Bill Blatch on Bordeaux 2010: An embarrassingly good vintage

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Each year Bill Blatch (of the Bordeaux negociant Vintex) publishes an incredibly detailed vintage report, covering everything from bud burst to the (almost) finished barrels in the cellar. We are incredibly grateful that he has allowed us to reproduce it here – it is required reading for any serious Bordeaux enthusiast. Today is all about the vineyard, tomorrow will be the cellar. Over to Bill:

Back in November, many owners were already quietly confident that their 2010 was better than the already legendary 2009 but, coming hot on the heels of the hallowed 2009s, they seemed embarrassed to say it too loudly. Today, half of Bordeaux is less timid in assessing 2010 as great if not greater than 2009, while the other half is more reserved in such a judgement. But there is one point of total agreement: it is totally different from its predecessor.

Both vintages have enormous concentration and high alcohols. Both have great power and weight. But there the similarities end: the 2009s are, superficially anyway, softer wines made from gentle, progressive weather, with gradual concentration coming from perfect summer ripening, followed, continuously and without interruption, by further concentration from a perfect autumn. The year had gone through the gears seamlessly with no jolts.

The 2010s on the other hand are robust wines made from more aggressive and extreme conditions and their concentration comes from more extreme dehydration. They are the product of drought, of a more irregular sugar build-up in summer and a sudden re-concentration at the finish. And, most importantly, they get their higher acidities from the cooler August-September minimum temperatures and from the cooler autumn.

Add to all this the 2010’s later spring water replenishment, in June as opposed to April, all just a bit too late to get a gradual start to the vegetation, the yo-yo June conditions for the flowering and the consequent need, as in 2000, to catch the season back as from July, and a parched dry summer that knocked it back into shape, and the harsher, very robust and strongly tannic style of the 2010s begins to be explained.

And what caused such a cold winter, such erratic conditions in early summer and such a hot and dry high summer and autumn? I apologise for this but once again we have to go back to the South-Central Pacific where we left off last year with a mild El Niño system that had unexpectedly developed in June 2009 and had ended up creating a slight wobble in the air flows over the Atlantic, producing Bordeaux’s fine regular Bordeaux summer of that year. This had been an unusual result. Historically, strong El Niños produce cool summers in Europe: the poor Bordeaux summers of 1925-26, 1972-1973, 1987-88 correspond exactly to strong El Niño events; and one of the strongest of all times in 1789 is supposed to have caused the crop failures and bread shortages that sparked off the French Revolution. In 2009, it had not been strong enough to inflict such disastrous weather on the whole of Europe, only the north and east, whilst the south west was spared.

This El Niño event continued up to June 2010, some say also aggravated by an almost total absence of solar activity (no nice auroras to admire in the Arctic this year), and over the winter it had the effect of displacing the Icelandic low-pressure systems further east, which in their turn sucked Arctic air down round them, anti-clockwise, into Europe. Hence the very cold winter.

When, in May-June, it was succeeded by the strongest La Niña since 1973, there was a short period of erratic conditions during the transition, disturbing Bordeaux’s month of June. Thereafter, as it got ingrained, its effect rolled eastwards over the American continent, resulting in exactly the opposite conditions of 2009: a cold and dry South American winter, a miserable California summer, heatwaves in the south and east of the USA, and finally the warmest ever North Atlantic sea surface temperature, which, when joined by an unusually warm Labrador current descending from the fast-melting polar ice cap, strengthened the unsettled summer westerly winds. These came in on a more southerly track than usual, over Ireland, southern Britain and the Channel, leaving the retreating Azores high-pressure system to benefit only the south-west. Northern Europe had a miserable summer, and could hardly believe it when we said in October that, down in Bordeaux, we were parched from drought.

Winter 2009/10

We couldn’t know it at the time, because we didn’t know that we were going into such a dry year, but the very high early winter rainfall was to become the saving grace of the vintage, storing up in the depths of the soil a reserve of dampness that would become crucial in the dog days of summer that were to come.

As soon as the 2009 harvest was over, some tight low-pressure systems moved very slowly over England and then got stuck over the Channel, spinning off wheels of rain-bearing stationery fronts. During the first 11 days of November, it rained and rained, and again at the end of the month, bringing twice the average precipitation for November: 204 mm against the average 106.

December, with 92 mm, and January, with 78 mm, were par for the season and kept the water tables nicely topped up. From then on, apart from normal rainfall in March and a very wet June (when it came a bit too late – 2 months later than last year), we were to experience continuous drought all through the rest of the vineyard year.

