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Assessment of Bordeaux Vintage 2010 BEFORE the "En Primeurs" Tastings

John Salvi, Master of Wine, lives and works in Bordeaux. He wrote a very interesting preview about the vintage 2010.

Assessment of Bordeaux Vintage 2010  BEFORE the "En Primeurs" Tastings
Count John U. Salvi, MW. photo: Joe Haider. www.joehaider.com
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Introduction.

There are growers and producers who, now that the wines are safely in the vats and/or barrels, are claiming that their wines are even finer than the 2009s, for which the market paid astronomical prices for classed and famous growths. Is this really so, can we believe it and of so then why?

Reasons for Quality.

One of the reasons, and perhaps the main and most easily understandable reasons why this might indeed be so was the quality of the grapes. Most great winemakers agree today that 80% of the wine is made in the vineyards. Also that you can make great wine with great grapes (you can also unfortunately make terrible wine with great grapes!!), but there is no way that you can make great wine with anything short of great grapes. We will look at the details of the weather later, as weather structures the wine of the year, but the grapes this year were magnificent.

Why were they magnificent? A very dry summer meant that we did not have any significant pressure from mildew and other fungus diseases. This is rare in the humid climate of Bordeaux where many winemakers who have tried making BIO wine here have given up and declared that it is an excellent way of committing suicide! Fine, ripe, not over-ripe, healthy grapes mean that growers can take their time and practice highly detailed parcellar selection, picking each plot of grapes without haste and exactly when they feel that it has reached its optimum perfection of ripeness, without being in any way over-ripe. In the USA they talk about “hang time”, which we rarely have in Bordeaux, the window of perfect ripeness being very narrow indeed, especially with Merlot. This is a MAJOR factor.

Another reason for fine wine in 2010 is the complexity of the aromas and flavours. We had surprisingly cool nights in August and September and a lot of October (details below), and although we had warm to hot days we had none of the searing, blistering, grape-burning heat of 2003. A large variation of temperature between night and day has been proved to be excellent for the development of fine, complex and elegant bouquets and flavour compounds. This year was perfect for such development and we now have two major and very important reasons why 2010 produced those perfect grapes with the ability to make great wine.

A third reason is the highly sophisticated technical equipment that major properties, who sell their wine at expensive prices and can afford such luxuries, have installed in their chais today. With perfect temperature control, cooling systems, perfect control of oxygen supply, stainless steel everywhere, perfect hygiene etc. there is simply no excuse at all for a competent winemaker not to transform great grapes into great wine. Today the winemaker has total control. This was not the case in times gone by and is not the case today for the struggling smaller and lesser properties. It must never be forgotten that these are luxuries not enjoyed by all - far from it! Dry white wines can be made reductively without effort and red wines given exactly the right amount of oxygen, exactly when and as required.

A fourth reason, perhaps more debatable, is that many great oenologists, particularly Emile Peynaud, have said that the greatest wines are made in the driest years rather than the hottest. This year was particularly dry, as we shall see, and not particularly hot. We have seen the faults in the wines and the mistakes that were made with the ultra-hot vintage of 2003.
A fifth reason was that the grapes were extremely small (a natural result of the dryness) and had thick skins. This had the already mentioned advantage of a lot of pigments and minerals in those skins, and it also gave a different and lowered ratio of pulp (and therefore juice) to skin. Fine for complexity, depth of flavour and colour, but with the one signal drawback of the vintage – a small crop! The thick skins helped give wines that were highly aromatic and rich in phenolic compounds without, this year, any trace of vegetal notes and tones. Ripe pips gave hazel nut tasting tones, which should lead to balanced, ripe and silky tannins.

A Technical Report.

Saint Emilion produced an excellent technical report in October, saying why THEY thought they had a fine vintage on their hands. They cited a very dry winter with a rain deficit from the beginning of the year and a daily minimum-to-maximum temperature difference of around 14°C throughout the summer.

