Head of buying Pierre Mansour on how to handle what Mother Nature throws at you in Bordeaux!
The Bordelais are well-versed in dealing with Mother Nature's unpredictable character. Growing grapes in marginal climates like Bordeaux isn't easy bringing challenges of temperature, rain, humidity, hail and of course frost. In 2017 the frost that affected the vineyards at spring time was unprecedented and was the most destructive for more than 25 years. The numbers speak for themselves: compared to 2016, production in Bordeaux is down 40% for reds and 50% for whites. Some properties didn't make any wine, such as the Sichel family's vineyards at Angludet which were sadly devastated.
Our buyer for Bordeaux Tim Sykes out and about in sunny Fronsac
On our first visit of the trip at Clos Fourtet (50% down in volume), I asked Matthieu Cuvelier whether their insurance covers for short crops due to climatic events ('acts of god' I think they're classified as). They do but only for hail. This got me thinking about the tool kit Bordeaux growers have to battle Mother Nature and her capricious ways and how they used what they have at their disposal with real success in 2017.
Despite the photo above in the sunshine, this one sums up the en primeur tasting week more aptly – a reminder that Mother Nature is not to be messed with!
The insurance policy of the Bordeaux blend
'By blending, you are stronger' – these were the words of Aymeric de Gironde at Troplong Mondot in Saint-Emilion and explains the beauty of the Bordeaux model, generally a blend which majors on cabernet sauvignon and merlot supported by cabernet franc and petit verdot.
Each grape carries different flavour characteristics but importantly each grows in different ways, ripening at different times. This is growers' most effective (and natural) insurance policy in a tricky season. So from 2017, we tasted lovely wines where blends were tweaked from the norm, many increasing the proportion of cabernet sauvignon which was less prone to frost in 2017 (Cissac, Dutruch Grand Poujeaux, Durfort Vivens).
Smudge pots and torches employed in the vineyards of Bordeaux to ward off the effects of the April 2017 frosts
Candles in the vineyard – usually quite effective in dealing with frost but the scale and duration of last year's meant these modest heaters sold out. Châteaux couldn't get hold of any for the last day of frost!
The importance of place – great wine is all about the place and in 2017 this was notable as the majority of the top vineyards were untouched by frost damage and produced beautifully ripe grapes. The classic Médoc vineyards that sit on gravel slopes beside the Gironde have made a full crop whilst in Pomerol those estates on the plateau and on the limestone ridge beside the town of Saint-Emilion were similarly unaffected by the damaging weather.
The topography of Bordeaux courtesy of Château Lafon-Rochet
It's not often you get such a great aerial view of the Bordeaux vineyards and this neat video from Lafon-Rochet helps to show that the region is by no means flat! It explains a lot when you see a cross-sectional view of some of the region's top properties.
Selection – the variability of weather means different plots within the same vineyard can ripen at different times so selection is crucial to making top-level fine wine. At Gruaud Larose in Saint-Julien, it was the borders of the vineyards that struggled to ripen, often the younger vines (usually destined for the second wine, Sarget). A team of experienced pickers and high-tech sorting tables ensured that only the healthiest fruit made the top cuvée.
Optical sorters! – Lafon-Rochet
The gentle touch – in a year where vines were stressed, tannins can be harsh and astringent. Tasting the 2017s it was obvious to me that the fashion to extract lots of colour and flavour from the grapes was at last history. Instead winemakers have been gentle and careful, tannins are fine-grained, and the natural fruit flavours shine through in the wines.
And this is exactly why I think you will gain lots of pleasure in drinking this claret vintage in the years to come.