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2015 – The growing season

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Hot or not?
2015 was clearly a hot, if largely an easy vintage for the producers – but how does that compare to others with the same ‘label?’

The 1976 vintage stays in our awareness as a hot vintage, particularly if you’re British, as here was indeed a hot, yellowed grass summer that etched itself into my (then, 13 year-old) memory. In Burgundy everything started early; according to producers March was more like June weather, but they also tell that it was actually never very hot, but it was very, very dry. The dryness left the wines quite austere and tannic. There were many fewer people bottling in the 1970s than today, so in theory then, it was mainly people who knew what they we doing who were bottling, still, the young wines were certainly hard to drink, hence, it wasn’t an easy vintage to commercialise. Many bottles stayed in the cellars as they were hard to sell. I don’t know how the whites tasted young, but currently I find the survivors super and still more fun than the reds, though those are much nicer than they were 5 years ago…

The 2003 vintage was indeed an incredibly hot vintage in Burgundy. I remember certain cellars in Gevrey-Chambertin – admittedly not the deepest – that were above 26°C in July/August, though that still felt thankfully cool! Unlike 2015, this was really a vintage of trials and tribulations. Like 2015, the first few months of the year were wet, and like 2015, probably fortunately so. The bud-break was in March – which is very early – so unsurprisingly it was frosted and yields were cut by at least a quarter. The summer heat was unrelenting – even at night – this is rather different to 2015 where generally the nights remained cool. Up and down the Côte d’Or there was also hail in 03. Many a producer will describe large quantities of dried grapes at harvest and difficult triage, one even describing the sound of the grapes at sorting ‘like rocks in a metal bucket‘ – really a world away from the virtually perfect 2015 grapes. Acidities in both colours was lower than observed for the 2015s too. Like 1976, 2003 was not a great commercial success – despite low yields the prices in Euros were largely static – a highly unlikely outcome for 2015…

It seems that 1976 and 2003 are very different beasts to what was delivered in 2015:

December
The winter months…

  • The starting point for any new vintage always begins with the end-point of the previous year. Frankly, there was no real winter – a few days that may have plumbed -5°C or-so, but there were no extended sub-zero temperatures. The only snow in the Côte d’Or during the 2014/2015 winter was a dusting in November, and then another at the start of February. All growers will tell you that such a lack of sustained cold weather is sub-optimal, as the cold helps to limit the insect populations which will include many potential pest species – the most prevalent of-which in 2014 was the indigenous fruit fly and a related import the drosophila suzukii – though admittedly, it was more the mid-vintage conditions in 2014 that caused the drosophila boom.

May
Springtime…

  • It was a relatively early Spring but with modest temperatures. The bud-break was a little earlier than the average, but really it was only marginally so. And so it continued with rather unremarkable weather, until unexpectedly warm temperatures arrived; it was as if flicking a switch from cool to hot in late May – some days in the 30°s – it was really more like June temperatures.

    DSC06192-001There was a little hail in mid-May, in Chassagne and St.Aubin, there were also patches in Blagny, parts of Meursault and even a little Pommard. In the main, it was just a question of a few perforated leaves, a few latent clusters of flowers were struck, but basically nothing of concern – it would have been much more problematic if it had happened during flowering.

    The first flowers appeared about 6 days later than 2014, about the 24th May. Across the whole of the Mâconnais to Chablis region, quite hot temperatures and no strong wind or rain – textbook flowering weather.

    Flowering was about 95% complete when wind and rain arrived – one week earlier would have been a bit of a disaster, but the growers were happy. There was a few days of strong wind that followed but then it became calm. Note that in the areas hailed for the last years, and particularly affecting the old vines. Pruning had to be modified and done very carefully in the 3x hailed vines, so as not to snap the damaged ‘canes’, as such, indicative yields of not more than 20hl/ha were common. It became clear that despite the good flowering conditions, the yields looked correct, rather than bountiful, for whites and ‘reasonable’ for reds – so certainly much less than 2009, for many the Côte de Nuits, probably less than 2014 too.

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Early Summer…

  • June: It was dry and calm until Sunday night, on the 14th, when the rain started late in the evening. Monday the 15th was torrential rain – sprint across a courtyard in Beaune and it was like entering the shower, clothed. But, so far, the vines had enjoyed relatively modest rain in the year, so this was welcomed by vigneron(ne)s with open arms. It rained plenty in Chablis too, though less than in the Côte d’Or, unfortunately for some of them, the Beaujolais and most of the Mâconnais remained dry…

    Post 15th June, the weeks rolled by with daily temperatures over 30°, indeed some of 40°C or more – the vineyards slowly became dryer and dryer, the grass turning golden. On the positive side, this dryness meant no pressure from botrytis, and the damp habitat exploited by the fruit flies of 2014 was completely absent. There were still some problems, however, mainly with oïdium – grey rot that tends to spread through the humidity of the early morning dews. Whilst oïdium was not limited to the Côte de Nuits, this was the main infection zone – some producers treated fast and it was gone, others needed more work, right up to and including the harvest. The weather was such that many producers lived a more Mediterranean existence – starting in the vines at 5am, eating lunch then taking a siesta before beginning the second part of their day at about 6pm, working until twilight.