These two features coincide with what I have just said. They say that these weather conditions, which continued right up to harvest time, stopped the vine’s growth early, before the initial colour change (véraison) that heralds the onset of fruit ripening, leading to a substantial build-up of sugar in the pulp and of pigments in the grape skins. They say that the same conditions also helped to preserve the aromas in the fruit and, above all and vitally importantly, to preserve excellent acidity levels and thus perfect balance. In the dry white wines weak acidities were one of the problems in 2009 and the same problem was not unknown in some red wines. Here, succinctly put, are more reasons why 2010 had perfect grapes.

It also shows that there WAS stoppage (hydric stress) due to the dryness around end July-begin August, and this should not be forgotten. It was not obvious this year as the leaves did not show shrivel or stress as they did in 2003, when even the grapes were burned if fully exposed to the sun. This hydric stress did, in some cases, slow down phenolic ripening and also helped keep those acidity levels up where they were wanted.

Some Other Comments.

There was no rot at all. I am a cynic but for once I believe it because my son did the vintage at Brane Cantenac and other friends of his vintaged in different areas and all confirmed this unusual perfection!

Careful and meticulous control of grassing between vines in humid areas, leaf removal, green pruning and thinning, depending upon the needs of each and every vine, its age and its vigour, the terroir and the soil on which it was planted, all meticulously done at the correct time; all contributed to the perfection of those grapes.

Today people make up their own minds and no longer follow a leader like sheep as they used to do. The extremely heterogeneous conditions, leading to extremely heterogeneous ripening, led growers to start harvesting at widely differing times. The fine weather stayed with us until 20th October and by then nearly everybody had finished.

Alcohol levels were naturally high, but on the whole not excessively so. High alcohol levels are beginning to be a problem all over the world, which regretfully we do not have space to discuss here.

As shown above, along with the reasons for it, I repeat that, most importantly, acidity levels were perfect. This was one of the problems with dry white wines last year, where weak acidities rendered a number of wines somewhat plump and heavy and lacking the wonderful crispness, freshness and vitality of 2010.

It would be very wrong to omit talking about the sweet wines, especially those made with botrytis cinerea. In September growers started to worry as the dryness has prevented the development of noble rot. Then 10.4mm of rain fell from 21st-24th and, with a cry of joy, the botrytis invaded. It grew and flourished magnificently and enabled wonderful, fully botrytised grapes to be harvested with very little grey or acid rot. So rich did the grapes become that Rieussec, among others, picked some unbotrytised grapes to keep up the acidity levels.

Vintage.

A few vintage dates of various Châteaux to show how heterogeneous and individual were the picking dates of some of the great wines. The finishing date is perhaps more important than the start date as it was a stop-start vintage with waiting periods in between.

Haut Brion, La Mission Haut Brion, Carbonnieux and a few others started picking their Sauvignon on 1st September, saying that there was no reason to wait longer. Château Olivier started on the Semillon on 8th as did Denis Dubourdieu. As the weather was perfect until 20th the white wines were almost all harvested under quasi perfect conditions. Haut Brion and La Mission had both finished completely by 10th.

Petrus started on 27th September and finished on 2nd October, picking only in the afternoon (95% Merlot). Durfort finished picking Merlot on 7th October, started on Merlot but then stopped for greater maturity. As 11th – 18th October was totally dry everybody picked all out.

Château Margaux went for bust, put 500 pickers on the job from 10th and finished on 13th. So did Lafite and Mouton was not far off the same. Château Palmer finished on 20th. Château Durfort, on the other hand, only finished Merlot on 13th and still had all the Cabernet to pick.

Château d’Angludet finished on 15th. As for precocity, the malo-lactic fermentation was in full swing in Haut Brion and La Mission by 18th. Nearly all Saint Emilion had finished by 20th, but not Château Guadet who vintaged almost until the end of the month, as did some Châteaux in the north of the Médoc, particularly Château Rousseau de Sipian who did not START until 16th!! They said that when they picked the last grapes they had already had two frosts and there were no leaves left on the vines.

