We’re off to Bordeaux for En Primeur/Better Check the Weather (in 2012!)

by Chuck Hayward

Once again, the beginning of April finds us at JJ Buckley finalizing our plans to visit Bordeaux and participate in the annual en primeurtastings. In our seventh visit to the region, we’ll do what we do best – taste the latest vintage and enable our buyers and fine wine specialists to discover first-hand how these young wines fare. Our schedule is full of visits to wineries and negociants and we’ll be adding on a day of educational seminars to get an even more in-depth understanding about Bordeaux.

You can keep up to date with our trip by subscribing to JJ Buckley’s blogs here. We’ll also be posting pictures and updates on Facebook and, for the first time, you can check us out on Twitter. Follow us at @JJBuckleyWines or use the hashtag #JJBatBDX to get the latest info on the wines we’ll be tasting.

The Weather

The importance of Bordeaux in the world of wine has prompted government agencies, merchants and wineries to collect massive amounts of data over the centuries. At first, information focused on the calendar, collecting dates of budbreak, flowering, veraison and harvest. Records of these dates go back for centuries and have formed the foundation for comparative analysis of various vintages.

All of this information has been collected in an attempt to see if there are similarities in past years that can help growers and winemakers with the harvest at hand. In looking at the details about the 2012 growing season, the only conclusion that can be drawn from this harvest is that it was unlike last year’s. Or any prior. In fact, looking at many of these harvest reports over the years, it’s clear that there may be similar vintages, but it’s rare that two are exactly the same.
As the science of winemaking and viticulture has grown, the information that’s been accumulated has become even more detailed. Today, data on bunch weights, malic acids and tannin levels are just some of the measurements that can be found in harvest reports prepared by professors, winemakers and wine writers. Nowadays, the Bordeaux tasting notes of many critics contain much more data points than in the past.

The Growing Year in 2012

The winter in Bordeaux was relatively uneventful, with a scattering of unseasonably cold temperatures in February. The first problems arrived in April, when twice the average amount of rain fell during the initial budbreak period. Afterwards, cooler temperatures and a lack of sunshine helped to delay budbreak for a few weeks. Both of these conditions contributed to an outbreak of mildew in many vineyards.

The period before flowering saw average temperatures and adequate rainfall; everything looked good by early June. The delayed budbreak, however, translated into flowering that was about two weeks later than average. The first week of June saw a cool, wet spell that contributed to a poor fruit set. This led to uneven ripening on bunches and shot berries as the grapes began to mature.

The summer months of July and August experienced rain and temperatures that were pretty much on average with veraison, occurring over a longer period than usual. Late August and September brought very hot temperatures and very little rain, prompting many vines to shut down shoot growth and slow down ripening. Vines planted on water-retaining limestone and clay soils fared best in handling the drought conditions.

September passed with temperatures that were above average, along with plenty of sunshine to propel the ripening of fruit. The last week of the month, however, saw three days of rain just as wineries started to pick their merlot. Cool temperatures followed and there were blooms of rot that began to appear in some vineyards. Most of the grapes were picked by the time another series of large storms descended on the region in the middle of October.

How Winemakers Responded

The uneven ripening that occurred (because of the poor fruit) set resulted in uneven coloring during veraison. Bunches with excessive green grapes would have to be sacrificed so that other grapes could ripen. Thanks to the poor set and smaller berries from the drought-like summer, dropping fruit proved to be a critical economic decision.
The cool and rainy weather in April and the mildew that followed required growers to pay attention to their vineyards. Chemicals had to be applied once symptoms appeared on leaves and later during flowering. The poor flowering that came after the rains were most detrimental to cabernet sauvignon and merlot, setting the stage for small bunches with fewer berries.

The hot and dry summer months also had a major impact on the year’s harvest. Young vines and plots with free draining soils experienced too much stress, eventually shutting down and ceasing to grow. Much like the last few years, merlot from the Right Bank benefited from the vine’s preference for clay and limestone soils.

The rain that arrived just as harvest began required wineries to pick their grapes quickly, before rot spread throughout the vineyards. Those wineries that did not drop fruit found it difficult to ripen their grapes and were forced to pick under-ripe fruit as the conditions deteriorated.

Once again, those wineries that invested in optical sorters saw a big payoff with this harvest. This was especially the case for cabernet sauvignon that had to be picked early because of advancing rot. It also suffered most from uneven ripening.

To really see how well the wineries responded to the weather in 2012, we’ll have to taste the wines. And that’s exactly what we’ll do – starting this Saturday. Stay tuned!