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Bordeaux 2013: Weathering the storm

The key to finding quality in Bordeaux 2013 lies in understanding the weather says Bordeaux resident John Salvi MW, who argues that global warming is going to force producers to abandon old winemaking techniques in favour of a more precise approach to winemaking

Flooded vines near Langoiran, Bordeaux. Image: Getty/AFP Jean-Pierre Muller

Global warming or not, nobody can deny that we have recently known unusual, extreme and chaotic weather conditions. Some pessimists have predicted that global warming will mean the disappearance of a large portion of the Bordeaux vineyards during the next 50 years. In fact, in Bordeaux, we have seen an increase of just 1°C over the last 50 years. What we have to do is to be prepared to react with all the modern knowledge and equipment at our disposal.

Over those last 50 years, since Emile Peynaud became the founder of Modern Oenology, we have developed dogmas (or dogmata) on a number of subjects as well as standardised techniques in the belief that these can be applied in each and every year and are indispensable to make GREAT wine.

This is wrong. We have to abandon these dogmas, which are obsolete and which have allowed for standardised oenological practices. We have to adopt a pragmatic approach of adaptive oenology and work towards “precision” oenology that is adapted to the raw produce (the vines and the grapes). This raw produce is changing with the climate and in all probability will change more and more in the future. Fortunately man can still not dominate nature, but man has always been able to adapt to changing conditions. These conditions may change very considerably in the future, but they may be even better if we learn how to handle them. The vine is highly adaptable and so is man. There is no reason at all to be pessimistic about the future if we face it with pragmatism, adaptability and faith in the vine.

Also, before we get down to the intricate details of the resultant vintage, we should remember that more and more the making of great wine boils down to cost. A wine selling for a very high price, whose grower can afford to cosset each and every vine from budburst to harvest, can afford to put only the very finest, healthy grapes into the fermentation vat, having eliminated if necessary more than half his crop. Thus he can make wine that is beyond the reach of farmers who have to sell their wines disastrously cheaply and cannot afford the luxuries of green pruning, de-leafing, crop-thinning and exorbitantly costly sorting equipment. To cite just one example, Malartic-Lagravière only put 45% of its crop into the First White Wine and even more luxuriously only 35% of its crop into the First Red wine. At the great properties I saw beautiful, unblemished healthy grapes like caviar going into the fermentation vats after draconian sorting, whilst in Entre Deux Mers I saw a grey soup with snails, baby lizards and even a frog swimming and jumping in the must. This at a property who will be lucky to sell his wine for 1,000 Euros/Tonneau and who has minimum staff and minimum equipment.

Criteria and their necessity for great wine
Denis Dubourdieu, who has graciously allowed me to use material from his brilliant technical report on the vintage, has evolved 5 criteria essential for making great wine (I repeat GREAT, not simply GOOD). 3 of these criteria are required to make GOOD wine. We will see that 2013 was very far from measuring up to these criteria. As they cover almost everything we need to know I will enumerate them.
1. An early and rapid flowering and a good fecundation assuring a sufficient yield and the hope of a homogenous ripening.
2.Sufficient hydric stress at fruit-set to limit the growth of the young berries and determine their future tannic content.
3.Cessation of vegetative growth of the vine before colour change, imposed by limited hydric stress and therefore allowing all the goodness from the root to flow into the grapes and not unproductive growth.
4.Complete maturity of the grapes (sugar content among other factors) assured by the optimum functioning of the canopy (leaves) up to harvest time without further vegetative growth (point 3).
5.Good weather during vintage without dilution or rot, allowing full maturity of all grapes including late ripening varieties.
With the wet, cool spring causing late flowering and massive coulure, with the violent and sometimes destructive storms end July/August, which meant that the vine was unable to stop its vegetative growth before colour change, with the humid, warm September and October causing grey rot both before and during the vintage, 2013 clearly failed to measure up to the criteria required for GREAT red wine and hardly even those required for GOOD red wine

Let us look at the weather month by month since it is the weather that structures the resultant wine.