In Sauternes Château d’Yquem finished on 26th, but Château Rieussec picked their last grapes on 4th November. I choose to finish, as I started, with Château Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion, which are both perfect examples of all that I have been saying about heterogeneity, hang time, stop and start picking and parcellar selection. They started their Red Wine vintaging on 8th September, which was really early and before almost anybody else. However they did not finish until 9th October, which although relatively early still meant that their vintage lasted for over a month, which is a very long time indeed!

Finale.

A word of warning! When one analyses and writes about a vintage, as in this article, one inevitably writes about, and concentrates upon, the better wines – the successes. In a region as vast as Bordeaux, which produces some 700 Million litres in an abundant vintage (considerably less this year, but the official figures will only be known in February of next year), there are inevitably some less good wines and even some downright poor wines – some say far too much and many!!

There are only a few great artists, more good to excellent artists, plenty of adequate artists and some poor to thoroughly poor artists. If you regard, as I do, winemaking as an art, then the same holds true for the wines. Never expect to find a vintage in any production area universally good. If I may give a final word of advice, never trust completely my judgement or anybody else’s, however famous. In the final analysis it all depends entirely on your own personal taste and judgement. You will get a lot of pleasure tasting the 2010 vintage in Bordeaux and will have some wonderful surprises assorted with a few disappointments.

The En Primeurs tastings are from 4th – 8th April 2011.

Bonne degustation!

ADDENDUM.

ADDENDUM.
Map of Bordeaux wine Region. (Source: www.ugcb.net )
Comments and Statistics showing the structure and quality of the 2010 Bordeaux Vintage.

Statistics are those of the Meteorological Station at Merignac. Naturally individual figures vary somewhat according to location and microclimate, but overall are a thoroughly reliable guide to the Bordeaux Region as a whole. Long Term Averages (referred to below as “lta”) are: for temperatures and rainfall the average of the 90 years from 1920 - 2010, and for sunshine the average of the 20 years between 1991- 2010. The Average Monthly Temperature is the average taken of every day in the month.

WINTER.

It was the 5th coldest winter over the last 30 years and a very dry one, being 30% deficient in rainfall. Winter ended on March 2Oth. Because of the cold the vine did not leave dormancy and bud until April. Every one of the first 6 months was colder than average, except April. December was freezing with the average of the 31 minimum temperatures being 4.1°C.

JANUARY: Total Rainfall 77.8mm. Total Hours of Sunshine 85 hours 42 minutes. Average Monthly Temperature 3.8°C. This was also, strangely enough, 3.8°C below the long-term average.

FEBRUARY: Total Rainfall 54.0mm. Total Hours of Sunshine 102 hours 36 minutes. Average Monthly Temperature 6.2°C. This is 2.4°C below the long-term average.

MARCH: Total Rainfall 67.7mm. Total Hours of Sunshine 187 hours 5 minutes. Average Monthly Temperature 9.4°C. This is 1.8°C below the long-term average. Spring began 20th March.

APRIL: Total Rainfall 26.8mm (lta 80mm). Total Hours of Sunshine 249 hours 45 minutes (lta 177 hours 26 minutes). Average Monthly Temperature 14.0°C (lta 11.6°C). Driest April since 2003 with 33% of Average Monthly Rainfall. Warmer than average by 2.4°C and the only month during the first 5 to be so! May temperatures and reaching 29.2°C on 28th. As much sunshine as an average July or August. A little hail on 3rd but no damage. Great month. Vine budded beginning month, which was late due to the cold winter, and now developed fast.

MAY: Total Rainfall 40.7mm (lta 83.8mm). Total Hours of Sunshine 193 hours 9 minutes (lta 221 hours 37 minutes). Average Monthly Temperature 15.1°C (lta 15.4°C). 8.4°C on 5th was a record low. However 31.8°C on 24th was almost a record high! Dry month again with less than 50% of Average Rainfall. Dry from 10th – 24th. Most fell on 4th. Slightly cooler than average and considerably less sunny by some 30 hours. Some violent storms and some heavy rains. Contrasted month that slowed down vegetation. Flowering started towards end of month, around 26th.

