Diary of a Vintage
A WINE YEAR AT CHATEAU GEORGE 7
I update this journal monthly as the wine year is progressing. I have started it in March because the life of the 2019 vintage really starts with pruning after the winter rest. If you are interested in more detail about anything I chat about here, then do get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org
Pruning can be done from a few weeks after the leaves have fallen (so that the sap has returned to the main vine trunk) until a week before bud burst in March. Most tackle this in January/February. One of the advantages of a small vineyard is that we can wait until as late as possible because it only takes a few days and so we avoid exposing the cuts and sensitive forthcoming buds unnecessarily to extreme cold and potential frost damage, protecting them until the last moment. There is even a saying about pruning in March: "Taille tôt, taille tard, rien ne vaut la taille de mars". Once pruned, the wood canes from last year are pulled out. Some collect these 'sarments' to burn in the chimney or on the BBQ (Cab Sav are said to give the best flavour). Burning them in the vines is forbidden in our commune although it used to be done. We shred them in the vineyard so they decompose and feed the soil.
Mid-month, the labels were printed. I am thrilled with the result - this is getting real - but my spirits dropped when I picked up the capsules and they were the wrong colour. There was no time to get them remade before primeur tasting so I had to dash around to find some plain matt black ones. Bottles for tasting are presented dressed with label and the capsule with the top disco removed. We all have to abide by the strict rules of how to present the bottles.
In the last two weeks, the primeur ambience starts building as everyone prepares their samples and folks start arriving (and tasting) for the #Bdx2018 #Enprimeur. Chateau George 7 was tasted outside the winery for the first time at a critiqued blind tasting at the Maison des Vins of Fronsac along with 35+ of its peers. This was a tear-pricking emotional and proud moment. I just loved it - especially when the room started murmuring and commenting on it. I have put lots more detail about that morning in my blog.
Official primeurs week is Monday to Thursday the first week of April yet critics, journalists and merchants can kick off earlier and many continue well after the official 4 days.Chateau George 7 presented 'en primeur' for the first time at La Salle des Dominicains in St Emilion with peers from Fronsac, Pomerol and St Emilion. Open to the trade only, I was delighted to taste with winemaker friends, UK, French and other European distributors and even the camera crew of a French news channel which aired the next day. The wine was tasting really well - I had great feedback and was slightly overwhelmed. Read about the character of the wine aka Madame Merlot in my blog.
The wine was also tasted at Oenoteam, the laboratory that Bruno is attached to and who are a key player in the new wave of oenologues and consultants in Bordeaux. Here, in the privacy of Oenoteam's facility, various high-level influencers and buyers tasted and noted. My role? To drop off a sample each day over 3 weeks when visitors were scheduled and (im)patiently wait to see if anyone would mention the inaugural vintage of a new Chateau. This all paid off when The Wine Advocate published their report by Lisa Perrotti-Brown and I got a tasting note and a score. More tears I admit. What has seemed as a real folly many times during the purchase and continued investment in time, emotion not to mention money over the last four years, is all validated by a WhatsApp from Bruno re the published score. I didn't believe it until I saw it for myself on the Wine Advocate website.
The weather has been Spring-like with some very warm days up at around 22°C , a couple of storms but a lot less rain than normal - we could do with more. I can feel the change that I have turned into a farmer being preoccupied by the weather and never completely happy!! We had a nail biting couple of nights mid-month when Jack Frost paid a visit but luckily kept his fingers from the buds. Some vineyards on the Right Bank started their turbines to move the air or lit hundreds of special candles in the rows. I don't have resources to do that as yet so I am at the mercy of nature . As of the end of April, the shoots are flourishing. Long may it last.
I met with Philippe Hermouet, the current head of the Syndicat of the Fronsac Appellation who also happens to be a neighbour here in Saillans. I want to be involved in supporting and helping promote #Fronsac which is so often written about as 'underrated'. So let's stop underrating and rate it!
4-5: On Saturday 4th, while enjoying a barbecue in St Emilion, we stood outside with our eyes to the sky – an oh-so clear night coupled with dropping temperatures meant the dreaded forecast of frost was probably right. Around 5am Sunday morning, my neighbour lit fires using bales of hay and I watched the flames dotted over the slopes around Ch George 7, and at dawn I walked the rows of vines to the drone of a distant helicopter. The danger of a Spring frost is that the heat of the rising sun scorches the cold shoots. Smoke makes a cloud around the vines and protects the shoots as the sun rises. After 2 nights, people were talking about the damage – nothing like 2017 but some reported 30% loss or more - especially in the St Emilion satellite villages. Fronsac was mostly spared and I escaped with virtually no damage. The 'Saints de Glace' (Ice Saints) dates are always 11-13 May. Since the Middle Ages, these three nights have been noted as the last threat of Spring frost after which we can all sleep easier in our beds. We sailed through the Saints with lowest temperatures in double digits – phew!
By the third week of the month, the vines were on the verge of flowering – tight green bobbles that look like mini grape bunches are in fact tiny individual flowers with a cap that will burst and then be pollinated by the wind in order to form the fruit. The vines seem to have plenty of flowers. Likewise the hedgerow plants are growing as are the cover crops between the vines. These are planted to improve the organic matter in the soil and broaden the eco-system in the vineyard. When grass and weeds get too high under the vines, we don't use herbicides to kill them off but mow or turn the soil.
