First stop Château de Pitray, where owner and winemaker Jean de Boigne took me for a guided tour of his vineyards. Typically the grapes in the Côtes de Castillon ripen around a week later than neighbouring Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, and this year is no exception.
A few of Pitray's neighbours on the plateau of Castillon (the best vineyard site of the appellation) had begun harvesting, and Jean's first merlots, from his old-vine plots, were due to be picked the day after my visit. As you can see from the picture they certainly look healthy in quality and abundant in quantity.
Merlot 2016 - Pitray
Jean mentioned that 2016 has been a very challenging vintage for organic producers because of the rules preventing them from spraying their vines against mildew and the infamous vine worm.
Next stop was a visit to J-P Moueix's office in Libourne. The Moueix family own, amongst other properties, Château La Fleur-Pétrus in Pomerol and Château Bélair-Monange in Saint-Emilion, and Edouard Moueix gave me his take on the nascent vintage.
Edouard describes 2016 as a vintage of extremes, and reiterated how challenging the growing season has been, with a wet winter and spring followed by the long, intensely dry spell between June and early September. As reported above, these conditions stressed some of the younger vines, and with temperatures reaching an uncomfortable 38°C in September château owners were starting to worry. The hydric stress was relieved, as in the Médoc, by a short sharp shower in mid-September bringing a welcome respite for the vines.
The Moueix picking team had finished harvesting their merlots on the Pomerol plateau towards the end of the previous week, just before the 22mm of rain that had been forecast, and duly fell, over the following weekend. Picking in Saint-Emilion was due to commence the next afternoon.
According to Edouard the crop will be larger than originally feared, and sugar levels are decent, without being excessive. This should mean that alcohol levels in the finished wines will be in balance.
It is a long-standing tradition that the Moueix family join the harvesting team for the pickers' lunch throughout the harvest. Patriarch Christian Moueix has not missed a single such lunch in more than 40 years and I was delighted to join him and the sizeable team for some hearty French home cooking.
Moueix pickers' lunch 2016
Frédéric and Stéphanie Leydet at Château de Valois, Pomerol
After lunch I made a quick visit to a small Pomerol producer that we have just started working with, Château de Valois, which is right on the border of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion, just 350m as the crow flies from Château Cheval Blanc. This small (just over 8 hectares) property is run by the passionate Frédéric Leydet, and I tasted the delicious 2015 out of barrel and the 2014 from bottle. Both wines are likely to figure in Wine Society offers in future years.
Last visit of the day was to Château Grand Corbin Despagne in Saint-Emilion. Owner and hands-on winemaker François Despagne could barely conceal his enthusiasm over the state of the vintage. 'Plenty of wine, and good quality' was François' pithy summary. He described la floraison (flowering) as a miracle, because despite the generally damp conditions flowering was remarkably successful. The dry conditions over the summer months did not appear to have affected François' vines, as the leaves retained their deep green colour and the bunches looked uniform and healthy, with little sign of sun damage.
Grand Corbin Despagne vineyards
Freshly picked 2016 merlot grapes being sorted at Château Grand Corbin Despagne.
Entre-Deux-Mers and Sauternes
Château Bel Air Perponcher, owned by siblings Basaline and Thibault Despagne, produce one of our most popular ranges from Bordeaux, and deliver high-quality, consistently good white, rosé and red wines for members. I visited the château and was given the opportunity to taste the first whites of the 2016 vintage with winemaker Virginie Navet Leblans.
Both sauvignon and sémillon were fresh and aromatic, and despite higher than normal yields the wines had good depth of flavour. Merlot picking was just getting underway and the grapes looked (and tasted) good.
The Bel Air Perponcher winery during harvest
The visit culminated in the Despagne version of the pickers' lunch, just as much a family affair as the Moueix lunch the previous day, and equally convivial.
Despagne pickers' lunch 2016
My last visit before heading off to the airport was to Château Cantegril, the source of The Society's Exhibition Sauternes. I was received by Fabrice Dubourdieu, who was enthusiastic about the potential of 2016 for sweet wines. Picking of grapes for Cantegril and sister Barsac property Château Doisy-Daëne started last week. Grapes are healthy with no grey rot. According to Fabrice if the weather remains warm and sunny they will have an abundant harvest with plenty of noble rot. This will be the first decent-sized crop in Sauternes for several years, which is very good news for the financially embattled producers of the area.
As I left for the airport I decided to stop by a vineyard to photograph some bunches of sémillon grapes. No sooner had I opened the car door than I was swarmed by squadrons of tiny fruit flies. There were millions of the little creatures sweeping across the vineyards in clouds.
A rather hasty departure ensued, and the episode provided a rather surreal end to what was a fascinating trip.
Where to go next?
> Return to No Substitute for Being There
> Trips to other countries