Bordeaux vineyards survive wild ride from odd weather

2nd October 2011, Comments 0 comments

The last grapes are being brought into Bordeaux's cellars following one of the most complex growing seasons in recent history, with drought, hail and chaotic weather testing vintners' wits.

Yields in many areas are down, but growers report that the grapes that survived the roller coaster ride are ready to produce some interesting wine.

"We had the summer during spring, the autumn during the summer, and the summer during autumn," said Pierre-Olivier Clouet, technical director at Chateau Cheval Blanc in Saint Emilion.

After a cold winter, February ushered in warm, spring-like weather that caused vines to start growing two weeks in advance of the normal cycle.

By April, it was as if summer had arrived, with hot sunny days and no rain -- a six-month drought had set in. In May, only 7.6 millimetres of rain fell, when the normal level is 83.6 millimetres.

"We worked the soil so that every drop of moisture went to the vines," said another wine grower in Saint Emilion.

Hot days in late June and early July created more challenges. By mid-summer, the clusters could be seen to ripen unevenly with tiny, green, never-to-ripen grapes hanging in the same bunches as ripe neighbours.

Other clusters shrivelled like raisins on the vine where wine growers had removed leaves to give the grapes more sun exposure. At Cheval Blanc, the technical team did not prune leaves, but complications persisted.

"While the drought left us with small berries, which is fabulous, we had a serious amount of work in the vineyards to homogenise the grapes in the vineyard," said Clouet.

"We had a lot of heterogeneity regarding climate and rainfall, so savoir-faire and pragmatism have been necessary for vintners each day," said Dany Rolland, head of a winemaking laboratory in Pomerol.

But July's normal temperatures and rainfall, leading into a damper than usual August, gave the vines and growers a respite. "The grapes could ripen in peace," said Clouet.

Then, on September 1, hail the size of golf-balls pummelled three Bordeaux regions -- Saint Andre de Cubzac, Saint Estephe and Entre-Deux-Mers -- stopping a stone's throw from Saint Emilion.

"There were no leaves on the vines in Branne any more," said Philippe Abadie from the chamber of agriculture.

"4,500 hectares (11,100 acres) were hit, with 1,200 severely struck. Around Branne, 1,000 hectares were hit. At Grezillac in the Entre Deux Mers region, 30 to 50 percent of the crop was lost."

The vines appeared chopped, leaves on the ground, grapes damaged -- in some places, even the bark had been stripped from the vine -- and Abadie estimated that only 20 to 30 percent of the wine growers had hail insurance.

In St. Estephe, where this year's hail storm was mixed with heavy water, growers don't generally carry hail insurance because it is so rare.

"The last time hail hit Cos was 1952," said Bernard Audoy, president of the Saint Estephe wine syndicate and owner of Chateau Cos Labory.

"We haven't had this kind of storm in 60 years. The storm dumped 50 millimetres of water in 15 minutes."

But it could have been worse.

"We worried at the time about rot, but rain came and washed the damaged fruit away, leaving only the skins," said Audoy.

"My yields are down about 10 percent but the high proportion of skins gives a good concentration, good colour. We're pleasantly surprised."

It also helped that the vines were already ahead in their ripening cycle, and the storm damage only pushed forward the harvest by a week.

"It's very fortunate that this happened this year and not last year," said Jean-Guillaume Pratts, general manager of Chateau Cos d'Estournel, which had about 40 hectares lightly damaged.

"The consequences will be on the yield rather than the quality."

The precocious weather also created unusual conditions in Sauternes, Bordeaux's sweet wine region. Chateau Coutet owner Aline Baly reported small crop yields and "a truly exceptional tempo" for the harvest.

"Compared to typical years, the noble rot or botrytis developed very uniformly and extremely rapidly, with beautiful concentration," said Baly.

The continued sunny days have the vintners counting their blessings.

"The Cabernets taste very good and we're going to finish the harvest, without stress, next week," said Jean Christophe Mau, owner of Chateau Brown and Chateau Preuillac.

"The only flat note is that the yields are low, even very low. But luckily we did not have any hail."

And weather conditions have led to a lower sugar content, which suits recent consumer trends towards lower alcohol wines.

"We are practically opening our arms to the heavens, because we are pleased to have 13.2 to 13.3 percent alcohol and normal pH," said Clouet.

"We have good maturity in tannins and pips, reasonable sugar, firm acidity, good taste in terms of savour," confirmed Rolland. "Now history is in the hands of the winemaker."

© 2011 AFP

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