Many celebrated the ‘gerbaude’ end of harvest (in a restrained covid-aware way) the last week of September, so relieved that in this challenging year of adversity at least something has gone well – a full two weeks before the usual celebrations.
Of course it is too early to say but the wines of 2020 are looking good. They are a great black inky colour (always a good sign), and have perfumed powerful aromas. Alcohol is around 14°C but still ph (indicates level of acidity) still not too high so some freshness coming through too. The grapes were picked very healthy with no rot at all this year. Due to the hot temperatures winemakers say ‘there is not a lot of juice’ and skins are thick but giving their colour and aromatics during the cold soaks and during fermentation too – the wines of 2020 will be concentrated.
It has certainly been a year of extremes here starting with sleepless nights as frost threatened the baby buds and leaves in April. Then the vines were hit by heavy deluges of rain throughout the spring. We have never before experienced such a severe threat of mildew (2018 was easy compared to this) made worse by the fact that the land was so saturated with water that the tractors only got stuck in the mud (record sales of quads and even treatments were done by hand and on foot! Treatments had to be carried out in a matter of hours not to be struck by this fungal disease which attacks the powerhouse of the vines, the leaves, and the berries themselves. Yields were slashed if the short windows of spraying opportunity were missed (11 Hectolitres per hectare instead of 41!)
The stress only eased up mid July with veraison (the changing of the colour from green to red or golden with white grapes). It is the pigment in the skins which is more resistant to the fungus. Then the vines had to cope with the scorching heat of the summer and its prolonged bone dry conditions.
It is only in the long-term that we will see the impact of this unique extreme climatic combination on the the grapes and the wine it will make. So far it is looking and tasting good. It is now the moment to decide when to remove the skins from the vats – it is the skins that act like a teabag and give the structure the backbone to the wine (colour, tannins). Get it right and this will enable these concentrated wines to age over time.Get it wrong and the balance will never be right.
We may never want to be reminded of the year 2020 or perhaps in the future we will crack open a bottle of this vintage and remember how we CAN do it and overcome adversity. ‘#lavignecontinue‘ hashtag was used a lot during the lockdown here in Bordeaux and we must try and follow nature’s example and find a way of adapting and continue too. ..
Recap of Climatic conditions 2020; Since the start of harvest 2020, extremes continue and we have shifted from the heatwave of the summer to cooler rainy temperatures and back to sunshine again. Since the very start of October Autumn has arrived with its rains, grey skies and colder temperatures. We can say that the harvest of the 2020 vintage in Bordeaux has been a success – helped by the fact that it was at least ten days earlier than usual.
Climatic Conditions Vintage 2020 in more detail; The scorching temperatures continued throughout the summer until the effect of the autumn equinox ( 22 Sept this year) enabling an easy and unrushed picking of the grapes this year. The grapes are smaller than usual (some shrivelling and scorching) with thick skins but very pretty bunches with no rot at all.
We launched the harvest at Château Béard la Chapelle, St Emilion Grand Cru in Summer conditions with hats, shorts and sunglasses to protect ourselves from the burning sun starting with the Merlots of the plot Terres Rouges on 17th September with temperatures in the mid 30s during the day.
Difference between Night and Day Temperatures; Morning temperatures were around 15°C and so the temperatures of the grapes were falling and rising some 20°s during the day. This is good for aromatics and this dilating during the night helps thin the skins aiding ripening (remember it is both the sugar in the juice on the inside of the grapes and the ripeness of the skins on the outside that count when deciding on perfect ripeness and when to pick!).
Most of the Merlot was picked during these very sunny days.
It seemed that the vines did not suffer from too much hydric stress despite the dry prolonged conditions and we saw new green leaves arriving at the top of the vines right through the summer. (Some younger vines that lack the deep network of roots did suffer and were the first to be picked.) Saying that, the lack of rain throughout the summer did have some impact on slowing down the ripening in some terroirs. We saw a reversal of the usual order of picking this year. Usually the vines on the cold clay and limestone soils on the famous plateau of St Emilion are some of the last to be picked. This year they were the first. I think it is because the vines in these prestigious terroir received just enough water in order to continue their ripening. Whereas other vines in sandy or clay soil without this bedrock of limestone that acts like a sponge did lack water and I think the ripening process slowed down.
Then the sun had a break….We had a week of pretty heavy rain (week of 21st September) off and on as is the way in this maritime climate. So many waited to start picking again or picked in between showers. Some botrytis has arrived so our friends in the sweet wine regions are relieved after all of this heat. The rains helped to swell the berries giving some more much needed juice and helped vines over the finishing line in terms of ripeness in some plots of Merlot that had really slowed down to the lack of water. This rain helped in a year like this where there is no botrytis rot pressure at all. Too much rain can cause splitting of skins and as rains are predicted Thursday everyone is rushing to get all the grapes safely in the vats.
Similar timing of harvest Right vs Left Bank. Picking started with the whites (mid August in Entre deux Mers and Graves and Pessac Leognan), there was no rush for the Merlot mid september and the Cabernets a week later on both banks.
The harvest season ended with smiles (difficult to see under the masks but it is very appreciated – masks have been obligatory for the picking and sorting even with the heat).
Fulltime Autumn began on 1st October with heavy rains (Bordeaux is the wettest wine region in the world with nearly a metre of rain per year fortunately normally after the harvest and before the new vine leaf shoots again). So thank you for the early start.
With so many challenges this year, this is all very appreciated good news. Prices have fallen severely (the price is quoted per tonneau an ancient measure that goes back to medieval times – see why in my book Sip by Sip) particularly for the Bordeaux Appellation – many of which have chosen to send their wine to the distillery.
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