It is not unusual for the team at Château Figeac, Premier Grand Cru Classé Saint Emilion to go through the different plots of vineyards on their 40 hectare estate (one of the largest in St Emilion) several times in order to prepare them (this may include detailed deleafing or green harvest) to the best possible degree for the moment of picking. There is no counting of the cost of the work that is required to produce the best wine possible taking into account the vagaries that each year presents in Bordeaux’s fickle maritime climate.
This year this individual treatment was taken to the extreme. The Manoncourt family who run the estate ‘pulled out the stops’ to ensure that the best quality could be produced, whatever the cost, in this their 125th harvest. This was due to the late frost that hit the region’s vines at the end of April, already two weeks well in advance of ‘normal’ (a word more and more difficult to define).
They are however uniquely fortunate in what nature gives them each year and their very fortunate geographic and geologic situation. Forget the cold limestone mixed with clay soils of St Emilion. Here at Figeac they have the only deep gravel soil hills of the region enabling them to grow and successfully ripen, the later ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes each year. The vines benefit from the hot well drained soil and from the warmer climate here in St Emilion on the edge of Pomerol, far from the tempering effects of the Atlantic Ocean (as in the Medoc) and even the large band of water of the Dordogne which stays away closer to Libourne.
This year however, on 27th and 28th April, an unusual and terrible freezing cold air swept through the vineyards of Bordeaux and had its devastating effect in three ways; i) leaving alone vines at the tops of the slopes and on warmer earlier terroir such as the well-drained gravel (which in turn produced only first generation fruit) ii) burning everything in its path vineyards lying lower or in dips (produced only second generation fruit) iii) or sometimes in a completely ‘anarchic’ fashion, choosing particular vines here and there or certain branches and not others (this as you can imagine was the most difficult category of vineyard to pick as there is a mix of first and second generation fruit).
Helicopters were employed to stop the freezing air from resting around the vines on the most prestigious plots that lie on gravel hills closest to the château itself. Hundreds of extra man hours were spent identifying and mark the vineyard or parts of vineyard into two main categories; those vines ‘touched’ by the frost and those that luckily escaped. The two different vine families (first and second generation) were marked with coloured string and were picked 2 to 3 weeks later.
What is Second Generation Fruit? – Those vines affected by the frost went on to survive and even, after a period of post traumatic stress, went on to bud and flower and give grapes – small bunches of grapes whose skin (or juice) did not have the same qualities as the first generation. Thinner and less rich in colour and tannins and more susceptible to grey rot (an increased risk as we get latter into the season) – so curtailing the possibility of harvesting latter when the berries would be perfectly ripe.
Some properties picked this fruit at the same time and used a ‘tribaie’ sorting machine to sort the ripe berries from the unripe using a sugar density bath (the same density as the potential desired alcohol level). The unripe berries float to the top and are removed.
Bordeaux has never seen this situation in the vineyards with two different harvest times. There will be a lack of wine of the 2017 vintage in Bordeaux. Many producers will not be able to survive the shortfall in the bottles they have to sell which is as much as 90% of their normal production. This will not hit them until 2019 or 2020 when the wine has finished its ageing and is in bottle.
The lucky ones, generally on the higher better land, and normally ‘classified’, not affected by the frost have made very nice wines in 2017. They will sell their wine on the futures market in 2018. The futures tastings will take place the week of 8th April (a week later than usual to avoid Easter). They will have to persuade the wine world that the ‘malheur’ of the vintages ending in a seven is over. Many Bordeaux producers hit by the frost say it is only the start of their problems.
Those not The ‘malheur’ of the vintages in Bordeaux ending in a seven continues.