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Bordeaux 2021 weather report

With a couple of weeks to go before the harvest, the weather in Bordeaux remains extremely unpredictable and the 2021 vintage hangs in the balance, reports Colin Hay.

Two weeks on from my first foray into vineyard meteorology, expectations for the Bordeaux 2021 harvest remain on hold. With the weather forecasts for each week seemingly being revised on an almost daily basis – and often varying considerably between forecaster – it is still very difficult to gauge the likely quality of this capricious vintage.

What is clear is that the next 2-3 weeks will be absolutely vital; and, once again, the weather forecast for that period is both uncertain and potentially extremely unsettled. The sense of tension and stress in the vineyards is palpable.

As Noëmie Durantou of Chateau L’Eglise-Clinet in Pomerol told me, “rain is the concern. I am now checking no less than five weather forecasts at least twice a day. The rain was supposed to happen two weeks ago, then last week, now we are told it is imminent, we are still looking at the sky with anguished anticipation”.

As she went on to explain: “The weather forecast seems very unpredictable and the rains are extremely localised. We were expecting at least 8 millimetres of rain yesterday and got 1 just. But there was localised flooding in parts of Bordeaux itself.

What reassures me personally is that we have perfectly healthy and well-ventilated bunches. Whilst the constant humidity and warmth is still worrying in that is poses a significant botrytis threat, it is hopefully still manageable. More than 20 millimetres of rain in a single episode is obviously always a concern; but constant humidity can be at least as damaging when coupled with the warmth we have been experiencing”.

At Chateau Grand-Corbin Despagne, Francois Despagne was no less sanguine when speaking to me last week-end: “With 2 millimetres of rain this week-end and then a period of hot, even very hot, weather – 35 degrees today, the situation remains interesting. The forecast rain is actually small on average, but localised. With 25 to 30 millimetres things become problematic for a final optimal maturation of the grapes. Everything now depends on these final few days”.

That said, the situation has improved since I last spoke to him in the last week of August. “The heat that we have had these last days have favoured the breakdown of malic acid in the grapes which was, even last week, quite high. The pHs are still low. The (elevated) temperatures (or recent days) have permitted a maturation of all of the polyphenols of the skin – anthocyanes and tannins”.

All of that is good. But as he further explained, the situation remains delicately balanced: “Astonishingly the vines are suffering now from the heat and in certain parcels we are starting to see the leaves turning yellow – above all on younger vines. A little rain could in certain cases actually be positive to help complete the maturation process”.

Overall, it remains a waiting game: “Nothing is yet decided and I remain intently focussed on the vineyard. We are currently removing those Cabernet Franc grapes that have been slow to mature”.

At Eglise-Clinet and in her other vineyards in Lalande-de-Pomerol and Côtes de Castillon, Noëmie Durantou, is similarly vigilant even if the situation presents for her subtly different challenges. “I have perhaps been more worried about botrytis than mildew, given unprecedented early signs of its potential development.

But that quickly dried out thanks to a careful ventilation of the bunches. Giving the (large) size of the berries after the significant rainfall in July and the sudden heat wave at the beginning of August, I made sure that our green-harvest was finished on every parcel by the 15th of August”.

What is clear is that the ideal conditions between now and the harvest would be sunshine, a slight reduction perhaps in temperature and somewhat fresher nights. As she again explained, “the humidity is high and constant, while the berries start to become quite fragile. Our main challenge is to make sure that the vineyard stays perfectly healthy as long as it can catch every last ray of sunlight”.

But what is also clear is that if that happens, the potential is still there: “The first taste of the berries reveals an interesting potential of very complex, if not obvious, flagrances which could provide an intense and refreshing delicacy. I feel curious and thrilled by how subtle the blend could be if the weather conditions are on our side. The very first analyses show low alcohol, low pH but high acidity berries, with already high IPT but anthocyanins levels lower than last year”.

But even then, there is a potential further sting in 2021’s tail. “Another challenge this year has been to find workers during the summer months. Maybe it is because of the whole Covid/‘post’-Covid situation. But with the vines being so wild and the weather conditions so extreme, finding extra hands to take care of the vineyards with us and keeping them motivated and focused has required unwavering tenacity”.

It seems that there has been no aspect of this vintage, which has not been challenging. But I still think we can and should have massive confidence in the collective dedication, vigilance, creativity and passion in and through which these multiple challenges has been responded to. I, for one, will remain optimistic for Bordeaux 2021 until the harvest has been gathered in; only then will we really know.

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