Not content with harvest stints in McLaren Vale in Australia and Marlborough on New Zealand’s South Island, our ‘Flying Wine Writer’ Nikki completes a hat-trick of 2015 vintages in Bordeaux.
Here’s her first of two reports from Le Chai au Quai in Castillon.
Wednesday 30th September
Bottling of a decade-old treasure
Today was an exciting day at Le Chai – the team arrived at 7am to greet the mobile bottling line. Not exciting in itself, but today our 2005 Font del Bosc vin doux naturel from Maury was going to emerge from a decade in barrel and be bottled. Ah – that is some wine. We had a glass of it in the winemakers’ lab to swirl and sniff all day – rich, dark, raisiny fruit, with hints of honey, mocha and big spice. Still really fruity and lush – this is a wine, in small bottles, to savour slowly with select company, a bowl of nuts to crack and a roaring fire.
Not only that, Le Chai also took delivery of 33 one-year-old barrels from Château Valandraud. They might not be brand new, but they are still a hugely expensive item on the shopping list. They’ll be excellent for our Le Grand Chai clarets.
Over the last three weeks, all the whites for Le Chai’s wines – both Bordeaux and southern France – have been harvested, and in peak condition. The juice has been brought to the cellar and has been slowly bubbling away.
Let’s start with Bordeaux and it’s been a phenomenal year – wonderfully warm, dry weather since March; shorts weather since May and peaks of heat in June and some good rain mid September which saved the vines from totally shutting down. Not even too hot for the whites, we just had to pick sharpish. Some amazing storms, too, at the end of August, when the whole landscape, in typical French storm style, was lit up by sheet lightning. No rain, however, the clouds had dropped their load before they got to us.
So all the Bordeaux whites are in the cellar, some are even through their fermentation, with a few still chugging away.
The east side of the Midi was equally blessed in 2015 too, with a great deal of sunshine and fine weather through flowering and on ‘til harvest. West side of the Midi suffered some flooding, but our Limoux vineyards, on the Océan Atlantique sector, are luckily t’other side.
Having spent a whole day taking samples from every one of the 59 barrels of La Voûte – that’s the Chardonnay from down there – I can tell you it’s smelling totally lush. Coming straight from wood it’s a bit creamy, toasty with some intense ripe apricot fruit and lemon character. Very, very promising indeed. One of the best ever for sure.
Thursday 1st October
Inspecting the vineyards for grape ripeness
October already and this morning had been put aside for winemakers Mark, Jean-Marc and estates manager Vincent Galineau to go around all the many parcels of vineyards and assess just how ready they were for harvesting. That was mainly the Merlots – Cabernets will be harvested a week or two later. We set off on foot to visit the closest La Clarière plots, inspect the grapes, the stems, leaves, pips, then taste them and conclude.
Tell-tale signs of ripeness
It was a great lesson from the masters on methods of gauging ripeness – the obvious ie the grape colour, berry size, but then if the stems of the bunches and the pips were brown that was another sign to pick up on. Giving the vines a gentle shake – did the berries fall off? Squashing the grapes between your fingers – did it give off the deep purple black hue from the skins? It certainly did at a good many of the vineyards. Then tasting a berry – how green were the acids, how thick were the skins, how much flavour was there, how green were the tannins? All these considerations come into play and need to be in balance.
It was amazing how much variation there was between plots, definitely between grape varieties, but then that’s why each vineyard is vinified separately.
Jean-Marc gave us a little lesson on spotting the difference between Merlot and Cab Sauvignon. As you can see from the picture, the Merlot has bigger leaves with fewer lobes; Cabernet’s have overlapping lobes, which are smaller and more pronounced in shape. The Cabernet berries tend to be smaller too, so less compact, the skins thicker and chewier.
Then there are the older vineyards – the 60+ years – that are mixed grape varieties. That’s just what you did in those days. You planted what you needed and harvested them all at once.
La Tertre vineyard was an interesting one. Between some rows it was grassed over, others were all roughed up. It looked odd. And the reason? Knowing how the sengliers (wild boar) roam this locality the forward-thinking team had left some rows without grass, so these wild boars could snuffle their way through the earth and find all the grubs they were after. Saved the beasts destroying other valuable areas.
[pic caption: Wild boar are common in the area and can eat the grapes and damage the vineyard. The answer, JMS has decided, is to grass over some rows and leave some rough for the boar to get the grubs etc] [grassed or boar]
Having been round all the vineyards, it was certain: we would be harvesting all 20-plus hectares Saturday and Sunday. A busy weekend.
A little lesson in why St-Emilion and Castillon are planted on the special chalk/calcaire soil
The prized calcaire soils of Saint-Emilion and Castillon only became planted with vines because nothing else would grow there. All the lower flat land lay by the river and was clay-based and fertile – ideal for crops and cattle. The locals centuries ago wanted somewhere to put their vines and that was all that was left. And it just turned out that these super-poor soils produced the best grapes for wine. Necessity turns out to be the best outcome.
Also on barrel sizes
That same happy coincidence occurred with barrel-capacity. 225 litres was the size chosen in Bordeaux as they were the largest possible that the journeymen could roll onto the boats. And research since has shown that out of all the different barrels made, and we’re talking about smart wine for ageing, this is the best. Practicality proving the best designer.
Thursday afternoon, we were summoned at 4pm to the new home of Château La Clarière – the cellars have been lovingly restored, the fermenting vats (concrete tanks as is now fashionable among the Grands Crus) relined and all ready to go. Le Syndicat de Bordeaux wanted a picture of the team to talk of its new home.