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What Makes A Great Vintage?
I was recently sent a wine column predicting that the 2009 vintage may well be the finest in Bordeaux since the heralded 2005. Several well known Bordeaux estate owners are quoted in the article as being very optimistic. This sounds somewhat self-serving, since the last few vintages have not been very successful. And my first reaction was that you can’t predict the vintage before the September harvest, three weeks from now, any more than you can predict with reasonable certainty which baseball teams will be in the World Series, based on the standings at the All Star Game in July.
Still, it started me thinking. From the all-important weather standpoint., what is needed for a great vintage in Bordeaux, as 2005, 2000, 1982 and 1961 are generally conceded to be?
For this, we need to think first of the grapes as an agricultural product. The first stages are the budding and flowering, which take place in April and June, respectively, give or take a few weeks. In this stage, the plants are just beginning their annual cycle. The great enemy, as you might expect, is severe early spring weather, frost, or hail.
If there is severe weather before the budding, usually in April, the crop may be largely destroyed before budding. That is a rare occurrence in Bordeaux, where winters are ordinarily moderate, but the crop was devastated when this took place in the severe winter of 1956. Buds were reduced, and those that remained suffered damage.
When flowering occurs (the floraison, celebrated each June in Bordeaux with the Fête Des Fleurs), flowers appear which produce small berries. There are serious dangers at this time from severe weather. This may happen in one of two ways. There may be either coulure (failure of berries to develop) or millerandage (grape clusters with grapes of uneven sizes). There is, consequently, a huge collective sigh of relief when the flowering goes well, without hail or other severe weather.
It is worth noting that at this stage, however, what is at stake is not the eventual quality of the grape crop, but their quantity. This is well illustrated by the article I was sent. One estate owner stated his hopes for a fine harvest and vintage, but noted that some 80% of his eventual crop was lost by hail damage during May. The distinction is an important one. There is a legend about a wine writer who wrote in 1961 that the crop, now thought to be one of the finest Bordeaux ever produced, would be a poor vintage, due to hailstorms.
So, if the floraison has gone well, there are sighs of relief. If not, growers can still hope that the maturing of grapes (the véraison) will go well. This is the long stage over the summer months, when the small green berries develop into grapes, and then the grapes mature slowly, changing color, accumulating sugars and structure. At this stage, warm days, cool evenings and some rain (How much? Why, just enough!) are needed.
Part of this, the warm days and cool nights, has passed into folklore. In St. Julien in the Médoc, for example, Château Ducru Beaucaillou means “pretty pebbles,” and that refers to the large pebbles that dot the estate’s subsoil. They are said to absorb the sun’s rays during the day, and at night, radiate back to the plants the heat of the day. That seems to work very well indeed. One owner some years ago thought to remove the pebbles, and was rewarded for his efforts by a series of mediocre vintages. They were rapidly replaced in the soil!
What then happens throughout the summer is crucial to the development of the grapes. A temperate summer is needed, with just enough heat and rain. If there is a drought, the grapes will not develop properly, and risk shrivelling. The wines, like the 2003 vintage in Bordeaux, will be rich and concentrated, but probably not wear well in the long run, lacking finesse and acidity. Not to mention that fact that the hotter the summer, the earlier the grape harvest must take place to save the crop, and grape pickers are seasonal laborers, not often on hand in an early picking season.
Harvest time is crucial. Some rain is desirable, but it can be spoiled by too much rain, which would act to dilute the grapes. One celebrated wine estate owner in Pomerol, legend has it, realized this, and fought off the effects of September harvest rainstorms by renting helicopters to hover over his vineyards, drying them to an acceptable level after the rainstorms, and saving the vintage for his estate!
And, of course, the timing of the harvest is crucial. Sauternes, for example, is late harvested. I once read about a Sauternes harvest being affected because of severe rainfall elsewhere in the Bordeaux region. But when the grapes of the Sauternes region were actually harvested six weeks later, it was an excellent vintage!
So you need the budding and flowering to go well, a long temperate summer with just enough heat and cool night weather, some rain towards the end of the season but not too much. Man is now capable of correcting some of nature’s mistakes, with cooling and temperature controls during the fermentation process. But the weather itself does set certain parameters, and I doubt that skillful manipulation after the harvest can really do much with a mediocre vintage.
When you are buying wines, the vintage is well worth taking into account. It may show the collective experience of wine producers over the years. Bear in mind, though, that what is shown is the microclimat of a winegrowing region, which may differ considerably fom neighboring regions. It may even be better! I recall tasting the Château Margaux 1983 from the cask, and being startled to note that I clearly preferred it to the celebrated 1982 vintage. The winemaker, Paul Pontallier, explained that in 1983, the patterns of rainfall in the Margaux region were just perfect. And that translated into a sublime wine.