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Bordeaux: Hopes rise for 2023 harvest but mildew leaves mark

Ferocious mildew attacks have severely affected some producers, but other winemakers are approaching harvest with a growing sense of optimism about the quality of the fruit that has survived.

Bordeaux has been approaching its 2023 harvest after something of a rollercoaster growing season.

Whilst the key flowering period went well, suggesting potential for a big crop, subsequent bouts of hot weather and rain brought humid conditions that enabled mildew to thrive, said Christophe Château, communications director at the Bordeaux wine bureau (CIVB).

More favourable weather in August has increased optimism for the fruit that survived, although Reuters reported this week that heat spikes across swathes of France have brought concerns about vineyard working conditions. Météo France recorded a high of 42.7 degrees Celsius in Orange, in the Rhône Valley.

Mildew outbreaks in Bordeaux

Around 90% of Bordeaux vineyards were affected by mildew to some extent, said the regional chamber of agriculture in July.

‘I think it’s the strongest mildew attack in Bordeaux in a long time,’ said Simon Blanchard, oenologue and partner at Derenoncourt Consultants, set up by major wine consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt.

Merlot has been most affected, with white wine grapes not really hit and Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec more resistant, he said.

Damage has varied significantly between producers and locations. At the CIVB, Château said, ‘I have some winemakers telling me that they are going to do [a] normal yield and they won’t have any problem, and others saying that they are not going to harvest anything.’

It’s too soon to know what the impact on harvest size will be, he said in mid-August, with early picking for Crémant sparkling wines having only just begun.

Blanchard said vineyard management and resources have been particularly important in 2023, adding it has been especially challenging for smaller-scale growers with relatively little money.

Alongside that, ‘it’s important to understand your terroir very well’, he said, explaining that humidity can vary between vineyard sites, affecting mildew risk.

Bordeaux mayor Pierre Hurmic visited winegrowers affected by mildew in the Blaye area this week, reported FranceBleu, and there have been calls for government aid.

Mildew may have added to a precarious situation for some producers. More than 1,300 Bordeaux winegrowers reported being in financial difficulty earlier this year, and the region has been preparing to begin a funded scheme to uproot around 9,500 hectares of vines to help cut a wine surplus.

Cautious optimism for Bordeaux 2023 quality

Fabien Teitgen, winemaker at Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Léognan, said he expected the estate’s Merlot crop to be around 40% down in quantity, due to mildew. White grape varieties and Cabernet Sauvignon were not so badly affected, with losses of around 10%.

Whilst any losses are always difficult, he said the team considered this an ok result, given that the estate is committed to organic vineyard management, and so avoids various chemical sprays.

‘We remain optimistic regarding the quality of this vintage,’ said Teitgen last week, adding the foliage looked healthy and weather conditions were favourable.

‘We are now at the eve of the start of the harvest of our whites. The grapes are starting to taste good, very aromatic, [with] only a few more days of maturation [needed].’

Martin Krajewski, owner of Château Séraphine in Pomerol and Clos Cantenac in St-Emilion, said last week: ‘I did a tour of the vineyards yesterday and I am really surprised at how good it all looks, apart from the one parcel where we were badly touched [by mildew]. Even that looks ok now, just a much smaller yield coming in.’

He added, ‘I think 2023 will be remembered [as] a complicated year of extremes in frost, rain, sun, humidity and heat waves.’

There is still a long way to go, but Blanchard said he was optimistic about quality, citing favourable August weather and noting that mildew was mainly an issue in terms of quantity.

Picking for reds was set to take place around ‘classic’ dates, he said, with Merlot likely beginning around 10 September and Cabernets later in the month and into October.

Nicolas Glumineau, MD of Château Pichon Comtesse in Pauillac, said Merlot picking would likely start around 11 September. For the reds in general, he added, ‘We have a beautiful crop and we’ve worked a lot to protect it from mildew, but it’s all under control, even if it’s 100% organic.’

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