Nothing new under the sun in Bordeaux this year. The harvest was in full swing the first week of October. The usual polemicists were lying in wait, with some of them going so far as to focus their camera on a small plot of vines of a prestigious Saint-Emilion property, one that is easy to recognize from the photo, before spewing their venom to criticize the producer’s choice of harvest dates. How ironic when you realize that they themselves have never been capable of making any real choice or decision.
Meanwhile, those on the ground were just discovering the potential for a superb vintage in the making. Certainly, some critics will give full throat in expressing their opinion that once again Bordeaux is singing its classic refrain, declaring in advance another vintage of the century, but they will do so by reflex, without realizing that all of the wine regions of France were in the process of harvesting the raw material for a truly exceptional vintage.
In what way is 2018 so exceptional in Bordeaux itself? I will not spend much time going over the chaotic climatic conditions that periodically held sway during the growing cycle, including a rainy winter and spring, followed by a sweltering summer, the third hottest since 1900 and 2003. It needs to be pointed out that 2018 has been a year of cool nights. It is also one that saw the ravages of mildew in the vineyard coming on the heels of the late spring rains, and often more than some wish to admit, especially those belonging to the biodynamic school of farming who had to struggle mightily this year to deal with it. No, I prefer to concentrate my comments on what gives this vintage the potential for an exceptional quality: the wide window of harvest dates.
Winegrowers could harvest almost at their leisure in a pinpoint manner
In living memory, for today’s Bordeaux producers in any case, there has rarely been such a long harvest period. What’s more, since the start in late August, early September, the weather has been ideal. Light rain refreshed the vines after the summer heat, bringing relief from the vine stress that could prevent ripening. A winning trio was the mix of radiant sun, cool nights, and the impeccable sanitary state for the grapes. A winemaker’s dream come true!
Winegrowers could harvest almost at their leisure in a pinpoint manner, choosing to pick in specific plots and terroirs depending on the degree of ripeness. Pinpoint indeed, but when the ambition is to make great wine, it is such a detailed, precise approach that makes the difference. Sometimes, what a difference just a day can make, with fruit going from ripe to perfectly ripe.
This is how the conscientious winegrower works in order to optimize the harvest of each plot and each specific terroir zone. It has reached such a point of perfection that some winegrowers have the notion of harvesting more by terroir than by plot or parcel. Even within a single plot, the pickers may pass twice to pick grapes based on the degree of perfect ripeness. The weather this year allowed the freedom to apply such a slow, staggered, process. The exceptional aspect of this vintage can be found just there, in such attention to detail, an element that, in the end, is not a detail.
So, the choice of harvest dates will be more than ever a determining factor for quality in this vintage.
A very delicate exercise
Being able to adapt in one’s choice of picking dates in order to attain the acme of ripeness will be a vector of differentiation in 2018. Harvest dates and methods will have been of critical importance, and the qualitative gaps will be even more flagrant than usual. This year it was necessary to adopt a method and stick to it, in order to avoid the two-edged risk of either going beyond those ripeness peaks, or picking too early and losing aromatic subtlety. A very delicate exercise indeed. More than ever, the convictions of each producer had to be in play and this factor will play a decisive role in the final product.
Once upon a time, the great German poet of the romantic period, Henrich Heine (1797-1856), visited the cathedral of Amiens in France with a friend, who asked, “Why do we not erect such edifices in our time?”
Heine replied that “the men of that day had convictions, while we moderns have only opinions; and something more than opinions is required to build a cathedral.”
NB: This same, exceptionally wide window of opportunity to harvest at leisure was also at work in numerous other vineyards of France, including Burgundy, the northern Rhone, Champagne and the Loire.