Wine producers are at least happy to have some grapes (the small quantity they had) in the vats after a disappointing harvest.
The strong jammy aromas of blackcurrant and cherry waft around the wineries and we could almost be convinced it is a normal time of year. The crimson colour is being extracted from the skins of the lucky grapes who survived with numerous pumping overs of the pale juice taking it from the bottom of the vat and over the skins which are pushed to the top. We could almost believe 2021 was a normal year but we would be mistaken. The colour is coming, slowly.
The lucky grapes that made it this far had to withstand a number of trials this year. Firstly a late frost on 8th April scorched buds and shocked the vines causing delay in their development. Some rebudded some two weeks later producing grapes that would be ripe later than other bunches. Wet and cold weather at flowering caused uneven flowering and uneven ripening 110 or so days down the road. It also caused fertilisation problems particularly with the Merlot reducing yields with coulure (flowers stayed closed, their litle hats that pop off to reveal the stamens and pollen in dry conditions stayed stuck closed).
Then there was the Mildew. The wet and warm conditions which continued even during the usually hot summer months of July and August gave us a bumper summer crop of Mushrooms – Cèpes/Boletus/Porcini. Not a good sign for the impending harvest of grapes.
These wet conditions meant that this fungal disease normally kept at bay once the grapes have tuned from green to red (Véraison) by the anthocyanins colour pigment that make the skins thick and more resistant, did not help this year. At harvest we saw many beautiful bunches of grapes of potential yield, shrivelled and dried out.
Août (August) this year definitely did not ‘fait le moût’! We need in the maritime climate of Bordeaux the hot powerful sun of August to ripen the grapes and concentrate their sugar levels. In fact we need it to be hot and dry so that the vines stress and turn all of their attention to surviving. They stop growing leaves (arrêt de croissance) and all of the sugars made in the mini factories in their leaves to ne directed to their reproductive fruit – the future generation. This ‘switch’ makes great wine and results in a super concentration in the grapes.This is what happened in the super years here in Bordeaux of 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2020. Powerful concentrated wines that need time to age and develop.
We missed out on the hot summer sun and arrived at start of September feeling rather cheated. The grapes as a result were not ripe and the insipid Autumn sun this year did not help. Everyone continued to collect grapes for the usual preharvest analysis hoping for a miracle. Yes there was some sunshine but the sun was now low in the sky and 20°C made us feel better but the grapes were not really building sugar levels. In addition there was the rainfall that diluted the grapes further. Sometimes the potential alcohol levels dropped from week to week due to the this.
Substantial rainfall was forecasted to wine producers rather reluctantly decided they had to start despite the disappointing ripeness levels. Most producers on the Right and Left bank started picking around end of September, starting with the Merlots. Sunday 3rd October everyone stopped for a break to miss the 20mm of rain that fell. Some like Château Margaux rushed to get everything in before employing 500 pickers. There was a shortfall of pickers this year everywhere. We missed the throngs of Spanish pickers who stayed home rather than pay the expensive Covid tests they needed.
Yields are low in 2021. One out of four vats are full of wine. 25hl/hectare in some cases. For many who do not normally handpick, it was not worth paying for harvesting machines (300€ per hour) to harvest tiny quantities.So there was a last minute rush for pickers which were not there. (Those that were were slow, inexperienced and lots of trouble!)
The best plots, those that are welll-drained and on sunny slopes, will make small quantities of ok wine. It is all about ripeness. The Merlot was not ripe but had to be picked. Cabernets can withstand better to be left having thicker skins. The Cabernet Franc is beautiful this year here in St Emilion. So yes there is some chaptilisation that has been allowed to up the natural sugars that gave 11.5 t o12 degrees only. First time since 2013. Global warming has helped Bordeaux in recent years, but not this year apart from bringing these extreme weather conditions.
How to make wine from unripe grapes? Ripeness of grapes occurs in two places; inside the juice (lack of sugar and high acidity) and in the skins (tannins colours and flavours). Unripe skins have less colour pigment which is difficult to extract. Also tannins when ripe are smooth and easy to extract, when unripe are green. In this case the best is to do the extraction of what is in the skins and juice during the cold soak before the fermentation begins and at the start of the fermentation where water is the agent and through the mechanical moving of the juice onto the skins at the top of the vat. Once the alcohol starts to arrive (the yeast reproduce eating the sugar and producing alcohol) it is best in this year to be gentle avoiding extraction now.
So at least there is some wine from the lucky grapes that survived. (Many lost all in 2017 so we cant complain). There are many stocks of good dry sunny years to sell so the stoic wine producers in Bordeaux are still trying to keep smiling. Anyway the lack of wine in 2021 will not have an impact until way down the road. It takes two years from harvest to bottling taking in to account the time in barrel. Who knows what the years in between will bring. Today there are other more urgent things to occupy their minds, preparing the land for the winter so the vines can rest well and be ready for the next harvest, 2022.