I say the same thing every year and say it again now, since I feel it is vitally important. I make no apology for doing so. Each and every year the wine of the vintage is both shaped and structured by the weather and the meteorological conditions from bud-burst to vintage.
THE THREE FACTORS
As we all know, the 3 vital factors are soil, weather and the hand of man. We can enrich the soil, feed it, water it with some restrictions and correct its mineral content. Man can bring his knowledge, skill and artistry to bear on the management of the vineyard, vinification and maturation. But the third variable-weather remains totally beyond our control. It can make or break a vintage without our being able to do anything about it and growers live in a state of perpetual hope and fear. Forecasts have been improving steadily, but are still a long way from protecting us from unwelcome surprises.
We are going to look at the weather pattern that created the 2019 vintage and produced its structure, together with tannins, acidities, fruit and alcohol. Let us see, month by month throughout the year, how the weather shaped the wines of 2019.
FIVE CRITERIA FOR GREAT WINE
The late Denis Dubourdieu, one of the greatest oenologists Bordeaux has ever produced, and the world authority on Sauvignon and its precursors, formulated a recipe for the production of GREAT wine. This has become not only famous, but the accepted criteria by the Oenology Department of the Bordeaux University. His formula contains 5 criteria that he deemed essential for making truly great wine. 3 out of 5 are enough to make good wine, 4 for making fine wine, but all 5 must be fulfilled to make GREAT wine. These criteria are perhaps Denis’ greatest legacy to the world of wine.
Here they are:
DENIS DUBOURDIEU’S 5 CRITERIA
1. An early and rapid flowering and a good fecundation assuring a sufficient yield and the hope of a homogenous ripening.
2. Sufficient hydric stress at fruit-set to limit the growth of the young berries and determine their future tannic content.
3. Cessation of vegetative growth of the vine before colour change, imposed by limited hydric stress and therefore allowing all the goodness from the root to flow into the grapes and not unproductive growth.
4. Complete maturity of the grapes (sugar content among other factors) assured by the optimum functioning of the canopy (leaves) up to harvest time without further vegetative growth (point 3).
5. Good weather during vintage without dilution or rot, allowing full maturity of all grapes including late ripening varieties.
Here is what one world famous Château owner says about the 2019 vintage. Let us see if the weather could possibly have created such wines. “Our first impressions are confirmed, namely that 2019 is a great vintage. It rivals, and in some cases even surpasses the 2018. The white wines are of fine quality, freshness, vivacity, bursting with fruit, tension, balance and fine substance. They have fine potential.
As for the red wines, if it is incontestable that the Cabernet in the Medoc explodes with complexity, richness and subtlety. Merlot, on great soil, particularly on the Right Bank, gives wines with wonderful balance, together with preservation of fruit and body. Generally speaking, the colours are outstanding, very deep and brilliant.
I must stress that the fruit has been quite remarkably and unusually retained in the wine. The tannic structure is smooth, enveloping and continuous. The freshness on the end-mouth is subtle. Finally, it is a vintage that is a Great Bordeaux Classic, both unbelievably charming and attractive.” Is it possible that 2019 could live up to such a description?
Winter weather is important, but often ignored when discussing a vintage.
· Firstly, the rainfall is vital to fill up the water table ready to keep the vine from suffering hydric stress during the coming hot, dry summer weather (we hope!).
· Secondly, we need some sharp frosts to kill off the bugs and beasties in the vineyards. If we get them, then we go into the vegetative cycle at bud-burst with a clean and healthy vineyard.
· Thirdly, even though many Chais today are temperature and moisture controlled, cold weather helps the new wine to fall bright in the many smaller Chais, where such luxury controls are beyond the purse of the producers.
NOVEMBER 2018 (Rain 88.4mm: Sun 128 hours 17 minutes)
It was a relatively warm November with decent rainfall. The last grapes for sweet wine had been picked in October, so the rain, 88.4mm, was useful to start filling up the water table. There were just two very mild frosts (-0.5°C and -2.0°C) just before winter during nights of 20th and 21st. Overall a mild November.
