You would have thought that with over 20 harvests under my belt, (for Jacques is it over 40), we have seen it all and it is easy to blithely compare the current vintage to a previous one.  The 2018 vintage was so bizarre that even the 2016 vintage which was another “Janus” vintage of one-half year wet and one-half year dry, makes for a difficult comparison.

This year saw us on one day picking all three of our vineyards – Le Pin in Pomerol, L’IF in Saint Emilion and L’Hêtre in Côtes de Castillon on the same day – firmly tossing out of the window the Bordeaux textbooks that have Pomerol’s grapes ripening a good two weeks before the Côtes.  How about Lynch Bages finishing its harvest before Vieux Chateau Certan?  Bananas! 

So what happened? For a start a lot of rain fell almost all through the first half of the year.  It made it difficult to get the tractors through the vineyard rows because of the mud and when Spring came, it became urgent to start spraying because mildew was playing havoc with the vines.  In Bordeaux we are fairly used to mildew because of our maritime, damp climate so we were vigilant even when it meant spraying at weekends or on the gap days that link France’s numerous public holidays in the month of May.  The danger of not doing this because very clear this autumn when touring the Rhône.  Here growers are used to the Mistral wind chasing away diseases but it was not enough this year to spare the vineyards from mildew and such famous sites such as Château Rayas in Châteauneuf du Pape or our friend Luc Guénard in Château Valcombe, both of whom will produce no red wines this year.  In Bordeaux, the organic estates were hit hardest since their arsenal against diseases is less powerful than the synthetic big boys but with care, most vineyards managed to keep the damage to around 20%.

Flowering, that crucial period in the vine’s growing cycle which determines the quantity if not completely the quality of the vintage, was the turning point in this year that up until then had been full of gloom.  Somewhat miraculously, the weather turned fine by mid-June and gradually became warmer and warmer so that in the end, it was the hottest summer in France since 1947.  With the change in weather, from wet to dry, from cold to hot, morale went from gloomy to sunny and France won the World Cup.  Suddenly the vines were perking up and with all that rain, there was an able reservoir of water in the ground.  The pendulum swung from one extreme to another. The hydric stress obliged the vines to concentrate on fruit rather than leaf production and for at least part of the summer, the big difference between day and nighttime temperatures, helped temper the drought. 

What a summer!  The summer that never ended.  We arrived down in Bordeaux during the second week of September, harvested a small parcel of young vines at Le Pin and then waited another full week, before we began again in earnest.  The sun shone.  The temperatures were in the high twenties and we were eating outdoors in the evening and easing our sore muscles in the swimming pool.  What a summer!  We began to get quite used to the warm, sunny days.  We planned our harvesting parcel by parcel, evaluating peak ripeness – for us that moment when the skins have softened, the tannins are rich and the fruit is ripe and sweet – with no thought about rain.  If and when it did come, it served more to wipe the dust off the grapes than to add any moisture into the soils. 

The drought had seriously slowed down photosynthesis and this coupled by the no risk weather pushed picking dates back later and later.  We finally finished picking on the 11th October in Castillon – almost a full month since we began.  The reason why the Médoc finished earlier than the Right Bank was due to the lower temperatures and more rainfall in this region.  What did happen was the alcohol levels rose; many top estates had never before seen potential alcohol levels at 14% to 14.5% in the Médoc and as much as 15% with the higher contents of Merlot on the Right Bank.  In fact, the main risk seemed more to be that of waiting to pick too late.  Luckily, there was just enough acidity to balance out the sheer richness of these wines with their dark glossy colours and their overt fruit.  The grapes were not only perfectly ripe, they were also perfectly healthy and if yields were down, it was because of the small size of the berries or the dried husks of the mildew affected berries.

It might be fanciful to say this, but I have the impression that the vines are getting used to summer drought in Bordeaux.  Climate change has given us some horrible incidents of hail this year but the vine does seem to be coping better with wetter winters, more humidity in the air, heat and drought.  If this run of vintages from 2014 to 2018 is anything to go by, maybe the Bordeaux pendulum will stop swinging from one side to the other and incidentally so will prices.

On a final note, it has been so heartwarming to compare notes with all of our wine producers and wine friends from one end of Europe to the other.  From Champagne to Sicily, from Burgundy to Bordeaux, everyone has big smiles on their faces.  I am writing this as we prepare to run off the final vats into barrel.  The newly born wine is darkly coloured, berry scented, heady and rich with lots of tannic structure and depth.  Not a shy vintage nor a classic vintage but a modern, sunny, vintage with enough, opulence, energy and intensity to last a very long time. 

© Fiona Morrison M.W.