (2 in), against a Bordeaux 30-year average for the month of 84 mm (3.3 in).”
Compared to many wine regions in the world, Bordeaux presents a close to ideal wine growing environment – but nevertheless, there is a hierarchy within the 106,000 hectares that make up the Bordeaux AOC’s and when the weather is “one of ups and downs” – that is when the underlying strength of a vineyard’s terroir kicks in and makes the difference.