DECEMBER 2018 (Rain 93.2mm: Sun 53 hours 31 minutes)
Very mild, indeed much too mild. The overall average temperature was 9.7°C. There was just one single frost, and that one very mild, at -1.1°C night of 30th. The much-desired cold snap was not for this month. There was a very decent rainfall of 93.2mm, which helped with that water table. It was a gloomy month with only 53 hours of sunshine.
JANUARY 2019 (Rain 73.1mm: Sun 75 hours 37 minutes)
Much colder, but not cold enough. There were 7 nights with frost, but the coldest was only -3.0°C night of 5th. There was less rain than in November or December with 73.1mm, but this was both helpful and sufficient. We still need the cold, but overall it was a pretty mild January, since January is usually the coldest month of the year.
FEBRUARY 2019 (Rain 28.5mm: Sun 185 hours 26 minutes)
An extremely mild February. Only one frost all month and that at only -2.6°C night of 4th. Unless we get some serious cold in the next 3 weeks, we will go into Spring after a much too warm winter. The overall average temperature was no less than 4°C above the long-term average. It was also very dry with only 28.5mm of rain all month. The 4 months, November to February, have given 282.3mm of rain, which is not enough. However, the dry weather brought the sun and with 185 hours of sunshine it was the sunniest February on record since records began in Aquitaine in 1991.
MARCH 2019 (Rain 31.0mm: Sun 224 hours 38 minutes)
Because of the wonderful amount of sunshine in February and its warmth, together with the fact that March was also 1°C overall warmer than the average, bud-burst was very early. Bruno Borie, at Château Ducru-Beaucaillou told me that he saw the first buds in cotton on 13th, the earliest that he can recall. There were no frosts. There were 6 days with over 20°C. Certainly, budding was general during the last 10 days and was almost over by the beginning of April. This was even earlier than last year.
Because it was so dry (only 31.0mm of rain), budding took place under good conditions and there was a plentiful potential yield. Sunshine was 35% above average with a generous 225 hours. On the negative side, at this point total rainfall so far this year was 70% less than average (132.6mm in Jan, Feb and March), which bodes ill if we have a hot dry summer. Development was overall homogenous. Spring arrived on 20th at 03.49 GMT.
APRIL 2019 (Rain 90.6mm: Sun 161 hours 39 minutes)
April was a real yo-yo of a month, swinging about wildly. The first half of April was chilly and gloomy (maussade) with temperatures between 1° - 8°C. This slowed down the up-until-now rapid development. Then, there was frost on the night of 12th – 13th, which did some damage in various vineyards. It remained cool until 15th and everything kept going slow. The first day to reach 20°C was 16th and then temperatures were over 20°C from 18th – 23rd. Things speeded up. It was dry from 16th – 22nd and then we had a very heavy rainfall of some 30mm on 23rd and more rain thereafter until 27th. Everything slowed down again. The last 3 days were dry but cool.
Overall, it was a wet month with 90.6mm of rain and much less sunshine than March with only 161 hours. With the alternate slowing down and speeding up, and the variation in rainfall between different appellations, considerable heterogeneity developed throughout. By the end of April, we had certainly lost some of our advance.
MAY 2019 (Rain 51.1mm: Sun 221 hours 8 minutes)
To sum it up, May was a particularly cool month, indeed fresh. Overall, it was 1-2°C below the long-term average, and was in fact one of the 4 coolest Mays over the last 30 years. Also, although there was not so much rain, indeed the normal amount for May, 51.1mm, it was stormy.
Under such conditions development slowed right down during the first two weeks, but rather surprisingly continued quite vigorously over the second two weeks. Sunshine hours were healthy with 221 hours, which probably explains that continued vigorous growth. It reached 26°C on 23rd, but then cooled down again before reaching a summery 28°C on 31st.
This cool May, apart from those hot peaks, led to worry about the flowering, which as we shall see below was first seen on 13th May, quite astoundingly early. I have recounted it in June.