JUNE: Total Rainfall 101.5mm (lta 63.8mm). Total Hours of Sunshine 229 hours 36 minutes (lta 224 hours 29 minutes). Average Monthly Temperature 19.4°C (lta 18.3°C). Summer arrived on 21st. Flowering with both "coulure" and "millerandage", as very wet middle of month during it. One of the few wetter than average months. 15th – 17th had more rain than an average June rainfall. Warmer than average overall but jumping up and down uncomfortably. 12°C variation between 5th and 6th. Little sun second ten days, but a very generous last 10 days, resulting in just over average sunshine, but unfortunately after flowering finished. One of the poorest months and flowering started late, mid flowering being around 4-6 June, and was protracted until around 20th, which will lead to uneven ripening.

JULY: Total Rainfall 15.4mm (lta 54.5mm). Total Hours of Sunshine 281 hours 20 minutes (lta 242 hours 59 minutes). Average Monthly Temperature 22.4°C (lta 20.8°C). Splendid, fine month, very dry with only 28% of Long Term Average rainfall. Only 3 days with rain. Wonderfully sunny with some 40 hours above average. 4 storms due to heat and overall average temperature 1.6°C above Long Term Average. Vine caught up any retard. Véraison (colour change) was somewhat late and protracted into August.

AUGUST: Total Rainfall 16.6mm (59.5mm). Total Hours of Sunshine 253 hours 49 minutes (lta 242 hours 55 minutes). Average Monthly Temperature 20.8°C (lta 20.9°C). Temperatures almost exactly on average, just 0.2°C cooler than an average August, but again extremely dry with again only 28% of the Long Term Average Rainfall. 11th was wettest day with only 3.4mm. Cool for August until 18th and then very hot at end month reaching 36.7°C on 26th (3rd highest temperature for this period ((21st-31st)) since 1921). Some 10 hours of sunshine above average. Very dry but OVERALL NOT very hot.

COMMENT:
As we neared harvest time the rainfall over the year had been no less than almost 43% deficient compared to the long term average. This level was identical to 2005, but differently distributed.

SEPTEMBER: Total Rainfall 23.8mm (lta 90.3mm). Total Hours of Sunshine 243 hours 13 minutes (lta 182 hours 14 minutes). Average Monthly Temperature 18.3°C (lta 18.1°C). Again extremely dry for third consecutive month, with this time only 26% of Long Term Average Rainfall. Wonderfully generous sunshine some 60 hours above average. Much needed rain finally arrived on 21st-24th for botrytis with 10.4mm. First half of month summery and end of month very cool, resulting in overall temperature just 0.2°C above average. Only 5.7°C on 28th. Vintage in full swing. Dry Whites from 1st of month, Reds beginning from as early as 7th in Graves. Summer ended with autumn on 23rd.

OCTOBER: Total Rainfall 93.2mm (lta 94.0mm). Total Hours of Sunshine 180 hours 2 minutes (lta 134 hours 18 minutes). Average Monthly Temperature 13.9°C (lta 14.1°C). Vintage of Reds and Sweet Whites in full swing. Finally some rain, but still just 0.8mm below average since 2nd ten days was dry. Nearly all the rain in heavy falls on 5 days. Very warm, indeed hot start with 29.2°C on 2nd. Autumn weather finally started around 13th and first frosts around 18th. From then until end month (full sweet wine harvest time) temperatures were overall 2°C below average, but over the whole month only 0.2°C lower. Fabulous sunshine, in spite of rain, almost 46 hours over average. Golden October!? Last recorded Red Wine picking 26th October.

NOVEMBER: Total Rainfall 214.6mm (lta 106.8mm). Total Hours of Sunshine 79 hours 55 minutes (lta 91 hours 10 minutes). Average Monthly Temperature 9.7°C (lta 9.4°C). Foul month, wet, gloomy, with over twice the average rainfall. The heavens making up for lost time! Last botrytised grapes picked 4th November. From mid-November temperatures went steadily down. Numerous frosts. Sunshine almost 12 hours deficient. Thanks be that the grapes are all picked!
© by Helmut Knall
last modified: 2011-01-25 15:29:43

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