It has been a complicated growing season in Bordeaux in 2018, but many winemakers have been able to banish memories of the devastating 2017 frost and plenty of sunshine hours in recent weeks are giving rise to optimism.

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For Jean-Pierre Boyer, the Bordeaux 2018 vintage is going to be his 69th harvest.

Yes, you read that right. Tucked into a distant corner of Margaux at Ch. Bel-Air Marquis d’Aligre, Boyer is none-the-less pretty upbeat about what has been a challenging vintage in many ways.

‘I’ve seen them all,’ says a man who brought in his first harvest in 1949. ‘And there is every reason to believe that this is going to be an excellent year. We need a little rain in Margaux perhaps, but the grapes are of good quality.’

Around most of France we’re hearing a pretty steady stream of superlatives over the 2018 harvest.

Champagne is ecstatic, with the harvest declared ‘exceptionnel’ by French newspaper Les Echos. The Rhône Valley winemaking board sent out a press release at the end of August declaring the harvest was starting ‘under the best of all possible conditions’. And in England things are described as ‘dream’, ‘ideal’ and ‘best ever’.

There has been less of a clamour from Bordeaux, you may have noticed, because frankly this hasn’t been the easiest of growing seasons, and it’s not over yet.

For a start, although temperatures were normal during winter, the amount of water wasn’t at all. An entire year’s worth of rain had fallen on the vineyards by the middle of June.

Since then, things have turned – and stayed – hot. And although it would be tempting to think ‘ah, lots of rain, and then a super hot summer – hello another 2016’, it’s not quite as easy as that, because along with the heat has been humidity, at least at first, and it means the pressure of diseases, notably mildew, has been intense.

‘In 2016, once the weather turned warm and dry, we had a relatively uncomplicated rest of season,’ I was told by Olivier Salques at Ch. Boyd Cantenac. ‘But this time around we had to stay alert to mildew right through the summer’.

Mildew can attack either the leaves, the berries, or both, but its impact can be considerably softened by careful work.

The most common signs that I see when looking at vineyards over the past few weeks have been unevenly sized bunches, with certain grapes totally dried out, and others healthy.

‘It’s certainly been a complicated growing season to follow,’ says consultant Thomas Duclos of Oenoteam. ‘Yields are up or down depending on location, and on work done by the châteaux at each stage of the growing season, taking care to remove unwanted shoots and so on.

‘It is making it difficult to estimate overall crop size. The potential crop was extremely generous at bud break, but has been revised down since.’

Laurent Bernos, from the Gironde Chamber of Agriculture, says he has never seen mildew so widespread, in that it has affected almost all appellations. But he believes that the overall losses should be no more than 10% to 20% of normal yield, as long as the mildew has been managed carefully.

And yet with all this, as harvest gets into full swing this week, you can feel confidence beginning to rise.

The first white grapes came in at Tronquoy-Lalande in St-Estèphe on 22 August, and we are nearly at the end of the white grape harvest across the whole region.

According to Duclos, there has been 10 hours of sunshine every day for the past month, which is giving a quiet confidence to the winemakers as they see sugar levels rise, and skins amass the looked-for colour and texture.

August was so dry that water stress was clear in young vines and gravelly plots, but two bursts of rainfall of 15mm apiece in early September have helped unblock the ripening.

At the same time there’s been nothing so devastating to cope with as the frost of 2017, and although the ferocious hail storm at the end of May affected 7,000ha of vines, mainly in southern Médoc, Bourg and Blaye, more than 90% of the Bordeaux vineyard escaped.

At Prieuré Lichine, where they lost 100% of their white crop last year due to frost, technical director Etienne Charrier is feeling confident about the quality of the white grapes that have come into the cellar. ‘Great aromatics in the juice so far, and beautiful balance overall’.

In Pauillac they would ideally like another three to four weeks of dry weather for the Cabernet Sauvignon to fully ripen, according to Claire Villars Lurton at Haut-Bages Libérale, but the vast majority of Merlot is well underway – at Petrus over in Pomerol, at Canon and Troplong Mondot in Saint Emilion, at Mouton up in Pauillac, and at Prieuré Lichine and Rauzan Gassies in Margaux.

The regular ripeness tests carried out by the Chamber of Agriculture found at the end of last week that all their Merlot test plots are now showing ripeness of pips as well as fruit, with grilled and hazelnut notes on tasting, although the Cabernets remain slightly astringent. The long range forecast for the weather is good. All of which, you’ll be relieved to hear, means that the Bordelais are starting to dare to join in with the rest of France with their quality proclamations…

‘The end of season has seen high but not scorching temperatures that promise excellent levels of ripeness,’ says the Oenoteam official assessment this week. ‘The recent rain showers together with cool night-time temperatures have brought about aromatic and polyphenolic synthesis both in terms of quantity and quality. These features are commonly found in great hallmark Bordeaux vintages, such as the 1990 and even the 2010’.

As you were people, normal business has resumed…


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