A view from the vineyards – The impact of social distancing

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March 25th 2020

It is times like this that we truly value the very special relationship we have with our vignerons and winemaking friends. In the same way that it is so important to keep our spirits up at home amongst family, friends and work colleagues, it is vital we do the same with our friends and wine suppliers abroad. Italy went into lockdown 14 days ago, France 7 days ago and it can be a demoralising experience. As one Bordeaux négociant said to me who is now working in isolation at home, “I actually miss those irritating habits of some of my colleagues that only a couple of weeks ago were driving me mad!” Hence it is so important that we email and, even better, speak to all of them regularly and hopefully they will us.

Spring is an important time for us, especially for the more immediate drinking wines. We plan the stock levels of our Selection List wines so that we can ship the newest and freshest vintages of those lovely accessible whites and rosés for summer drinking. As Coronavirus sets in across Europe not only has it been increasingly difficult to ship these wines but there have also been practical issues for many winemakers who are struggling to get hold of the dry goods they need to bottle their most recent vintage in the first place!

We can consider ourselves lucky that many of the estates we work with are small family domaines who don’t have the restrictions of an enforced warehouse closure. For them loading a pallet and popping it onto a lorry is not a problem. The last few days I have been in touch with many of our growers to see how they are doing. We are eternally grateful to all the small family holdings we work with such as the Reverdys in Sancerre or Alain Coudert in Fleurie and others, who have been tending their vineyards during the day and returning at dusk (no doubt with aching backs) to move heaven and earth to prepare our orders so that our transporters can pick them up. Their efforts this past week will provide us with the delightful new vintage, giving us all some light relief and delicious summer drinking over the next few months.

What is the news in general? In Bordeaux these are anxious times. Next week, some 3,000 buyers from around the world were due to be landing at Bordeaux airport for the famed Union des Grands Crus tastings of the 2019 En Primeur wines. Excitement was high, how good the vintage really is we don’t know yet but there have been genuine comparisons to 2016 and 2018, albeit a little different in style. As one négociant friend said to me today having tasted Ch Palmer and Ch Haut Bailly, “there is a feeling of classicism about this vintage, a little more so than 2018 but possibly a little more selection is required in comparison to the uniformly consistent 2016s.” These tastings have all been cancelled and at this stage it really is impossible to predict when we will get the chance to properly taste and assess the vintage. The optimist in me is hoping this will be in June, but I just don’t know. Will there be an En Primeur release? We just don’t know.

In the vineyards in the Loire Marc Deshamps, whose wonderful Pouilly Fumé we love, is as positive as ever. On the phone yesterday he commented that despite a sharp frost of -3°C, the buds are healthy and there was no danger. The land is healthy and they are ploughing and turning the soil. His only concern are the harsh spring frosts that he hopes will stay away over the next month.

In Burgundy Mathilde Grivot sent me some lovely photos today of all the family out in force as they replant sections of their Chambolle Musigny Combe d’Orveau vineyard. She says the sun is shining, pruning is complete, and they have just finished tying the “baguettes” (canes) in Vosne Romanée. Now they are getting ready to work the soils and do hand treatments of the vines. Foresight or luck, with social distancing a priority for us all, the vigneron who created Europe’s planting lore of each vine to be placed 1 metre by 1 metre apart ( i.e. 10,000 vines per hectare) all those years ago could have little known what a stroke of luck this would be and a blessing to every winegrower throughout the continent in this time of crisis. As our growers enter a peak time of work, fresh air and mental health always a priority, they can work every other row of vines in small teams, adhere to the respected 2 metre rule and hopefully joke and laugh a bit. The crucial thing is that they can work their vines as effectively as any year, stay fit and healthy and help the vine to do the same in preparation for what we hope will be a lovely 2020 harvest.

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As we enter the midst of spring, I will be in regular contact with all our growers and look forward to keeping you updated as the vineyards progress.