WINTER 2012/2013
The winter was both very wet and cold. Only December was average, whilst January, February and March were very fresh and very wet, giving 51mm more than the long-term average. Winter 2012/13 will be remembered as being long and gloomy. October 2012 to March 2013 had 70mm above the 30-Year average with 91 days of rain. Soils were cold and gorged with water, which delayed bud-break.

This gloomy April prolonged the winter and did not warm up until the latter part of the month. It dried out from 13th and bud-break finally took place 2 weeks later than in 2012, but more homogenously and with a generous potential. Sunshine was weak. In some places, Sauternes, Barsac, North Medoc, Libourne and Entre Deux Mers, serious frost damage occurred nights of 27th/28th. This was worst where vines were grassed between rows.

The wettest May for over 20 years with 22 days of rain. Also the coldest since 1984. Growth was therefore very slow. The leaves were pale with photo-synthesis deficiency, mineral deficiency and some root asphyxia. Between January and May rainfall had totalled 434mm generally in Gironde, which is 196mm more than in 2012 and a full 296mm more than in 2011 making it by the end of the month the wettest year for the last 10.

The month continued dramatically cold and wet. After 1992 it was the wettest for 50 years. Thus it was bad weather for a very late flowering, which on average reached mid-flower around 18th June, more than 2 weeks late. The earlier flowering vines suffered the worst weather and the worst damage with massive coulure on the Merlot and a lot of millerandage. This therefore meant a small yield. Later flowering vines and the Cabernet suffered less damage. By end June we were 3 weeks late compared to the average of the last 15 years. Mildew attacked ferociously.
THUS the first two criteria “early and rapid flowering and sufficient hydric stress” were totally unachieved.

Finally the long-awaited summer arrived at the end of the first week of July. Now it became very hot and indeed July turned out to be one of the 2 hottest over the last 60 years. The last 10 days were among the hottest 10-day periods ever recorded. 331 hours of sunshine, 83 hours more than the long-term average. One began to hope that if such weather continued it might in some measure compensate for the awful previous months. The vines did catch up somewhat and the June attacks of mildew were dried out. Sadly the fierce heat brought on violent storms and in many places hail. The most brutal and destructive storm burst like a bomb on 26th when a massive 48.7mm of heavy rain crashed down at Merignac. At Cadaujac no less than 77mm fell. Damage in the Medoc was massive. The lovely Magnolia tree in front of Palmer, with which I have lived the better part of my life, was struck by lightning, totally destroyed and has been cut down and chopped up. Many of Lafite’s famous, ancient Willow trees were uprooted. The park of Fonbadon was destroyed and Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande suffered damage to its roof. Worse, the church spire of Pauillac was blown off and fell on some houses. In Bordeaux, the station Gare Saint Jean was inundated and under water, as were many houses and other quarters of the town. Orange Telecom went off the air for almost 72 hours leaving people across the Gironde without means of communication. Back to Pauillac where gusts of wind were measured ripping along at 163kms/hour (over 100mph). This was a faster and stronger wind than the famous hurricane of December 1999. It lasted less long, yet it was almost as destructive. The storm was classified as a mini-tornado. The Right Bank, as said above, had hail, as did Vayres and Génissac. Lalande de Pomerol also suffered.

The month started with tragedy. The hottest day of the year was on 1st August at 35.8°C. Not surprisingly storms burst thereafter and late on that 1st and on 2nd hail storms in Entre Deux Mers destroyed over 80% of the crop on some 10,000 hectares of vineyards – in some cases 100%. The Government has promised financial aid but nobody knows when it will be forthcoming. After this disaster August was calm, hot and sunny. A large variation between day and night-time temperatures helped aromatic development and retention of acidity in the white grapes. Some of the thermal deficit was recovered but the damage had been done. A fine July and August was not enough to cause any hydric stress after all that rain, but did at least avoid total catastrophe and decided the success of the dry white wines. Because of all the earlier rain vegetation did not stop but continued to grow until around end August. Colour change was very late and started for Merlot around 10th August, later for Cabernet and not until almost end August for Petit Verdot. Mid colour change was positioned around 22n August at least 15 days late. It became essential to cut off all green or still pink bunches to help the others to ripen however much it reduced the already sparse yield.
Thus criteria 3, “cessation of vegetative growth before colour change”, was not achieved and this is certainly one of the most important for achieving ripe grapes

