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Bordeaux 2012: Setting the Scene

I have visited Bordeaux three times this year, April for the primeurs, three weeks in July, and last week a third harvest-time visit. Today I begin a few reports from the most recent of these visits, starting with today’s update from Sociando-Mallet. First, though, I thought it would be appropriate to set the scene with a brief recap of the growing season so far, to at least provide some context prior to this and other forthcoming reports from my trip to the region. I will produce a more detailed report on the vintage next year, to accompany my definitive primeurs report on the vintage and wines, but for the moment brief synopsis of the 2012 story-so-far should provide sufficient context.

Bordeaux 2012: The Story So Far

By the time of my visit to Bordeaux in October 2012 the vintage had already proven to be a difficult one, even before a single grape was plucked from its mother vine. In a reversal of what was seen during the 2011 growing season, which was characterised by an unexpectedly hot spring, the weather during the first half of 2012 in Bordeaux was wholly disappointing; in particular spring was cool and wet, impairing and retarding flowering. And this inclement weather persisted right through until mid-July, bringing a constant threat of mildew, and the use of sprays to hold at bay the advancing army of mould spores was a necessity. This meant for the vineyards managed along ‘conventional’ means the use of chemical fungicides, although it saddens me to think of chemical treatments as being ‘convention’, and for the organic and biodynamic adherents copper, a toxic heavy metal arguably no kinder to soil microflora than synthesised chemicals. Whichever poison you prefer, you can be assurred that the vineyards were heavily dosed with it through spring and into early summer.

Bordeaux 2012: dried mildew, July 2012

In mid-July, however, the weather turned. This was to my personal advantage as I spent three weeks in the region during the summer, and I was able to leave my family contentedly sunbathing at the poolside while I dashed off for appointments at Lafleur, Tertre-Roteboeuf, Teyssier and the like. What residual signs of mildew there were in the vineyard soon dried up (the leaf above shows a few brown spots, all that was left by late July), and the vines could get on with the job of ripening their fruit. There were, however, three major problems with this. First, the cool weather impaired fertilisation and development of the fruit, so some bunches were a mix of small undeveloped and larger normal berries (millerandage, sometimes called ‘hen and chickens’ or the less common but no less charming ‘pumpkins and peas’). I didn’t spot many such bunches during my visits in all honesty, but there were some here and there, such as those pictured below in the vineyard of a Margaux cru classé estate. Secondly, uneven and stuttering flowering resulted in a staggered fertilisation and fruit set, so that there was a greater degree of variation in ripeness of the berries on the vines than is usual. Thirdly, because of the delay in flowering, the vines were several weeks behind schedule.

Bordeaux 2012: millerandage, October 2012

I believe that, come the more detailed reviews of the vintage during next year’s en primeur circus, this late and uneven flowering will be regarded as the defining moment of the vintage. Although as the harvest neared the ripeness of the fruit on the vine appeared to gain some homogeneity, by early October most fruit – not just the later harvested Cabernet Sauvignons, but the Merlots too – was yet to ripen fully. The whites were brought in towards the end of September, but in early October, at a date by which in 2011 the entire harvest – dry whites, reds and sweet whites – had been completed, in 2012 most of the red grapes (and sweet whites) had yet to be picked. The Bordelais watched the skies and the regular Météo reports with more than a hint of anxiety. They needed several more weeks to fully ripen their fruit.

Would the weather gods show kindness?

This, in a nutshell (as indicated above, I will pen a more detailed report for my primeurs review next year), was the situation as I arrived at Château Sociando Mallet in early October 2012. For my report from that visit, see my Harvest Report from Sociando-Mallet.

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