The 2014 Burgundy Harvest…

Update 28.10.2014(25.10.2014)billn

Every vintage is different – the wines that result are a synthesis of what happened during their dormancy and growth-cycles as much as the decisions that were made on how to vinify the grapes and bottle the wines. For vintage 2014, it really starts right after all the last grapes of 2013 were harvested, and after the ground was ploughed. Suddenly in November there are freezing temperatures, and there is even snow on the ground – very picturesque, but this was very early for winter!

The (almost) Winter
If people were expecting a hard winter, it never materialised. There were frosts, and occasional, short-lived temperatures as cold as -5°C, but in truth, winter never really came, it was just an extension of a cool and wet autumn. Farmers of all types like a cold winter, because it keeps check on the number of potential insect pests – we would have to wait for later in the year, to see if their were to be any repercussions…

The (almost) Frost
The ‘almost-winter’ moved very quickly into spring, and it was to be a dry, warm March and April; the sap of the vine started to move very early, and the buds were soon swelling. This caused not a little angst amongst producers afraid of frost – fortunately it never came. It was a much closer-run thing in Chablis though, where the night-time temperatures plumbed -2, -3 and even -4°C. These temperatures would cause serious damage in most years – or at the least, many night-time alarms and the lighting of ‘vineyard candles’ and setting of water-sprays (for those vines with such things!); but 2014 Chablis had an ace up its sleeve – the ground was completely dry. There had been no rain for weeks – practically the whole of March and April had been dry – and dry vines don’t burn as easily with the frost: In damp conditions -1.5°C is curtains for new shoots but when all is dry, the life/death borderline moves to a shade more than -4°C. Save for a few scorched leaves, Chablis had survived the frosts…

The Dryness
The ‘problems’ associated with an early dry spring, were, however, not yet over. In both the Côte d’Or and Chablis, the dry weather delivered two more issues; a) ‘the ground was like concrete’ noted one grower, so it was really hard to make their first ploughings in-between the vines, and b) the planting of new vines in the springtime had a complication – the growers had to return to water-in the young vines, or they would surely die. This watering-in is virtually unheard of in springtime Burgundy, except that growers did remember another vintage where they had to do this – that was 2003! Just to underline that comparison, bud-burst was very early in April, even earlier than the previous record – 2007…

The Flowering
As the chances of frost slowly faded, May and June continued in dry, but slightly cooler fashion. The growing vines were racing away – they were still further ahead of themselves than in 2007 (when the harvest began in August) the next fear was going to be the weather at flowering. I noted the first flowers in Meursault on the 21st May – two weeks later, it was virtually all-over – and to sighs of relief. Bad weather at flowering was responsible for the low Côte de Nuits yields of the last few years – they may have had a lot of fine millerande grapes (due to wind and rain-induced coulure), but they deliver a much lower volume of liquid. There was still a little wind in the Côte de Nuits during the 2014 flowering, but it resulted in a much smaller amount of millerandes. Given the low yields of the last years, due either to poor flowering conditions or hail – or both – there were many growers who hedged their bets a little in 2014 – there seemed to be a lot of clusters on some vines.

5 minutes…
June bestowed great weather on Burgundy, the weather was warm, but not too warm – the vines had slowed down a little and whilst they were still in advance of the average year, they were no-longer outrageously so – it now looked like an early September harvest, not August. Despite terrible storms and hail in the rest of France, the weather still smiled on the vines – until June the 28th. It really took only 5 minutes, but for many domaines, it once-more defined their vintage.

The storm was forecast, but for the first time the new ‘anti-hail’ burners were lit, sending their charged particles into the atmosphere – but there was one major problem – storms normally arrive from the west/south-west so the burners are positioned to meet the prevailing storms before they meet the vines. But in 2014 the storm came from the south/south-east, largely bypassing all those charged particles. It was late-afternoon on Saturday when it came, just a couple of hours before the dinner of the Elegance de Volnay and most of the Côte d’Or and the Côte Chalonaise was hit – even the Côte de Nuits this time – but the epicentre of damage was, once-more, Meursault to Beaune, it seemed that only Chablis was completely spared in 2014. The vines in the strike-zone lost 20-95% of their grapes and much of their canopy of leaves. For the third consecutive year, Volnay and Pommard were laid waste, southern Beaune too – but at-least Savigny was largely spared this time. That evening the Volnay dinner started under heavy rain and in sombre fashion, many a vigneron(ne) had not even ventured into the vines to check the extent of the damage – ‘I’d rather do that tomorrow’ one said. President of the growers syndicate, Thiébault Huber in his address to the diners pointed out that “Once before, Volnay and Pommard had suffered hail in three consecutive years; 1901, 1902, 1903 – but we are still here!” The response was rapturous and the smiles slowly returned to the faces…

