Paul Pontallier, technical director
Tuesday, Oct. 12, 4 p.m.
Margaux wrapped up its harvest last Thursday, Oct. 7, but Paul Pontallier has been busy in the winery, checking on the fermentations and tasting the developing wines.
"So far we have started to draw off the Merlot, and we are tasting the first Cabernet," he reports, adding that the last tanks will finish fermenting in the next two days. "I'm extremely pleased. I think it's a very good vintage for us. I haven't heard a lot from the other parts of Bordeaux because I've been too busy, but as far as we are concerned, the Merlot is very good and the Cabernet is remarkable. It's not as big and tough as '95 or '98; I think it looks more like '96 stylistically. It's too early, of course, to assess the quality of the vintage, but it could be as good as last year, potentially even better."
Recapping the past couple of weeks, Pontallier explains, "We had extremely fine weather for the last days of the harvest; that's what led us to delay a little bit. I am happy to have done that -- our last plot of Cabernet ripened a little more, which was most welcome."
After the chateau started its red harvest, on Sept. 23, "We had not such wonderful weather," he says. "Until Oct. 3, the weather was quite wet. We had rain, not huge rain, but comparable to what we got in '98, '96 and '95. We stopped picking for a while and we lost some time.
"All the rain we received, certainly part was unnecessary -- and this is an understatement -- but part of it was helpful for the maturity of the Cabernet. It's difficult to understand really what happens; our knowledge is limited of how a vine grows. Who knows exactly what has happened, what has to happen? Let's concentrate on facts -- that's the wine, and the wine is much better than one would have expected with the poor weather at harvest. But I can't tell you why."
The good weather in late August and early September had a big influence, bringing sugar levels in the red grapes up to high levels: between 13 percent and 14 percent potential alcohol for the Merlot and 11 percent to 12 percent for the Cabernet. "This is very high for Cabernet in Bordeaux," Pontallier comments.
Fortunately, the rain didn't result in a significant amount of rot in the vineyards. "There's always a little bit," he explains. "If we want the maturity to be perfect, we have to go as late as possible, and that's as long as rot doesn't become a true problem. It has to be at an acceptable level, and that's as long as we still gain more than we lose [by leaving the grapes on the vine]."
In the end, the 1999 yields were about average for Margaux, which averages about 3.7 tons per acre. "It was almost exactly comparable to last year," says Pontallier. "The Merlot was a little more, the Cab a little less."
Looking back on the harvest, how would Pontallier sum it up? "As usual, unusual," he says with a laugh. "It's always something new. It's so difficult to compare, of course, the wine -- but even the condition of its birth -- to any previous one. It's hasn't been especially uneasy, but it was sometimes disconcerting. We didn't believe in early August, when we were in those pretty wet conditions, that the vintage could be that good. Then when the weather changed and turned so good, we turned optimistic. Then when the rain started again, we were disappointed. Then when we taste the wine, we feel quite euphoric. As usual, we go from optimism, to pessimism, back to optimism, to pessimism, depending on the weather and the poor understanding we have of its consequences on the grapes."
Wednesday, Sept. 22, 4 p.m.
"We have finished the white harvest," reports Paul Pontallier happily. "We had excellent conditions. Of course, it's too soon to decide if it's a very good or great vintage, but everything was there to make a great wine. We were a little concerned because the level of sugar was a record high. I was afraid of a stuck fermentation, but so far fermentation is going very well.
"As far as the red harvest, we haven't really seriously started yet," he continues. "We had a lot of rain on Monday and Tuesday, and we had planned to start on Monday. It's the same kind of beginning as the '95, '96 and '98 vintages, which is why I'm not pessimistic, because those three vintages were just remarkable. It's just a matter of what the weather will be like -- if we have really good weather now, it should be same as '95 and '96.
"The Merlot grapes we have just started harvesting. They are ripe, and they will be harvested within two or three days. The Cabernet we look forward to harvesting early next week. The rain didn't affect the health of the Merlot because it hasn't had time. There is a slight dilution, but it is acceptable. I don't think the Merlot will be badly affected. Even for the Cabernet it could be a good thing. We needed this rain; it should allow them to get riper than we expected. It also has some bad effects, and we don't know what the exact balance of bad and good is."
Wednesday, Sept. 15, 5 p.m.
"So far, the vintage looks marvelously good," reports Paul Pontallier from Bordeaux, where the harvest is proceeding on a normal schedule. "To make a long story short, after a not-so-wet but not-so-dry early summer, we had marvelous weather starting on August 12. It was hot and dry, as we all hope the weather to be in Bordeaux, and it has lasted, so we have had one month of extremely good weather. We had one night of rain, from Sunday to Monday, which I think is extremely beneficial because it was so dry.
"We are just finishing our harvest of Sauvignon Blanc today, with record levels of sugar. We have never seen it so high before, so it should be exceptional quality. The potential alcohol is an average of 14 percent, and the grapes are extremely concentrated, so [the wine] shouldn't be unbalanced, because everything is concentrated. We had the same situation last year and in 1996, but the alcohol was not quite as high -- about 13.7 percent.
"Now we are trying to guess when we will be starting to harvest the reds. I think we should start harvesting the Merlot early next week and Cabernet Sauvignon the week after. The health of the grapes is perfect, and the maturity is almost perfect, but we are quite difficult, so we want to reach something exceptional.
"Now, all depends on the conditions we have from here on. We may have very bad conditions. In this case, I am sure we can at least produce a good wine -- it's already a given. If we have reasonably good conditions, we can produce an exceptional wine. For next week, they forecast that we should have some rain -- and we can afford some -- and a few days of sunshine. It's not clearly bad or good, it's in between."