On the eve of the start of the harvest in Champagne the news broke that we might never get a taste of the last vintage of bubbly this Millennium has to offer. The unions and the negošiants in Champagne couldn't agree over a complex contract brought about by France's 35-hour maximum work-week, and went on strike with 2 days to go before the scheduled start of the harvest. At the last hour they resolved their differences (in favor of the workers, of course!) and the latest word is that they are already talking about declaring a great vintage year!
Chablisiens are pretty happy with the year also - in one of the toughest parts of the world to grow grapes a dry, sunny harvest is something they don't get to celebrate too often. I won't be visiting up there myself until the beginning of October, but from the reports of my friends there is great optimism for the harvest, which is due to start around the 15th of September.
The C˘te d'Or has not had any rain since the end of August - according to the locals here the storms have been parting either side and letting the great vineyards of Burgundy enjoy yet another excellent end to the growing season. The run of good luck that Burgundy has had in the 90's is quite uncanny, and if it holds out for the next couple of weeks we may just have a final vintage of the Millennium to go down in the history books.
Here in Bordeaux the early summer was lacking in sunshine, but again the last few weeks have seen really great weather - hot, dry and sunny and just what was needed to finish off the grapes' ripening. Everything was looking terrific until suddenly on September 5th a huge thunderstorm swept through the region.
St. Emilion bore the brunt of the hailstorms which accompanied the storm, and in a matter of a few minutes several properties lost up to 60% of their crop. A mere kilometer wide and about four long, this storm hung over the vines for about an hour, venting its wrath on the unlucky vines in its path. The harvest, therefore started a couple of weeks before schedule for these poor folks who had to gather what was left on their vines before the damaged grapes rotted. Life is tough for a vigneron.
The fine weather returned, however and with relatively cool, breezy weather the damage was limited in most of the vineyards, with little or no rot setting in. When grapes are damaged to this extent they are terribly vulnerable to mold spores, which thrive on the juice liberated by the hail-blasted grapes. The slightest humidity can rapidly turn them into squashy, smelly masses of rotten fruit, and the fact that most of the crop in the affected vineyards was able to be rescued attests to both the weather and the exceptionally healthy state of the grapes before this storm tore through them.
Visiting the various vineyards affected by the storm gives a dramatic picture of the power of nature, and the different ways we find to cope with it. At Chateau Angelus the entire vineyard was covered by the storm, and first thing next morning Hubert de Bouard, the owner of the estate made the inevitable decision to begin the harvest to save the crop, a good two weeks before he would have liked to. He brought in all hands he could find, and in about 9 days of intense activity managed to get the entire crop in before it was ruined. For sure, a lot of grapes were either destroyed outright in the storm or were discarded later on the sorting table, but since this year's crop was very large to begin with the final yield was not a lot smaller than average.
A couple of kilometers away at Chateau Soutard, about 60% of the vines of Francois de Ligneris were hit by the hail. With the advantage again of a large, healthy crop to start with, de Ligneris decided to let the stakes run a little higher in his game with nature, and held his hand back, not touching even the damaged vines. Ten days after the storm there was very little evidence of rot on the vines I saw here, and even the worst affected were not too bad. In a few days they will go through the vines and pick off the damaged grapes, then start the harvest itself with a rigorous selection in the field and the vat room. By waiting, if his gamble pays off, de Ligneris will avoid the heavy chaptalisation (adding sugar) that he would have had to do if he had harvested right away before the grapes had matured. More importantly he will be picking grapes with a correct degree of maturity in the skins; a crucial factor in producing a concentrated, balanced wine for long aging.
Three or four kilometers north in Pomerol, Nicolas de Baillencourt spent the infamous Sunday evening firing off rockets in his front yard 1500 meters up into the thunder heads that were spawning the hail. The efficacy of "bombing the clouds" is not really proven, but as de Baillencourt explains it's impossible to sit on your front porch watching your crop being destroyed without at least trying to do something. He assures me that each time he fired off a rocket (supplied by Pomerol's Syndicat Viticole to four stations in the appellation) it was followed by a huge downpour of rain, and as long as the rain kept falling and the hail didn't, he was satisfied. Visiting his property a week after the storm, he showed me his stalwart launch-pad with a rocket primed and at the ready should the dark clouds dare to threaten his domain again.
With a little rain which was needed to enable the final maturation of the skins, things are right now looking pretty rosy for the rest of Bordeaux which was not touched by this freak storm. The harvest of red grapes started around the 14th in some vineyards, but many are waiting another week or two, gambling on the weather to get that last edge of maturity in the grapes.
The harvest of white grapes is already over, with excellent conditions and some very good looking must bubbling away in the cellars. For the white Bordeaux this is another in a series of wonderful harvests in the '90's. They picked most of the grapes in perfect conditions, with rainfall just near the end, and not enough to do any damage. For top properties such as Domaine de Chevalier or Fieuzal, who spend literally thousands of man-hours picking their grapes, quality fruit like this translates into some of the finest white wines in the world.
The harvest is a long way from being over, however for most of France. In the latitudes of the French vineyards with the powerful influence of Atlantic weather systems constantly changing conditions, no-one is so foolhardy as to predict the end of the harvest before it's done. As I write this it's raining hard, and as so often in France, the fate of the harvest lies on the whims of the weather - as Jean-Michel Cazes of Chateau Lynch-Bages said to me "we can stand a few days of rain, but a week ...." Two days ago there was a heavy sense of suppressed optimism in the air as the growers had their heads down and their fingers busily clipping away. Today it's more a sense of quiet tension as they wait for the weather to break, holding their bated breath until the famous lady lets forth the final note of her harvest chorus and lets them breathe freely again.
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