Virtually all producers have had ‘discussions’ with their backers – either private or institutional – since the hail, and a significant number are now being ‘helped’ by their banks, with loan payment holidays etcetera – but it can’t go on forever. To put in black and white what it means to a domaine, Nicolas Rossignol shared, at the beginning of October, these figures for his 2014 yields:

  • Pommard Noizons 8 Hl/Ha
  • Beaune 1er cru Reversées 14 Hl/Ha
  • Pommard 1er cru Jarolières , Charmots , Argillieres, Chanlins 11 Hl/Ha
  • Pommard 1er cru Epenots 12 Hl/Ha
  • Beaune Clos des Mouches 8Hl/Ha
  • Volnay 1er cru Santenots 25Hl/Ha
  • Volnay 1er cru Clos des Angles 20Hl/Ha
  • Volnay 1er cru Fremiets 13 Hl/Ha

DSC04685The (almost) Summer
Well, it wouldn’t be fair to have an ‘almost winter’ and no ‘almost summer!’

Of-course the hailed vines needed quick treatment to avoid the onset of rot, but the weather didn’t help much as the Côtes were now trapped in a cycle of inconsistent, cooler weather; one day rain, two days sun, two days rain, one day sun – and so-on. Ordinarily, this would be a nightmare for growers, botrytis would very quickly take a grip of warm, wet vines – but, they had a guardian angel – it was windy for almost the whole of July and August. The wind quickly dried the rain, kept the vines clear from rot and even helped to dry-out the hailed grapes. After the hail of June 28th, the wind was the most significant actor in what ended up being harvested.

The grapes slowly matured and the cooler, inconsistent weather slowed their progress a little further – now it looked more likely that harvesting would be in mid-September. It was really only Thursday/Friday 4th/5th September, that temperatures rose consistently into the late 20s degrees, and the wind dropped too – this combination felt more like a 10° differnce than 5 or 6! One grower noted that in one day alone he had almost 0.8° more of potential alcohol – it was now time to make last preparations for receiving their grapes.

DSC05015The Harvest
Harvest conditions were virtually perfect. Mainly sunny weather – if sometimes a misty, murky start, before the sun burnt that mist away. The week commencing 8th September signaled the start for many in the Mâcon and Côtes Chalonnaise plus those early pickers of chardonnay in the Côte de Beaune. It was the following weekend before producers started to gather in the first of the pinot vineyards – at the same time the domaines of Chablis began their campaign.

The perfect weather was punctuated with heavy rain and a very impressive thunder and lightning show on the evening of Thursday the 18th – it also rained on and off the following day – not a problem for those doing their triage under cover, but hardly pleasant for people in the vines. Friday (19th) lunchtime a thunder-storm hit the vineyards of Santenay – the pickers stopped for the day – post-haste! Saturday (20th) was also damp in the morning before the sun took control in the afternoon. Storms were forecast for Sunday, but none came, just a few short showers of modest rain. By Monday (23rd) it was largely just the pinots of the Côte de Nuits and a few later parcels of Chablis that remained – these were largely brought-in, in sunny but much cooler weather – more like 6°C @ 07h00 and only 15° at 15h00.