JUNE 2019 (Rain 85.3mm: Sun 240 hours 23 minutes)
Another yo-yo. A complicated month. Immensely hot at 32.2°C on 1st, but this did not last, and it was down to 17.9°C on 7th and remained cool until 17th. Then a sizzling 33.5°C on 18th, but back down to 18.7°C on 21st. A fierce short heatwave towards the end of the month when we reached 37.3°C on both 26th and 27th.
In Entre Deux Mers the overall average temperature was the coolest since 1978 at only 14.2°C in spite of the few really hot days. Rainfall at 85.3mm was 37% above average and was provided mainly by very heavy rains from 4th – 6th and again on 11th. It was dry from 22nd – 31st. Sunshine was perfectly respectable with 240 hours. The flowering had arrived quite exceptionally early, in spite of all the ups and downs. Pierre Lurton pointed out the first flowers to me at Château Cheval Blanc on 13th May and I saw them again on 15th at Pauillac.
The University says that it took place over the relatively short period of 2 weeks, but Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Margaux say it was protracted and mid flowering for the vast majority was only around 4th June. Both fresh and humid conditions led us to expect coulure and millerandage. To our surprise and relief, except on vines with very late vegetation, there was very little of either and therefore very little loss of crop.
At this stage the first condition of the 5 criteria. “An early and rapid flowering and a good fecundation assuring a sufficient yield and the hope of a homogenous ripening”. Has NOT been fulfilled.
JULY 2019 (Rain 41.6mm: Sun 324 hours 29 minutes)
An exceptionally hot and sunny July. Extreme temperatures were recorded. 17 days were over 30°C, 5 were over 35°C and on the 23rd we recorded 41.2°C! It is extremely rare here in Bordeaux that we reach 40°C or over. The average of the 31 days, maximum temperatures was 30.0°C. It was also exceptionally sunny with 324 hours and 39 minutes of sunshine. Not only was this 31% above the long-term July average, but it was also among the three hottest and sunniest Julys over the last 30 years.
Rainfalls, principally quite violent storm rains after the peak spells of heat, varied hugely from place to place. At Merignac it was 41.6mm and was similar in the Medoc, but in Sauternes it was over 100mm. This led to a large disparity of development from region to region. Due to the rain however, and in spite of the heat, there was little or no hydric stress, vegetative growth continued, and the beginnings of colour change appeared right at the end of the month.
The second condition, “Sufficient hydric stress at fruit-set to limit the growth of the young berries and determine their future tannic content” has been globally satisfied.
AUGUST 2019 (Rain 33.4mm: Sun 271 hours 46 minutes)
August was overall hot, although divided into sections. It was hot until 9th and then not so hot until 22nd. It was then very hot until the end of the month, peaking at 35.2°C on 24th. There were rains from 10th – 12th, but only 33.4mm all month. Sunshine was plentiful and generous, with 272 hours, which was 12% above the long-term average. There was enough water still in the soil to prevent any serious hydric stress, although signs of it could be seen from mid-month.
However, most importantly, there was not enough stress to stop vegetative growth before colour change, and this is one of Denis Dubourdieu’s most vital criteria. We have seen how things have gone from homogenous to the exact opposite and now, depending upon soil, climate, topology and vigour, colour change was slow to get properly underway, very protracted, and mid-change can be dated at around 9th August. In the most vigorous soils, where vegetative growth continued even longer, we had to wait until the last week of August to complete colour change.
Despite heterogeneity, grapes looked healthy with no signs of botrytis and the ripening process was under way. We had a little downy mildew in some places, but the dry, hot weather cleared it up, and there have been a few outbreaks of grape worm, but these also have been eradicated.
Most importantly the dry white wine vintage, Sauvignon, started during the last week of August under perfect conditions. It was hot, bone dry and sunny from the 20th to the end of the month.