November was unusually warm, 2.9 °C above normal, and the yellow leaves stayed stuck to the vines well into December, a month which started off warm, but then which careered into a sudden cold snap from 13 to 21 December. On the 17th, when Eastern Europe was at -30 °C, we hit a ‘mere’ -7 °C, still very chilly by Bordeaux standards. The prevailing winds had changed from the warm southerlies of November to very cold continental easterlies and northerlies for December, January and February, all three months returning average temperatures well below the average, so that this became the coldest January since 1992 and Aquitaine felt like eastern Germany. On 6 January, snow fell, an unusual occurrence in Bordeaux, and it stayed on the ground for a full week (however, not quite as extreme as in Britain). Over the whole winter, we had 40 days of freezing temperatures as compared with the average 22, more than enough to ensure that the vines remained dormant and a good antidote to any bugs that might have been having any malicious intentions.

Spring 2010 and the budding

With winter receding, we started to go into an even more irregular weather pattern, certainly a product of the nascent La Niña system, which elsewhere would culminate later in the year in the disastrous crop failures and mine floodings in the southern hemisphere and the devastating hurricanes in NE Australia. Meanwhile, in France, some equally erratic things were starting to happen. On 28 February, a freak hurricane Xynthia slammed into the coast just north of Bordeaux, claiming 59 lives in the Vendée. There followed an uncanny freezing calm that descended on Bordeaux for the first two weeks of March, as the Atlantic high-pressure systems, so typical of good Bordeaux summers but not winters, ballooned over the whole of Europe, sucking Arctic air down through Scandinavia. There were 10 frosts over this period: it was a very unusually long period of frost so late in the winter, the likes of which we had only been seen before in March 1971. It similarly was responsible for the season’s lateness which would never be caught up.

It ended rapidly on 17 March with a return of those low-pressure systems over the Channel, bringing warmer, damper and then rainier conditions up to 4 April. A full 63 mm of March’s 68 mm of rain fell now. These should have been perfect conditions for activating a strong budding. But it had been just a bit too cold, and continued quite cool well into April. We saw a few swellings trying to push through the dry wood before the end of March showers, but it was only when this damp, cool period ended and the warmth accelerated that the budding could really get under way. Most of the bud break was to happen therefore mid April, between 4-8 days late, and quite spun-out (although less so than last year). However much everyone realises that the flowering rather than the budding dates determine the earliness or lateness of the rest of the vineyard year, there were some concerns that we really were getting a little too late. In addition, April and May continued in the same irregular vein as March, both months starting showery and cool, then crescendoing into unusual heat before dropping back cool again. It was at this time that the vine started to do what it was going to do all year: produce short periods of intensive growth, interspersed by long periods of consolidation, totally different from its progressive development of the previous year.

Most buds had burst by mid April, and by the end of the month, the right bank and the warmer gravel soils had good growth, with shoots of 25 cm or so, whilst the left bank and cooler central area vineyards were still a sea of little flecks of pale green, looking like an impressionist landscape, barely out to two leaves. Such disparity was very noticeable and we were still quite late but nevertheless the mood was positive. The mid-April and mid-May night-time temperatures were very low but there had been no sign of spring frost; there was absolutely no pressure from disease, most properties still only on their 2nd spraying as late as end May; and the sortie was well-set and plentiful so that you could now see a good number of regularly spaced and healthy-looking bunches.

Early summer 2010, and the flowering

With the drought continuing through May, it was now time for the vines to flower, and after such yo-yo conditions of April and the persistent drought continuing throughout May, the prospects were not perfect. The vine seemed not only thirsty but also confused by such changeable conditions. From 21 May, egged on by sudden heat, it tried hard to flower, and in many cases succeeded, especially for the Merlots and Sauvignons and then the scorching weekend of 5 June brought on a further bout of very rapid flowering of both Merlots and Cabs. It all started to look as though it would be OK after all. But then suddenly on Sunday 6 May, night temperatures spiked back down to a horrible 10 °C and, as from Monday morning, a jumble of weak stationary fronts brought a series of cool nights and grey, showery days. Many flowers of this period ended up infertile (coulure or shatter), whilst those bunches that we had previously thought had set successfully, especially the older Merlots, now ceased to develop and became millerands (aborted).

There seemed to be no particular geographical reason for successful or unsuccessful flowering. Both banks, all central and outlying areas got hit indiscriminately. It was more a question of each flower’s individual evolution at certain precise moments such as that Sunday night cold snap or during certain phases of the previous yo-yo conditions. But as usual, it was the Merlots rather than the Cabs that were hit. This event became a big factor in the reduced yield of the vintage and of any disparity of potential quality at the end.