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Mid-Summer…

  • bivb-rainOn the 20th July, a very interesting data set appeared (ex BIVB, right) indicating that 2015 had some similarities to 2003. The average temperature in July 2015 was (so-far!) one degree higher than the same in 2003, (though June 2003 was warmer than 2015) the veraison (grape colour change) was virtually in-line with 2003. So far, anyway…

    Also the 20th July was a ‘forest/brush’ fire between Marsannay and Chenôve on the plateau on the hill. Dramatic pictures followed and residents were evacuated from some homes. The next day it caught once-more but on a slightly lower level. Some pictures that followed showed the highest vines in Marsannay Clos du Roi had been roasted, but fortunately just the first row…

    The fire, copyright France 3 Bourgogne, the vines copyright Cyril Audoin.

    Of-course, as soon as you publish data showing no rain, it rains! The first July rain arrived on Wednesday the 22nd July, and it was really the first rain on the ground (a few drops the previous Saturday, discounted) since mid-June. It lasted just one day, and to begin with only one hour, but the air temperature dropped to what felt like, a wonderful, 25°C. mercureyDepending where you were in the Côtes, it was anywhere between a ‘thankful 10mm’ to barely 1mm in places such as Mercurey, and the Mercurey fire-fighters were also employed extinguishing a fire in the woods above the vines, just like in Marsannay (right):

    In the previous days, many domaines had already made their last treatments and made the last trimming of the vine-canopy in preparation for their holidays. As of the weekend beginning Saturday 25th July, most domaines were officially on holiday!

    Sunday the 26th: Ouf! That’s cool – a mere 22°C, a little wind, and even rain in the evening. Monday the 27th it’s dry again, but still cool – again 21-22°C but with quite some wind. st-aubinActually the wind is going to be really helpful to help keep the oïdium at bay. Still, we need plenty more rain – much of the veraison is taking place at a snail’s-pace – there is certainly a little blockage of maturity, and it’s down to the dry conditions, not the heat. See, above, the falling leaves of one young-vine plot in St.Aubin (courtesy of Olivier Lamy).

    August:
    Like much of June and almost all of July, August was very hot. Finally in the second week of August, there was rain – and proper rain too – almost 100mm over a few days. It really seemed that every time this year that things looked critical for the vines (here you should read ‘the young vines’ as the older vine’s roots never seemed troubled by lack of rain), the rain would come to their rescue.

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Vendanges! The whites:

  • Yes, I know it was still August! So 2003, some in 2007, and now 2015 with harvests beginning in August. The first harvesters were in the vines about the 27th of August – and all the big names in whites had pretty much completed their white harvest before the 5th of September. Frankly it was rather hot weather for harvesting – I hope that most of the domaines had the chance to cool their fruit a little (or a lot!). There were some dissenters in Meursault who suggested that the early pickers were wasting a chance in a generation for perfectly, phenolicly (sp?), ripe grapes – pretty much an alien concept in Burgundy. We shall see, won’t we(?)

    Further to the north, much of Chablis was planning to start picking on Friday the 4th of September, but with appalling timing, hail unleashed itself across a corridor of vines through the core of the appellation – on the 1st of September, just 3 days (out of a whole year!) before they planned to start… For the rest of Chablis it was an incredible rain-storm with 100mm of rain in just a few hours, a record, but no more. At the time, vigneron(ne)s and the BIVB estimated that 300-600 hectares had been hit by the hail, though well over 5,000 hectares had been spared.

    hail-chablisThe storm forced affected producers to bring harvesting in the hailed areas forward as quickly as possible. Most were already in the vines on Thursday, often with the help of their neighbours. Fortunately for those affected (in Saint-Bris and Irancy too), there was sufficient wind after the storm that the vineyards were reasonably dry, and they could harvest before any issues with rot.

    Shortly afterwards, the BIVB clarified the scope of those vines affected; the hail traveling from Irancy to Chablis, through Chitry and Courgis, affecting Chablis 1er cru Montmains, including Butteaux and Forêts, crossing Chablis town, damaging the grand crus of Les Clos and Blanchots and the nearby 1er crus of Montée de Tonnerre plus some of 1er cru Mont de Milieu.

