After a very heterogeneous 2017 vintage, followed by an exceptional 2018, the year 2019 has been of a different ilk, one that has played with the nerves of wine producers who are facing a period of global warming that requires them to pay constant attention and remain alert at all times.
Thus, 2019 in Bordeaux proved to be like a difficult mathematical equation to solve, one involving multiple unknowns.
First there was a problematic period of flowering. Coming as it did during a long spell of relatively cool and rainy weather, this fundamental stage of the grape growing cycle did not take place under the best auspices. The rain hampered pollination and so led to incidents of coulure, or shatter, in which some berries failed to set or even fell off the bunch. Millerandage – poor fertilization resulting in small grapes without seeds, although retaining the capability to ripen albeit at a different pace – also occurred. The wine grower, without knowing what lay ahead in terms of yields and vintage quality, had to remain girded for combat to take appropriate corrective measures, passing regularly through the rows of vines to eliminate less than satisfactory berries.
Then came the second unknown factor that could not be anticipated. At the end of June came a punishing heat wave. So, following the previous spell of less than fine weather, the meteorological conditions changed drastically, bringing blue skies but also very high temperatures – especially during a second heatwave during the latter half of July – making 2019 one of the warmest years of the decade. Although some 25 millimeters of welcome water fell on 25 July, these canicular as well as drought conditions began to stress the less well-adapted vines, especially on the less privileged terroirs in terms of exposition.
Some vines, but especially the younger ones, suffered precocious defoliation or water stress. More than ever, the viticultural strategies chosen by each producer left their impact on the outcome of the vintage. Traces of scorching on grapes from intensive sunlight was a painful reminder that the vine leaf is not only a vector of photosynthesis but also a protective cover for the grapes during such heat waves.
Then came the third unknown to the challenging equation of 2019, the moment of veraison, the phase when grapes begin to change colour and the vines start to devote their energy to ripening them. Because of the aforementioned difficult flowering with incidents of coulure and millerandage, the berries did not ripen at the same pace, leading to a mixed bag of grape maturation
A walk through the vineyards in August was the occasion to observe the presence of totally green berries among completely red berries on some bunches. The risk of ending up with a non-negligible amount of less than ripe berries at harvest time was both evident and worrisome, as the impact of such a difference in maturity is indelible. Fortunately, the vigilant wine growers who remained on alert on the battlefront instead of lolling around on the sandy beaches of Cap Ferret that borders Arcachon Bay were quick to intervene in the vineyards when the second heatwave struck with a vengeance in late July.
For the past several years, the fine weather of late summer has played a crucial role for creating the conditions that made some outstanding Bordeaux vintages possible. 2019 will not be an exception. However, for all the reasons that we have just mentioned, it was evident that each terroir – including the microclimates within the same vineyard – reacted differently to the extreme weather conditions. Within the same property, the degree of ripeness is different depending on the exposition and the soil type, but also the rootstock and the size and density of the grape bunch, not to forget the specificity of this vintage, which augments this disparity.
Bordeaux wine growers then had to deal with a new and fourth “unknown,” the choice of the most suitable harvest dates. Many felt they had the necessary wisdom and foresight to set a harvest date within a window of fifteen days, calculated from a distance while still on holiday on the beaches in the Arcachon Bay. Others were already back in the vineyard tasting berries every morning and sending out the pickers parcel by parcel depending on the optimal date. Lately, it has become trendy to speak of two opposing schools of harvesting, those who pick early seeking freshness versus those who wait as long as possible for late season ripeness. Let us prefer the term “finely judged ripeness” that leads to the evident necessity of adapting the call for each terroir, even for each vineyard parcel. In this way, each wine grower assumes the responsibility for his or her own choice of risk-taking. In the end, sooner or later, the proof of the wisdom of such a choice will be found in the quality of the finished wine.
In summary, 2019 is a vintage in which a critical factor of quality was the presence and implication of the wine grower in the vineyard and the application of what the French call the “bon sens paysan,” or farmer’s wisdom.” The four unknowns already reviewed formed a difficult “viticultural equation” that, to elaborate our mathematical metaphor, only the greatest common factor could make easier: the common sense and know-how of the farmer who knows the value of constant presence among his or her crops. Alas, this is unfortunately lacking among some producers.
As for the quality of the wines, it is of course too early to make pronouncements. What can be said already, however, is that the tasting of early samples so far has revealed wines already showing at this early stage bright fruit and colour as well as density, which bodes well for their evolution during the crucial phase of élevage. 2019 may very well turn out to be as remarkable as 2018, which is saying a lot. Just as wine producers had to take risks during the 2019 growing season, so should we in predicting that at the very least, some will make even better wine than they did last year. After all, learning is an act of exploration that takes time.