On the best drained soils and in regions spared by the storms, BUT ONLY HERE, the third condition is more or less fulfilled, “Cessation of vegetative growth of the vine before colour change, imposed by limited hydric stress and therefore allowing all the goodness from the root to flow into the grapes and not unproductive growth”.
SEPTEMBER 2019 (Rain 67.8mm: Sun 222 hours 6 minutes)
It was a hot, dry and sunny month. Could one ask for more? These conditions compensated for the slowness of the colour change. It was very hot from 13th -17th. Just 1.4mm of rain on 1st and then dry until 5th. Rain from 6th – 10th and then a ten-day dry spell until 20th. Some relatively heavy rain from 21st – 27th and again on 29th, but growers shrugged it of as the grand monthly total only amounted to 68.7mm.
The richer properties, with ultra-modern sorting facilities, vibrating tables, hot air blowers and optical sorting machines, are no longer as afraid of a little rain as they used to be. Small growers do not have that luxury and rain is to be feared! The overall temperature at 19.8°C was 1°C above the average. The 222 hours of sunshine did not allow much humidity to develop and there was almost no rot. There were no canicular nights and enough rain to limit any fierce hydric stress and to allow late ripening grapes and grapes on draining soils to ripen without shrivelling.
The Sauvignon (Blanc) vintage, started in August, finished completely by 19th, but more generally by 13th. Semillon stated from 6th and finished by 23rd. As we can see above conditions were well-nigh perfect. Sauvignon sometimes reached a potential of 13.7° alcohol with acidities just over 5 gr.
Red Wine Vintage
Now we come to the Red Wine Vintage –first the Merlot. The earliest were picked from 16th following the maxim of Philippe Dhalluin at Château Mouton Rothschild, “when the grapes are ripe pick them, don’t wait”. While these early pickers paused for the rains (21st– 27th inclusive), later pickers started after them, from about 27th. This was not very early and some 8 – 10 days later than 2018, despite the heat.
The character of the wine this year depends largely on the date chosen for the vintage - before or after those rains. Sugar content was higher than 2018 and acids were also slightly stronger. pHs were variable, but tended to be on the low side. Skins were thick and gradually accumulated anthocyanins during maturation. They attained plenty of colour. The rain in August, and as we shall see at the beginning of September, slowed the ripening of the pips and they did not fully ripen or turn brown.
OCTOBER 2019 (Rain 98.8mm: Sun 116 hours 12 minutes)
And now to Cabernet Sauvignon. The very earliest picking started straight after the Merlot. A few started during the last 3 days of September, but the vintage became general from during the first 10 days of October. There was no waiting about. There were very light showers from 1st – 13th, except for 5th, 7th and 12th, but they were not enough to discourage. There was a very heavy fall on 14th and from then on there was rain, in varying degrees of force, until the end of the month. There were a very hot and dry two days on 12th and 13th when the temperature topped 30°C.
Personally, I find it hard to understand how growers, with their reports of a great vintage, have managed to ignore the fact that, heavy or light, there was rain on 27 out of 31 days in October and 98.8mm of rain, which is more or less the norm, but not so spread out. We are told that winds from the south-west helped warm the atmosphere and dry out the moisture. The overall temperature was 1.75°C above average, but there were only 116 hours of sunshine, which was 30 hours less than average, and can in no way have helped that drying-out process
Grapes were small, with thick skins until towards the end. There was a more sugar in the grapes as in 2018, but higher acids and deeper colours. Tannins were decidedly richer and more powerful. Fruitiness arrived very late because of the heterogeneity of the colour change. The wines had remarkable aromatic intensity, with complex notes of fresh, red fruit. Right at the end the pips finally browned, but their level of dehydration was considerably less than in 2018. It was all over for the vast majority by 23rd. Petit Verdot, which is picked last and is sensitive to hydric stress, suffered badly on well-drained soils and did not have the charm of perfectly healthy and ripe vintages.
For sweet wines the last 11 days of October were a disaster. 36.2mm of rain on all 11 days! It was damp and humid and all botrytised grapes were picked before the end of the month. Those that were not, became unusable.