Late May: With warmer weather interspersed with showers, the vine foliage was growing fast bringing plenty of work to do in the vines: ‘levage et épamprage’ where long shoots need tucking into the wires to train them in the right direction and non-fruit bearing or extra branches are taken off to focus the strength of the plant along with some mowing (see before and after photos). It was a fabulous time to be in the vines –Spring days warming up to reach 20-23°C although we had showers and blowy days too! The vines are now ready for their next major role: pollination and fruit set.
Early June saw the temperatures go over 30°C - a taste of summer - and in the vineyard, the flowers burst and pollinated so the small berries formed. We had some rain just at the wrong time which challenged the even pollination of the bunches but overall the fruit has set well. Merlot is renowned for sometimes having issues with fruit set - called 'coulure' in French - as do Malbec and Petit Verdot. Each stage of development achieved, feels like another hurdle in the journey to harvest, aka the 'finish line'.
Meanwhile, 2018 was still going down well at an en primeur event @ Davyswineshop in London and maturing nicely in barrel.
Early in the month, we also had the AGM of the Fronsac Appellation. We now have a new president - Damien, the winemaker from Château Gaby - along with new committee members. We discussed present and future evolutions of grape varieties to be allowed in Fronsac and I learned that the restrictions on chemical weeding have been in place in this AOC for more than 10 years - before many others started looking at it. Talking of sustainability, June saw a couple of sprayings with 'bouillie bordelaise' - the copper and sulphur mixture that is widely used including in organic farming - to protect against mildew and grey rot. because there has been plenty of humidity around despite rising temperatures. As the month comes to a close, we are busy with more tucking in and trimming the tops of the vines to keep them orderly as the leaves continue to proliferate.
This month, I also heard that I had been accredited as an official tutor for the Ecole du Vin de Bordeaux. I took the training and exam in May and now I am looking forward to teaching folks from the trade or accompanying visiting press groups who will be coming to Bordeaux to learn more about what we do.
In July, we had some extraordinarily hot weather. 'La canicule’ in French. Temperatures reached 42°C one day in the vineyard and we had high 30’sC for days on end with the nights hardly giving us any respite. The hot days stress the vines which is not an issue in itself - they can take the stress. However, over 40°C is getting extreme and real problems occur when nights do not cool down below 20°C which means the vines do not rest. It was touch and go the third week of July, if we would have some heat damage. We are not allowed to irrigate in Fronsac as is the case with all French appellations (despite mention in the rule book that we are permitted to ‘in extreme weather conditions’ ) But with 35 year old vines, they have very deep roots and we trust they can reach deep down to muster moisture. Luckily, with no windows in the winery and thick walls, the barrels and wine manage to keep their cool even in extreme heat.
However, we had to do something to stop the young plants of the hedgerow from expiring. We collected some recycled water and around 80m of hose to water the 370 metres of young hedgerow who do not have the root system to support a heatwave. Then late in the month, the clouds broke and we had two days of rain. Phew!
At the end of the month we were delighted to welcome Jane Anson, Bordeaux expert, journalist and author for her first visit and together we tasted both 2018 wines: Château George 7 and Prince, as well as the little 2017 we managed to make but still has not been bottled. Fingers crossed she will see fit to mention us in future writing.
Veraison (from the French word ‘véraison’) started in the first week of August. This is when the berries change colour, they soften and the sugar volume goes up with the accumulation of fructose and glucose. Also in the first week, Ben from Davy’s of London came to taste both 2018 and our 2017. It is around the 5th time that he has tasted the 2018 and happily reported that it is delicious each time. (Phew!)
The month also started with a few rainy days interspersing the hot summer ones which was very welcome. Before heading off for holidays, we just had time to do one more run through the vines tucking in, tying up stray branches and one final spray of copper to stop the moisture from the rain causing any problems as the grapes ripen and mature.
In the winery, the sibling wine of Château George 7 called ‘Prince,’ is enjoying a few months in the French oak 500l barrels before they are emptied and prepared for receiving the 2019 harvest.
Starting at the end of August and into the first week of September it was deleafing time – paring back the foliage over the ripening bunches so that not only can the sun get to the grapes but to ensure free air flow through the vines so that if it rains, the breeze can dry the bunches quickly and stop any disease or rot setting in. The weather was warm and sunny at the start of the month but because we wait until the last minute before harvesting for optimum flavour, we need to be prepared in case rains sets in before picking.
We had plenty of visitors during September from far and wide – friends who were discovering Bordeaux for the first time and folks I had met while travelling. Great practice for next year when I will have an official tasting space and wine in bottle !
Then came preparation for harvest – deep cleaning of the winery and the wooden barrels, the arrival of a new stainless steel vat and adapting the racks to be able to use a machine to turn the large barrels. We had a touch of rain which was very welcome because the grapes were rather concentrated due to the heat and low water reserves so all ready for another great year.….
It was all about the harvest on the weekend of 5th and 6th October. What a really special time with friends and family as we gathered in exactly the same quantity on the same date as last year. Spooky! Take a look at the story in pictures - our video was filmed during harvest weekend and here are some photos too - no more words needed.