Rot, rot, rot! Unfortunately September was unable to assure the complete maturity of the grapes. The first week was splendid and kept hopes high whilst helping the synthesis of the colour elements. Bang! Then came 15 awful days, wet and cold causing considerable general degradation and fragilisation of the grapes. Finally a week of hot weather with rain and high humidity that did the real damage on already fragile grapes and summoned grey rot with a clarion call. It rapidly became both aggressive and uncontrollable and came suddenly without delay. Some started picking but without sufficient maturity.
Criteria 4, “complete maturity of the grapes”, was also not achieved this year.

The vintage month for Red Wines. The grapes were full of rot. Grapes were often not fully ripe but had to be picked at high speed or be discarded due to rot. My daughter, who vintaged in Saint Emilion, went out and bought a mask as the clouds of spores of the grey rot were rising and choking her as she picked the bunches. Degrees of alcohol were lower than previous vintages due to less sugar accumulation, but acidities remained higher due to the need to pick before total maturity and to the very small yields. The vintage stretched over 4 weeks but the rot dictated the picking dates rather than optimum maturity. Sandy soils were the worst hit; gravel soils were more resistant. For some reason Saint Estephe was spared most of the October rains. Great soils showed their mettle and Malartic-Lagravière finished picking on 19th and 20th October claiming beautifully ripe and healthy grapes, but only putting 35% of the crop into their First Red Wine.
Criteria 5, “good weather during vintage without dilution or rot allowing full maturity” was about as far from having been achieved as any vintage could be!

Vintaging started a week later than in 2012 and 3 weeks later than 2011. Basically this meant from 10th – 25th September in Graves and Pessac-Léognan, for the most part with relatively cool weather until 22nd, but with rains from 14th -19th, bringing on grey rot rapidly from 18th. Clearly the best wines were those made without or before the rot, while still healthy. Healthy Sauvignon had wonderful fruit, slightly less alcohol, but fine, crisp and fresh acidities and lower pH for the same reasons as the red grapes. Semillon quite enjoyed the rains and also had less alcohol and crisp acidities. Together with the sweet and stickies below, these were the successes of the 2013 vintage and there will be some great wines with intense fruit, remarkable fresh acidity, complexity and excellent ageing potential.

What is anathema to red is heaven to sweet white grapes – the mystery of botrytis – grey rot or noble rot. This year it made growers wait for it. But when it came, at the end of the season, it came rapidly and abundantly. The rains from 14th – 19th September gave it a kick-start and the hot weather from 22nd -28th developed it massively with concentration. The vintage started end September in Sauternes and Barsac and wonderful botrytised grapes were harvested during a second and third TRI from 8th – 25th October. Yields were relatively generous and greater than in 2012. After the end of October the noble rot turned to acid rot and the grapes could no longer be used. However, those picked during the right period have made some great wines with a purity of noble rot rarely equalled. If less sweet than in some other great years they are of great finesse, purity, elegance, flavour and grace. They are indubitably the glory of the 2013 vintage

Some great sweet wines and some very fine dry white wines. Red wines are the losers this year as weather conditions did not allow for GREAT wines. However, skill, insight, pragmatism, adaptability and enough money made it possible to deal with adversity and make a small number of very good wines. Generally speaking it was possible to make deeply coloured, pleasant, charming and supple wines with freshness for relatively rapid drinking.

John Salvi is a British Master of Wine, who has lived Bordeaux for over 35 years

Written by John Salvi MW

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