Bordeaux Harvest 2011 in the vats; a good year for good vignerons but no hat-trick

2011 is going to be a good year for producers who have been diligent through the year and reactive during harvest. It will not be another 2009 and 2010 but closer to 2006 in quality. Some producers express relief saying that the market could not withstand another “exceptional” year with “exceptional” prices.

The grapes have been picked in most of Bordeaux’s vineyards and are busy fermenting in the vats. It has not been an easy year and will clearly highlight the good producers in the region.

Climate during 2011; 2011 started very early for the vine with a warm May and very sunny June. The vine’s cycle started two weeks early, with early flowering (relatively uniform) and despite a relatively cool summer (particularly July) most producers harvested at least 10 days before usual. The spring and summer were unusually dry which meant that the “arret de croissance” took place early and effectively, that is the water stress signal for the vine to switch feeding its foilage to feeding the grapes. This is necessary for quality, to concentrate the sugar in the grapes.

 2011; a year of extremes – The  two short but intense heatwaves at the end of June and mid August scorched grapes within the bunches providing the first challenge for this year. This had the effect of blocking the ripening process of those grapes next to them and caused uneven ripening within the bunch. The key this year is severe sorting of the grapes, to remove the very many green and pink berries. These can increase acidity levels in the vat and give a greeness to the wine.

Harvest at Château Beard La Chapelle, St Emilion Grand Cru (St Laurent des Combes). Producer Franck Moureau is pleased with the results “With a good “éclaircissage” (green harvest) earlier in the summer and a team of ten to sort the grapes on a conveyor table of over 6 metres (originally meant for Bernard Magrez at Pape Clement) we hope to make a good aromatic wine this year with supple tannins”.

The Grey Ghost; The other factor to deal with was the risk of Botrytis (Grey Rot; the same rot that in the unique climatic conditions of Sauternes is the advantageous sugar concentrating “noble rot”). As the summer was not that sunny, producers strived to leave the grapes to ripen as much as possible before harvesting. The humid autumnal conditions encouraged rot. Those that had not sprayed anti-botrytis and had not controlled the weeds adequately in the vineyards bringing further humidity, had a severe choice; pick unripe grapes or bunches affected by botrytis (once in the vat, kills the fruity aromas of unffected grapes). This grey rot feeds on the juice in the grapes, leaving a dusty grey dried out hollow husk and spreads through the bunch very quickly in such conditions and the bunch touching it. Vineyards of dark coloured plump bunches of grapes are transformed into a something more resembling a grey cemetary.

Producers who had earlier in the summer correctly  removed bunches of grapes that were not correctly spaced out (“eclaircissage”/green harvest) were able to wait until the grapes were ripe. Pruning also in the winter is primordial in the correct spacing out of bunches of grapes. The correct work during the year made the difference this year giving producers the choice to harvest ripe grapes or not.

2011 Yields Hail in the Medoc and Entre deux Mers effected yields substantially. In St Emilion fortunately the minimal hail damage did not seem to bring on botrytis earlier.

Yields are yet to be defined but are less than first thought. Hopefully up slightly on 2010 the right bank, the left bank predict lower yields than 2010. We will have to wait for the “écoulage”, the draining of the wine off the skins at the end of the fermentation and post-maceration to truly tell.

2011 in the vats so far what can we tell? So far for grapes picked when ripe, the wine is of average alcohol (around 13° in st Emilion), very deep colour, relatively fruity with blackcurrant aromas, correct acidity (from the cool nights), tannins seem to be supple (will also depend on the maceration).

What is happening at the moment? The yeasts are busy at work transforming the sugar in the juice into alcohol (giving off heat – kept at about 28°C by temperature control and CO2- extremely dangerous!). The colour and aromas and tannins are being extracted with the help of 4 remontage/pumping overs a day of two volumes of the vat (without oxygen to start). The sweet juice is being transformed into wine!

 A labour intensive year for those that could afford it, for those with a chance to produce a good wine.

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