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Optical sorters not better for Haut-Bailly

Véronique Sanders, director general of Château Haut-Bailly, dismisses the proposed benefits of using optical berry sorters and expresses a need for new pruning techniques to prolong the life of vineyards in Bordeaux.

Véronique Sanders

During a discussion and tasting with the drinks business last week in Bordeaux, Sanders initially surprised db by expressing her concerns about the use of optical sorters, which use image analysis to sort berries according to size and colour, and cost upwards of €150,000.

Although a number of high profile châteaux have bought the machines since their launch in 2009, citing their beneficial impact, particularly in vintages when ripening is uneven, Sanders said that the technology wasn’t being used at Haut-Bailly.

“I don’t believe in the optical machine,” she stated, adding, “We have made tests with it, but it doesn’t differentiate between a good berry from a damaged bunch, and a good berry from a good bunch, because the machine won’t see it, and yet you will have a difference of 1 degree [in potential alcohol].”

In place of the technology, Sanders said that she would not risk incorporating good berries from poor bunches by selecting only the best bunches in the vineyard, which she stressed was a more costly solution than using technology to select the grapes after the harvest.

“If we have a bunch that is damaged due to bad flowering, hail, or bad veraison, we will put it down, which is a much more expensive approach,” she commented.

She also said that for the last three years the property has been using a new “fantastic” destemmer that is better at selecting berries than the optical sorter, according to Sanders.

Called The Cube, the system gently removes the berries from the stems using a combination of flexible fingers and a vibrating table.

“It is very soft, and uses little fingers to massage the berries, it is fantastic, it is like caviar at the end,” she said, describing the appearance of the berries that have passed through The Cube.

She also said that another famous château had bought both an optical sorter and The Cube but had decided just to use the latter technology.

“The châteaux that have it, love it,” she said.

Notably, she recorded “very long bunches” from the 2014 vintage at Haut-Bailly in Graves – something that she had not witnessed in other harvests.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen this type of grape, and it gave space for the berries to grow, especially for the Merlot, meaning there was less risk of botrytis.”

Commenting further on last year’s vintage, she said, “The style of the wine is like 2001, 2006 or 2008, and I love the 2008, which at Haut-Bailly is a fantastic wine, but 2014 is 2014, we’ve never had a wine like this before, and I’ve been at Haut-Bailly for 17 years.”

Another, and notable development taking place at the property concerns the pruning technique, with Haut-Bailly adopting a new approach developed by Italian viticulturalists Marco Simonit and Pierpaolo Sirch to reduce the risk of wood diseases such as Esca, which are shortening the life-span of valuable older vineyards in Bordeaux.

Starting three years ago, Haut-Bailly is now using a new technique which avoid making cuts into any wood that is more than two years old, which helps to improve the circulation of the sap.

Sanders explained, “We have more wood diseases in Bordeaux and these come through the cuts in the wood, and these cuts were damaging the inside of the vine and stopping the circulation of the sap.”

The viticultural technicians were introduced to Sanders by Haut-Bailly’s wine consultant, Denis Dubourdieu, and now the two Italian growers come to the château each year to oversee the winter pruning.

Sanders described their impact as “an amazing revolution”, and having discussed at length improvements that have taken place in the cellar at Haut-Bailly, stated, “I’m convinced that the next step for us is to perform better in the vineyard.”

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