On a more positive note, the lateness had been partially caught up and we were now about on the same schedule as 2009: late but not seriously late. Secondly, there was excellent air circulation among the bunches – especially the millerand ones – all already looking unusually big and long, probably due to rapid growth from the hot, damp week immediately before the flowering. This would make for a much safer situation if the weather turned damp. Thirdly, the big rainfall of mid June (91 mm – the average for the whole month being 63 mm) had reinvigorated the soils. We would have preferred it earlier, as in April the previous year, but were happy with what we got, as this was to be virtually the final precipitation of the vineyard year. It was the most defining moment of the vintage: without it, the vines would have totally shut down during the long summer drought that was to come.

High summer

With the June rains out of the way, 2010’s mid-season turbulence started to steady in Bordeaux and from 20 June right through the rest of the summer, the Azores high-pressure system brought its permanently hot north-westerly air flows into the region, protecting it from the series of depressions that continued to slam through the British Isles and northern Europe. Bordeaux was thus shielded from the worsening turbulence of world weather that drowned thousands in the floods in Pakistan and China, that produced the violent heatwaves in the US and that made the California ‘May gray’ and ‘June gloom’ persist into July and August.

The end of June spike of heat was impressive, with daytime temperatures suddenly up at 28.1 °C for those final 10 days, compared with an average of 23.5 °C. This provoked violently fast growth of the vine’s hitherto unprolific foliage, necessitating a more urgent levage (lifting the foliage onto the wires) and more écimage (topping) than usual.

The heat and, above all, the drought continued all through July and August, which between them registered 534 sun hours, two hours more than for 2009’s exceptional summer and 50 hours above the average. During these two months, there were only 11 days when it rained at all, and then only very slightly, totalling just 32 mm against an average of 114 mm. So this really was total drought – more so even than in 2005, when the odd thunderstorm had alleviated the situation and a little more so than in 2009 with its occasional shower or two.

As in 2009, however, the heat was never excessive, apart from the occasional spike of 35+ °C, and it came in from the moister ocean rather than from the drier east. There were 44 days over 25 °C, pretty close to the 30-year norm of 38.1 days. There were 17 days over 30 °C (the norm is 12.7 days), but only three days over 35 °C, so we were far from the brutal scorching conditions of 2003, 1990 and that all time record 1921.

The main difference from 2009 was that July was the hotter month of the two, with average temperatures at 22.4 °C against the norm of 20.8 °C, whereas August was considerably cooler: 20. 8 °C against a norm of 20.9 °C. In 2009, it had been the other way round, with the temperatures rising progressively during July and August, accounting for a much more gradual ripening. In 2010, with the greater heat coming earlier, the sugar build-up was accelerated a bit prematurely and, as in 1998, seemed to trap some of the more acidic elements into the concentration process. Then the cooler August, and especially the very cool nights of mid-August, often down to 10-11 °C, preserved that freshness of acidity as the grapes moved towards total ripeness. Combined with the shrinking effect of the drought on the berries (they often lost 30% of their weight through dehydration at this time), this element of acidity got exaggerated and went on to become a salient feature of the 2010 vintage’s style of fresh and often aggressive tannins for the reds and enhanced aromatics for the whites.

The véraison (colour change) was noted 4-12 August, the drought conditions encouraging the vine temporarily to abandon its foliage and devote all its attention to its fruit. So the cycle caught up its lateness a little, now down to about four days later than the norm, further suggesting, in spite of the terrific build-up of sugars, that this hot, dry year would also be late and therefore bear little resemblance to similarly dry but very early harvests such as 1990 or 2003.

During the summer, the usual vineyard work continued, but with less crop-thinning than last year. The first green harvest of late June / early July was generally lighter than usual, since a lot of the Merlot had already been lost to coulure and millerandage, and the spacing of the grapes had been naturally more satisfactory anyway. The second culling, at the véraison, when any laggard bunches and grapes are weeded out, was also quite light, except for some of the millerand bunches.

There was little need for pest control. Oidium and grey rot were at an all-time low and it was so dry that few felt the need for anti-botrytis treatments. The cochylis and eudemis moths were a bit of a problem, especially the third generation at the end of August, but nowadays these are treated more and more by sexual confusion than by spraying. This was becoming an easy year for those properties that were on their final qualifying year to qualify for organic certification.

