One of the most frequently asked questions as we harvest and make the new wine is “which vintage would you compare it with”. The reply is often disappointing as people find it hard to believe that it is difficult to compare a vintage with any in the past. That is because, each year, we approach the harvest with new hopes and experiences, having lived the weather daily for the last two or three months of the growing season; every day of wind, sun, cloud or rain is stored in our perception of that year.
We have obstacles to jump over – bud break, flowering, canopy development, disease and mildew control, veraison etc. etc. – each is a hurdle which is cleared before the grapes can arrive at perfect ripeness.
2015 is no different and if, as many people believe, great vintages in Bordeaux recently have begun with either a 0 or a 5, the weather conditions had to be good. How do we analyze a great vintage in Bordeaux? It is a year where there is a high tannic content, good acidity and aromatic complexity in the grapes. To balance the levels of tannin and acidity, there needs to be a fairly high amount of potential alcohol (expressed as sugar). This balance is crucial if the wine is going to be able to age gracefully.
More specifically, a cold winter delayed bud break until the beginning of April, thus avoiding any frost damage. Higher than average rainfall over the winter had replenished the water tables which was going to prove vital later on as the weather turned hotter and drier. Both bud break and flowering occurred under perfect weather conditions that was to contribute greatly to the uniform quality of the grapes before harvest. The grapes were healthy and very little green harvest needed to be done during the summer months.
No rain fell in Bordeaux between the 15th of June and the 26th of July and a hot spell at the beginning of July had led to fears of a drought during which the skins of the grapes became thick and the tannins and the pips developed quickly. The cooler and wetter weather in August was a welcome respite. The rainfall varied greatly according to appellation, with Pomerol and Saint Emilion getting the most rain in August while during the first half of September the situation was reversed with most of the rain falling in the northern Médoc.
Not for the first time, was rain going to help push the maturity of the grapes and especially the balance between sugars and tannins along. As harvest approached, there were alternate days of sunshine and rain. At Le Pin where our Merlot grapes grow on a deep layer of gravel, the rain helped the vines to have enough water during the last crucial phase of development. The skins that were still very thick and chewy at the beginning of the month gradually became more elastic and polished, enabling for better extraction of the polyphenols (in other words, more interesting elements). One had to be patient however as at this stage of the year, growing occurs very slowly. The great contrast between day and night temperatures was also highly beneficial this year with cool nights, even in August, ensuring that pH levels are low. After September 25, the region experienced two weeks of clear bright days and cold nights.
Picking at Le Pin started on the 17th September for the young vines but really got underway on around the 27th September and finished on the 2nd of October. In Saint Emilion, we started picking L’IF on the 9th of October and finished on the 16th of October. The fermentations have taken an unusually long time to terminate this year and it was not until the beginning of November that we were ready to pack our bags and return to Belgium. Our first impressions? The wines have a great brightness to them – very vivid ruby red colour, fresh and lovely aromatic fruit flavours, crispy tannins and a good dose of alcohol. In six months time, we’ll be judging how these wines have developed in barrel but for the meantime, they are babies in their cradles but very beautiful ones indeed!
I leave the last word to Denis Dubourdieu, professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux, who has five criteria of for what makes a great vintage in Bordeaux. With his gracious permission, I list them below. He states that three of these criteria must be fulfilled to make good wine, four for very good wine and all five for great wine.
1. An early and rapid flowering and a good fecundation assuring a sufficient yield and the hope of a homogenous ripening.
2. Sufficient hydric stress at fruit-set to limit the growth of the young berries and determine their future tannic content.
3. Cessation of vegetative growth of the vine before colour change, imposed by limited hydric stress and therefore allowing all the goodness from the root to flow into the grapes and not unproductive growth.
4. Complete maturity of the grapes (sugar content among other factors) assured by the optimum functioning of the canopy (leaves) up to harvest time without further vegetative growth (point 3).
5. Good weather during vintage without dilution or rot, allowing full maturity of all grapes including late ripening varieties.
The 2015 harvest has fulfilled all five of these criteria.
© Fiona Morrison M.W.