Note: I’ve never seen so many harvest machines in Burgundy before. Okay Chablis is (volume) majority machine harvested, half of Irancy too, but in the Côte d’Or? Yes, even here in 2014. I saw harvest machines in both villages and 1er Cru Meursault vines – here are many growers that won’t pay for pickers if the fruit is scruffy – and certainly the hailed areas fell into that category. But reds too? Yes I watched the machines in villages Pommard and on the hill of Beaune’s 1er Crus. All that said, if there was to be one vintage where a machine is reasonably effective on reds, I assume it would be the thick-skinned 2014s – the beating motion of the machine would also, handily, easily dislodge the dried grape material that was derived from the hail. Still, I’m a bit of a Luddite where this is concerned, I don’t like to see it…

The grapes…
The chardonnay was in great shape, dried grapes from the hail needed triage, consequently much of Meursault yielded only about 65% of a normal vintage, but despite the rains of July and August the grapes weren’t too big and had good thick skins. The incidence of rot was rather rare and despite a little oïdium in the summer, treatments seemed to have done their job – virtually none was visible at harvest. The chardonnay was perhaps even better in Chablis. A number of growers have told me that they think this could be the greatest vintage for whites they have witnessed – fine, and good to know, but perhaps a little premature..

The appearance of the pinot was essentially a function of where it was in the Côtes. The Maranges, Santenay and Chassagne looked great, but the Pommard, Volnay and Beaune of the hail strike-zone certainly didn’t. If the grapes of these latter villages didn’t look that great, they were surprisingly easy to triage – the wind, helped by the wide spaces around the grapes, had ensured they had almost zero rot and it had also dried-out the hailed grapes, most of which were dislodged by the vibrating triage tables – of-course, for those domaines that have them. The strike-zone yields were often miserly of-course – I heard 6 hl/ha in Beaune Pertuisots (and don’t forget Rossignol’s numbers above). But there is the prospect of some few very good bottles too. Leaving Beaune and heading north the pinots were resplendent. Heading further north, rare was the normal botrytis rot though a little oïdium could be found here and there and, of-course, important to weed out in the triage. The bunches looked ever-so impressive – but they largely showcased the summer rain as the ‘berry-size’ was bigger than average. To counter-balance the size of the grapes, these pinot skins (probably also a function of the wind) were rather thick. We shall have to wait and see if the flavour from one cancels out the liquid of the other.

Outside of the hail ‘strike-zones’ yields may creep towards their limits, indeed ‘extended’ limits. Where that happens, the strike-zone producers will look on with undisguised envy, yet I heard from many producers that the juice was very hard to extract given the quantity of solid material. Many say that yields will approach ‘correct’ but won’t be as bountiful as in 2009…

The European, non-Suzukii version…
There is devil in the detail for this vintage though – and this is a winged devil – the fruit-fly Drosophila. But not just (in the major part) the standard European version, but one called Suzukii too. The Suzukii fruit-fly is an ‘Asian import’ to Europe with no obvious natural predators. Either because the winter was so mild, or because (as some say) the cherry season lasted so long, they, together with the indigenous flies were to found in abundance at harvest-time – Suzukii has been present in German and Swiss vineyards for some years, but nobody anticipated their arrival in Burgundy. Unfortunately, they congregated just before harvest time too – their bite and egg-laying causing acetic rot (as opposed to botrytis) in bunches that, consequently, could easily be smelled before the picking. Some vineyards were markedly affected, others not at all, but it was necessary to carefully remove not just the rot, but the half-dried grapes too this year, because they often had a nail-varnish remover taste. Grapes from the worst affected vineyards – more often the Côte de Nuits – often saw no cold-soaking, no stems, they were dosed with higher levels of SO2 and were even inoculated with yeasts to get fermentations to start quickly, not to exacerbate the chance for volatile wines. Something else that we will have to, wait-and-see, whether it is visible in the final wines.

Other fauna? A few spiders, a couple of stink-bugs and a few earwigs – all normal. There were a few ladybirds (bugs), mainly (I noted) from Biodynamic vineyards, but like in 2011, with such dry, rot-free clusters they were easily shaken from the bunches on the vibrating tables – and to start with, there were far fewer than in 2011 (maybe 2%) – also I saw none in the cuverie. One thing to note though – I saw my very first Asian ladybird – but only one…

Prospects for the 2014 Vintage…
Well, vintages ending in a …4 have not been things to stock your cellar with since 1964, but with 2014, there’s a high chance of getting a quality bottle. The reds should easily be the best wines for 50 years (again, ending with a …4!) – perhaps even improving on the 1964s for those of you with very long memories. The whites I expect to be hyped, and not just a little, but great things are anticipated. Of-course, we shall have to wait and see…

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