September-October and the harvest

Coming off such a dry period, with lawns yellow and roadsides like savannah, it was amazing to see the vines such a beautiful dark green, like Las Vegas golf courses, showing no signs of stress – apart from recently planted vines, many of which had keeled over, and occasionally others on lighter soils or exposed at the end of the rows whose leaves had started to shrivel and bunches to raisin.

The summer had been arid but the vines had never really shut down, certainly largely because the heat had been neither too dry nor too extreme. It was just a question of lack of rainfall: almost nothing since mid June. But at this time, many were worried about the effect of such drought if it were to continue into the autumn.

The forecast for 6-9 September was for the remains of hurricanes Danielle, Earl and Fiona to bring some alleviating rain, but they all veered off to the north, leaving Bordeaux with a few small showers, gratefully received and very invigorating, but of use only for the dry white harvest which had started on 31 August for the earliest Pessac-Léognan estates, on Monday 6 August for the Entre-Deux-Mers Sauvignons and on 13 September for most Sémillons. Apart from these little useful showers, the dry white harvest was undertaken in totally dry and often hot conditions, generally up until 24 September. It is a tribute to the cool nights of August that, unlike the previous year, these hot, dry conditions would make these white wines as fresh as they would be rich.

The traditional equinox disturbance had been very light. This year, it was rather the spring tides of 12 September that influenced the weather. The locals had said that if there was to be high pressure at the high tides, the fine weather would stay… and they were right: it did.

Now it was time to prepare for the red harvest. Back in August, they had mostly been preparing for a 22 September start, but, as the drought wore on and the tannins evolved so slowly, most pushed the programme back by a week. The feeling mid month was that, although the sugar readings were already at almost 14° for the Merlots and 13° for the Cabs, this was not the kind of vintage that could be harvested at will as in 2005 or 2009. Unlike both these vintages, there had just been too many difficulties: lateness of the harvest, coulure and millerandage at flowering, straggly bunches, irregular véraison, high acidities, stressed vines. In addition, just before the harvest, the tannin levels were getting out of control (often 50-70% more than 2009) and the total acidities very high (often at 4.5 g/l as opposed to 3.5 g/l last year).

As usual, the traditionally earlier-ripening vineyards of Pomerol and Pessac-Léognan now started picking: around the 22nd or 24th, during a second period of very light refreshing showers, and the rest during the much cooler week of the 27th. The musts came in black and dense, very sweet, and bursting with tannin. For the rest, it was an à la carte harvest that was generally delayed another week

With these Merlots just about finished and the superb conditions continuing for the St-Émilion and Médoc Merlots that were just starting, September finished almost totally dry with just 23.8 mm of precipitation versus a norm of 90.3 mm, and also hugely sunny with 243 sun hours versus a norm of 182. The thunderstorms of the 7th and 8th were to be the only rainfall of the year to produce precipitation irregularly and the differences were significant: only 8 mm on Pessac-Léognan and the mid and south Médoc, but up to 30 mm on northern Médoc, St-Estèphe, Fronsac, parts of St-Émilion and southern Graves and Sauternes.

The forecast had always been for a lot of rain over the first 10 days of October. Bordeaux was supposed to be about to bear the brunt of the very deep depressions swirling across the North Atlantic, the remnants of several Caribbean tropical storms. In the end, the only really rainy day was Monday 4 October, with between 20 and 30 mm in all regions of Bordeaux, followed by 10 mm on the 10th. Apart from these two days, the weather was overcast but not wet. Hurricane Otto, predicted as the villain of the piece, decided to veer away from the usual clockwise track and to wander aimlessly about in the mid Atlantic, where it ended up dying out, close to the Spanish coast of all places, actually pushing the high-pressure system towards Bordeaux. We should build a monument in the Place des Quinconces for Otto.

This was the final clincher for the second half of the harvest. The vines were now refreshed from these two days of rain and, in very warm temperatures (the first 10 days of October were a full 5 °C over the norm), could function once more. After a few days, and the Merlots safely in, a cool, drying easterly air current blew into Bordeaux and, as in 1986, these fine, cold, dry days allowed the Cabernets to re-concentrate and to be harvested in the best possible conditions. The cold nights – on the 18th down to freezing – totally prevented any rot risk, and the fine cool days allowed the final touches to be put on the Cabs. Most finished by mid month, and when the rains returned on the 23rd, it was all safely in. These three weeks of October had gone from very warm to very cold but above all, the month finished with an incredible 180 hours of sun hours (the norm is 134).