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Vintage 2013: Bordeaux is in the doldrums

Posted: Tuesday, 03 December 2013 11:54

Vintage 2013: Bordeaux is in the doldrums

Dec 03: Weather has caused havoc in Bordeaux this year as the quantity of wine produced will be much less and though some of the dry sweet wines will be magnificent, reds will not be of great quality but the botrytised wines will be much less in quantity though high in quality, writes John Salvi MW, an expert in weather for Bordeaux wines

It has been a chaotic year for weather.  A very wet winter (over 500mm), which fully filled the water table, was originally welcome as it meant little or no hydric stress in the coming summer.  A spring frost, 26-27 April, did some damage on the very late budded vine.  A very cool, humid May and June caused a 2-week delay or more and very late flowering.  Poor, wet weather during that very late flowering, 13-end June, caused a great deal of both 'coulure' (dropping of grapes due to disease) and 'millerandage' (non-uniform berry sizes) and thus presaged a small crop. 

A good July and August was spoiled by the most devastating hailstorm in decades on 26th July24,400 hectares (of 117,500 in Bordeaux) were damaged by hail, 5,000 between 80-100%; 70% in Entre Deux Mers, 7% Saint Emilion, 23% Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux. 1,061 million hectolitres loss of crop! 1692 producers concerned (24.92% of total in department). CIVB says it will be the smallest crop since the frost of 1991.

Also, a devastating storm on 4 August did untold damage throughout Bordeaux, killing a postman, knocking off the church spire in Pauillac and felling 25,000 trees, including the ancient willows at Lafite. Colour change was very late, around 20th August. The result of all this was thoroughly heterogeneous conditions and a very small crop.

White Bordeaux

Let us start with the dry white Bordeaux as these are always the first to pick. The first harvesting of the Dry White Bordeaux was on 16th September. These may well be the finest wines this year as they were harvested under good weather conditions for the most part, and with grapes that were still wonderfully healthy before the rot got to them.  Acidities were good and fruit was ripe and fragrant. The best wines should be magnificent. Those who picked earliest did best. Those who waited had rot towards the end and regretted it. Dry white wine harvesting was over before end-September.

Red Bordeaux harvesting

The very first picking of the red wines was 23rd September and others followed soon after. The rain that had fallen between 14th – 19th September did not upset the white wines but did untold damage to the red grapes and started the onset of rot, combined with heat and humidity. Due to the rot everybody brought forward their intentions of starting mid-October and, as mentioned because it is an important date, Haut Brion started on 23rd September. Many started during the last week of September under difficult conditions. Heavy rain on the 26th, followed by unseasonably hot weather, brought the rot on apace. Everything conspired to keep up the awful humidity, which was the last thing we wanted. Growers went into October feeling rather desperate with a lot of picking still to be done.

Heavy rain fell during the first 5 days of October. Rot spread, the vineyard was a mud bath, and picking was a nightmare of trying to pick the good bits off a bunch in the rain and the mud. Then came better weather and everybody employed the maximum number of people to pick as fast as possible-Saturdays and Sundays included. Humidity kept the rot getting worse and enough rain fell to keep humidity high. Stagnant water on the surface of the rows made things even worse. Anybody practising bio had brown leaves from mildew and in some cases their crop was almost written off – a perfect way to commit suicide this year. 

Between 11 – 20th many great properties finished on the dates that they had originally planned to start. It has been dubbed the most difficult vintage for 35 years and Paul Pontallier, the manager of Château Margaux said,  "We may manage to make some good red wine but we cannot make fine or great wine. 20 years ago this vintage would have been a total write-off!!".  Anybody still harvesting red grapes at the end of October needed his brains tested, but the big problem lay in getting the balance between unripe Cabernet due to lateness and shortage of sun and heat on the one hand, and rotten grapes due to rain and humidity with short peaks of heat on the other.

Botrytised wines

And so we finish with the botrytised wines – the wines affected by noble rot or pourriture noble. They were totally delighted by the tragedy that struck the red wines. On 12th September growers were getting worried about the absence of rot. Lots of rain on the 14th and rain again from 16th – 19th brought it on suddenly and massively and continued humidity allowed it to develop perfectly. Most growers managed 2  'tries'  of beautifully botrytised grapes and were ecstatic.  Then rains from 11th – 13th did damage and grey, white and acid rot appeared and developed rapidly. As the end of October approached, conditions worsened (17th – 20th was dry but between 21st – 26th it rained every day) and the last grapes were too badly affected to be used and had to be discarded. However those first two  'tries'  were beautiful and Sauternes and Barsac will make small quantities of fine botrytised wine of very high quality.


White wines therefore, rather than red, will be the finest wines in this extremely difficult and climatically unstable year. The crop will be very small indeed and red wines are not expected to be of particularly high quality. The result of this may mean a very flat En Primeur campaign in the spring and a lack of buyers from China, the USA and the European markets. 

Bordeaux is in the doldrums!

John Salvi MW

Tags: Bordeaux, John Salvi MW, White Bordeaux, Red Bordeaux


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