davies wakefield | wine uncorked | march 2018
My wife asked me what I was going to write about this month.
I said, “Weather."
She threw her hands up and said, “What about wine! I thought your column was about wine?"
Yes, it is about wine, and to understand wine, a discussion about weather is an absolute necessity, especially in France and uniquely in the wine growing regions of Bordeaux.
Anyone in the Green Bay area who has planted a tomato before Memorial Day understands the risks of being in the agriculture business. Late frosts, hail and even snow occur regularly up here, destroying those early tomatoes. On a macro scale, frosts in Brazil have wiped out soybean crops. A serious drought last year in the plains states drove up wheat prices in the Dakotas, but nowhere else in the world is weather more important and studied than in Bordeaux.
Bordeaux produces more fine wine than any other place in the world. Fine wine means the likes of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Haut Brion. These are the most expensive wines in the world. For example, a 12-bottle case of 1982 Lafite Rothschild sells on average at auction for approximately $60,000 according to Decanter magazine (February 2018). This valuable product commands that every detail of production be monitored very closely and that includes the weather. The weather watchers in France make the storm chasers on the Weather Channel look like amateurs. The threat of a late freeze brings out fires and smudge pots; in the best vineyards, and I'm not kidding about this, helicopters (lots of helicopters!) are employed to circulate the air around the vines to prevent freezing. As the year progresses, other weather-related actions are used to facilitate the ripening of the grapes and to counter the effects of weather.
Wine writers, including me, continually expound on the soil or “terroir," but without the fluctuation in weather, the individual yearly expression that reflects the differences in taste from vintage to vintage would make Bordeaux boring. 2014 is a year that fully exposes the variations in weather that makes that difference.
In the vineyards, the annual cycle begins in the winter after the previous year's harvest. In Bordeaux, in 2014, it all started with the wettest winter in 50 years and the warmest in 24 years. This type of high winter rainfall and temperatures were extremely welcome, setting up the year ahead for a well-nourished and early cycle. The warmth was to be of even greater importance than the rainfall, encouraging the vines to make an early start. This would be indispensable for the summer slowdown that was to come.
The spring of 2014 kicked off with a flourish when daytime temperatures shot up on March 7 a full six degrees above the norm. Such warmth after such a mild winter would have provoked an immediate budding if it hadn't been for the cold nighttime temperatures that followed. Bordeaux lies on the 45th parallel while Green Bay is on the 44th parallel so you can see how risky this early budding would be. A similar vintage in 1991 was completely destroyed by frost in mid-April of that year. Luckily 2014 turned out not only very warm but also very dry, especially mid-month and this temporarily slowed vine growth.
May was a cool, damp month with a strong spike of heat in the middle just before flowering was to start. These variable conditions are never conducive to effective flowering and they accounted for some coulure and millerandage especially on the earliest Merlots and Sèmillons. Coulure is a metabolic reaction to excessive dampness where the flowers fail to produce grapes, while millerandage is the condition where the flowers are fertilized but the resulting grapes vary in size. This condition is not necessarily bad in that it can reduce a yield, which leads to more flavor in the remaining grapes. In 2014, however, most of the grapes flowered fast and efficiently during the very hot first half of June confirming the prospect of an early harvest.
The rest of the summer, for the most part, was disappointing. June was a wonderful month of good heat, but the final days of June were to be the last of the summer until September (kind of like last year up here in NE Wisconsin). July saw a meager three hot days and August had none at all. July tourists were very disappointed in the cool weather. It was a dull, damp month, with small infrequent showers on 16 of the 31 days along with few sun hours.
August turned into another gray month, reported at the time as a wet month but, in fact, it was cold rather than wet, with temperatures 2 degrees below average and 85 percent of normal sun hours. It was only slightly wetter than usual, but all the rainfall came from much-localized storms. The Medoc remained almost totally dry.
It was a very gloomy scene in Bordeaux in mid-August. Vintners were starting to worry that the wines that year would be thin and bitter and the Premiere Crus owners were thinking that their wine would have to be declassified and sold on the secondary market. It is in this type of weather that several actions start to occur. Effeuillage is the process of stripping leaves off the grapevines around the grapes when there is excess moisture or lack of sun. In July or August it is usually done on the morning sun side of the grape. This would be on the south or east side of the vines depending on the direction of the rows. The reason this side is selected is to prevent sunburn on the afternoon sun side where the sunlight is most intense. If the season continues to be damp and gloomy, then the other sides of the vines get stripped, usually in September when the sun is lower in the sky and temperatures have ameliorated. The French, under law, are not permitted to irrigate, so other methods to control ripening must be used.
Toward the end of August the high-pressure system that had been so weak in July and August ballooned over Europe, chasing away the Atlantic depressions and enabling the weather to change at long last. The long-range forecasts became more confident as Bordeaux cruised into the longest Indian summer of all time. From the end of August until the end of October, the sun shone almost constantly with a succession of hot dry days only alleviated by several isolated local but violent thundery days. September's average maximum temperature was 10 percent higher than August and even higher than July. It was also the third driest September of the last 100 years, after 1921 and 1985, and the third hottest after 1921 and 1961; all of which were quite good vintages.
The whites were harvested under ideal dry conditions in mid-September. All talk was of the aromas, the freshness and also the power. The dry white wine producers were the very first Bordeaux vintners to smile after all the August panicking.
Meanwhile, the Merlots had been losing no time to catch up on ripening. The summer had been more detrimental to the grower's mood than to the vines own performance, which despite all the attention had been less dormant than they appeared. Most of the Merlots were picked in late September under clear skies.
Cabernet, which ripens later than Merlot adores an Indian summer harvest with its very long hang time and slow ripening cycle. Most Cabernet was picked in the middle of October.
Such a glorious autumn allowed for both maximum ripening and maximum concentration. The alcohol levels are naturally high from 12.5 percent to 14.5 percent. However, it was the cool summer weather and the prolonged functioning of the vine foliage that have determined the style of the wines with their low pH (higher acidity). The 2014's will give a sensation of power as well as freshness.
This vintage is not deep, powerful and tannic like the 2010 but rather ripe fresh and ready to drink within about a five-year window. They are also priced nicely like the three wines I have showcased in this article. I bought two of them for under $15. The third was Chateau Coutet a Grand Cru from St. Emilion for $33. The Coutet is primarily Merlot but for a Grand Cru it tastes more expensive. Prices for the 2015 and 2016 vintages are looking to be much higher because the two are rated very highly. But that means that they will require some aging before being ready to drink (5-15 years).
Chateau Haut-Vigneau is from Pessac Leognan and Chateau de Landiras is from the southern Graves region. Both are fresh and would be perfect with a grilled ribeye or lamb chop. Other comparable wines are just coming into the market right now. This is a wine drinker's vintage, not a speculator's; don't miss it!