    Thoughts on whites at harvest:
    Chablis I’ll be covering following my visits in January 2015. The white grapes of the Mâconnais were very clean when harvested, requiring almost no triage, but they had suffered more drought than in the Côte d’Or – even those old vines with deep roots. Producers, even those that picked very early, saw potential alcohols of 14% or more and lo acidities. It will vary, of-course, but I’m expecting a lot of heavy wines in 2015 with a Mâcon label. The white grapes of the Côte d’Or were also harvested in very fine shape with very little to triage. Yields were described as ‘correct’ so you can take for granted that many producers had 45-50 hl/ha or more. There was almost no rot, just some occasional oïdium and the usual leaves to be discarded. Unusually there was a mix of very green and completely golden grapes yet the difference in taste was marginal. The overall acidity was modest if not particularly low – pH’s of 3.1-3.3 were common – but the quantity of malic acid (which later converts to lactic acid) in the 2015 grapes (both colours) was much lower than usual, so very little acidity will be lost during the malolactic fermentation. Potential alcohols were, in the main, 12.5-13.0 plus. Great red vintages are rarely reciprocated with the whites, but at this stage there seems both balance and concentration – tasting in 12 months will be intriguing. NB many producers were ecstatic with the quality of their aligoté grapes in this vintage…

DSC07866
Vendanges! The reds:

  • Given the summer heat, a few vignerons suggested that they might pick only 95 days after flowering, rather than the more traditional 100. Most of the domaines of the Côte de Beaune and indeed in the Côte Chalonnaise too – began their harvests between the 2nd and 4th of September, more like 92 days, the Côte de Nuits about 4-5 days later. Quite a number were finished before rain about 14th which lasted, on and off, for 4 days. Normally Laurent Ponsot is the last to start and the to finish too – this year I believe he finished about the 21st, but Pierre Damoy was finishing a parcel of Bèze on the 22nd – I’m not aware of anyone finishing later – but let me know if you are…

    2015 pinot fruit was exceptional for a number of reasons:

    1. Less than 1% was triaged, including all forms of rot – there was actually more oïdium (more typically in the Côte de Nuits fruit) than botrytis – I’ve never seen that before. Fruit from the Chalonnaise was equally magnificent.
    2. The skins of the fruit were incredibly thick and crunchy, yet with no bitterness. Very robust!
    3. The fingers of triagers (my fingers!) quickly became brown as if a long-time smoker of 100 cigarettes per day, such was the staining power of the tannins.
    4. Sugars were very high, triagers (me again!) sticking to the juice-stained triage tables even more-so than was the case in 2005.
    5. The amount of unripe fruit was as low as I’ve ever seen – except (certainly academically) for the pinot gris. Normally this passes along the table without issue, but this year it simply wasn’t as ripe as the pinot noir at harvest time.
    6. Talking of ripeness, some of the lowest appellations delivered potential alcohols higher than allowed by their AOCs! I feel some creativity on the side of producers may be required 😉

    Like the white grapes of the Côte d’Or, the pinot was harvested in exceptional shape with very little to triage. Yields were often significantly lower than had been expected; to be honest, and across many vineyards, I saw little in the way of millerande bunches, certainly not like (for instance) 2010, but the level of juice was relatively modest despite not particularly small berries, maybe due to the very thick skins. In the 3x hailed vineyards of the Côte de Beaune, there were many vines that still delivered less than 10 hl/ha – miserly amounts. Some people in the Côte de Nuits will have made their hoped-for yields, many will have produced only 50-60% of ‘allowed’ yields. The colour of the grapes was often as black as I’ve ever seen. I also expect the sale of sugar was at a historical low at the supermarkets this year.

    Thoughts on reds at harvest:
    The overall acidity was surprisingly not bad – pH’s of 3.2-3.4 were common – again the quantity of malic acid was lower than usual, so, just like the whites, very little acidity will be lost during the malolactic fermentations. Potential alcohols were, in the main, 12.8-14.0 plus. I have zero doubt that 2015 will be an exceptional vintage for red wines. In which particular directions it will be exceptional should become evident in another 8-10+ months – we should remain patient – though some producers are already getting requests for allocations before they have sold their 2014s! Regardless of ‘great’ or ‘exceptional’ pronouncements (et-cetera) we should remain wary that this was indeed a very hot year, and a fresh vintage that follows a ripe one (if it follows) is always preferred by the (self-proclaimed) ‘purists’ – even if somebody does say ‘sell your house to buy these wines!’ It will be great to see what they become, but the 2014s taste so good right now, I’m pretty sure that I can wait!

2 responses to “2015 – The growing season”

  1. William Black

    Dear Bill,
    Many thanks for a very comprehensive report on the conditions for 2015.
    Its coming up to Subscription renewal time and I’m struggling.
    I love the site, the content, your palette, so whats missing? I used to log on, once, twice a week , now maybe once a month – maybe.
    I really used to like the Big Red Diary. When did that become a photo album? I know a picture is worth a 1000 words but I want to read your words not look at your pictures, unless its more of you and the vignerons, preferably with a snap or two of the bottles you had that evening and what they were like.
    The BRD is free, Im not surprised now, but I would happily pay the subscription fee for the old version. Weekly tasting notes with innovative and original pictures of empty or half empty bottles with buy/rebuy – great stuff , I miss it!
    And before you go saying that its all included in the village review or domaine report , great , thats fine for horizontals and verticals but Im looking for a report as you’ve tasted them, whats come out of your cellar or your fridge last night, what you recently picked up on spec or maybe even been given by a grateful merchant or god forbid, a subscriber.
    I know you can’t please everyone, but I used to find the BRD a real pleasure.
    Yours sincerely
    W

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