Here we can see that the fourth and fifth criteria were fulfilled for the Merlot, but the fourth was only partly fulfilled for the Cabernet and hardly at all for the Petit Verdot. “Complete maturity of the grapes (sugar content among other factors) assured by the optimum functioning of the canopy (leaves) up to harvest time without further vegetative growth” (point 3). “Good weather during vintage without dilution or rot, allowing full maturity of all grapes including late ripening varieties”.
SWEET WHITE WINE
Botrytis this year was slow to arrive, but quick to develop. The sweet wine production areas had much more rain than the others. Over 100mm of rain fell during the storms in July. The skins were fragilsed by this and by the very hot weather at the end of August. This favoured both acid rot and also shrivelling on soils sensitive to hydric stress.
The botrytis finally arrived progressively, but rapidly after the mid-September rains. A cleaning-up “tri” (sorting) got rid of all the unhealthy grapes and growers waited with more serenity for the “noble” ones. Botrytis arrived, on the fully ripe and healthy grapes, as good weather the first week of October produced rapid concentration. Growers had to be quick to pick at exactly the right time, and most producers picked in one single “tri” from 10-14 October.
A not-so-good “tri” was also picked by some from 18 – 23 October, but the juice had been diluted by rain and many did not use it. Any grapes picked after that were worthless and the sweet wine vintage was finished and closed before the end of October. The crop was very small and not of exceptional quality.
DRY WHITE WINE QUALITY
Despite the exceptionally hot summer, the absence of hydric stress, either too severe or too early, meant that grapes could be picked in perfect condition. They have fine, crisp acidity, not too much sugar or too high a degree of alcohol and they are highly aromatic. There will be some very fine, almost GREAT, Vins de Garde (wine which will age and can be laid down). These wines are the best of Bordeaux this year.
RED WINE QUALITY
When judging the quality of the 2019 Red Wines I feel that I should offer a word of caution. The vintage took place almost entirely in October and there were 27 days with rain, however light or heavy. I cannot help feeling that the claims made by that famous Château owner, at the start of this report, are going somewhat overboard.
They had excellent acidities, rich but not necessarily perfectly ripe tannins, plenty of alcohol, but the fruitiness arrived very late and sometimes not at all.
As for the 5 criteria of Denis Dubourdieu we have seen they have not all been fulfilled.
· The first was NOT fulfilled.
· The second was globally satisfied,
· The third not for the majority, only for those with excellent drainage and who escaped the storms.
· The fourth and fifth better for Merlot than for Cabernet and it is totally impossible to ignore those 27 days of rain.
This amounts to about 3 out of 5 or GOOD wine. Not FINE wine or GREAT wine. I feel that once again he is right and that is what we have got – GOOD WINE. They do not have the density of an exceptional vintage.
Growers might be unhappy with this summary but in the light of all that I have written above, this is my conclusion.
SWEET WHITE WINE QUALITY
2019 is not a great vintage for botrytised wines and the crop is very small indeed. Whilst not rich, generous and opulent, they are clean and aromatic. They are fresh, not heavy, refreshing, flavoursome and harmonious. They are wines that will mature quickly and be pleasant, easy drinking. It is not a vintage for laying down, but for enjoying in the fullness of their fruit.
John Salvi Master of Wine
Weather Chart 2018/19 En Primeur
John Salvi is a Master of Wine for 50 years with 60 years of active working experience in wine industry in various capacities. UK Born wine expert is a qualified oenologist and lives in the heart of the Medoc, and writes regularly for delWine. Some of his closer friends are the local Châteaux owners, which gave him an opportunity to talk to many of them freely and regularly and also taste a few 2019 wines before shutdown, for this Article of extreme global importance, given that due to the Cancellation of En Primeur this month due to Covid-19, not many experts have written about the 2019 vintage. He shares his experiences of travels in the wine world, but weather conditions and how they shape each Bordeaux vintage has been his forte and he writes every year for delWine on the previous vintage-editor.
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