14th September 2011:
As rumours start to circulate about the 2011 vintage in Bordeaux, what better way to report than straight from the vineyard itself? Two days in, Johnny and I are having a truly fascinating harvest visit to the greatest estates in the region. Our first visits were to two of Margaux’s most famous classified growths, Ch Rauzan-Segla and Ch Palmer. Picking of their young Merlots has started surprisingly early on Monday the 12th September, the result of the extremely warm Spring conditions which has meant that the vines have been unusually advanced throughout the year. Both Chateaux were keen to show their latest purchases- at Rauzan their highly sensitive destalking machine and at Palmer their automatic sorting table, each of which will be vital to maintain their high standards in what have been fairly testing growing conditions particularly as a result of a relatively damp July and warm and humid August. I haven’t made a harvest visit for a number of years and the thing that has struck me the most is the advancement in technology and their huge attention to detail to make sure that only the very best of fruit is transferred to the vats for fermentation. John Kolassa at Rauzan was particularly excited that the alcohol levels are heading back to more classical years closer to 13.5 degrees as opposed to the richer styles of the past few vintages.
If we thought we had entered a new era with our first two visits, Ch Cos d’Estournel is something else; we have quoted before that the new winery would be better suited to a James Bond movie rather than the middle of the vineyards of the Medoc. To see it in action is truly enlightening, after careful hand selection and picking in the vineyards the level of automation and technology is astounding. Bunches of grapes are handled as gently and carefully as possibly by a huge array of machines, including a new cooling system (one of only two used in France the other being at DRC) which chills the bunches prior to destalking to protect the berries from any bruising and sets them up for a cool maceration before fermentation to bring out the very best fruit flavours and colours as possible. Such systems will be important this year in St Estephe as director Jean-Guillaume Prats explained, the northern part of Pauillac up to the village of St Estephe were severely hit by a freak flash hail storm on 1st September, fortunately it lasted only a matter of minutes meaning that whilst the leaves were ripped off the vines and some berries were battered, the damage was significantly less than it could have been. The crucial decision for the Chateaux owners here was whether to pick immediately to avoid any risk of potential rot or hold your nerve and hope for drier, sunny and slightly windier conditions to clean the bunches and allow them to develop a little further. At Cos, Jean Guillaume decided on the latter and the gamble most definitely seems to have paid off as we saw remarkably healthy fruit entering the winery considering the circumstances. The proof now will be in the tasting when we come back in March.
At Ducru Beaucaillou and Pichon Baron the story of the vintage is much the same, the summer conditions have been testing and vineyard management skills have been imperative to allow the fruit to achieve its maximum potential.
We then moved on to Ch Margaux where we were invited to a harvest lunch in the chais. Although not quite with the pickers we shared their menu but we understood from wine director, Paul Pontallier, that our liquid refreshment of 2008 Pavillon Blanc, 2006 Pavillon Rouge and 1998 Ch Margaux was a little different to theirs!!! Although a little closed, the 2006 Pavillon has wonderful potential and the 1998 Margaux has blossomed into a glorious wine.
Back to Pauillac to include a tasting of the 2010 and 2006 vintage at Mouton Rothschild followed by our first non-harvest visit at Ch leoville Poyferre who have decided to leave their grapes on the vine for a little longer and start picking next Monday- a different philosophy and only time will tell who has made the right decision.
Tomorrow we continue with visits to Latour, Pichon Lalande, Leoville Barton, Haut Brion, Haut Bailly, Domaine de Chevalier and a pickers supper at Petrus; I have a funny feeling that a harvest visit might well become a regular agenda for the Goedhuis team!!!
David Roberts MW