The Social Distance Vintage: Harvest in Bordeaux

While picking required creativity and an ocean of hand sanitizer, leading château owners report promising wines

The Social Distance Vintage: Harvest in Bordeaux
A worker picks Cabernet at Château Haut-Bailly in Bordeaux. Wineries had to be creative to keep workers distanced and safe. (Philippe Lopez/AFP)
Oct 23, 2020

Harvest in Bordeaux is normally a time of celebration—the pinnacle of a growing season of hard work. Everyone on the château team joins harvesters and out-of-town guests in the vineyard to pick, often stopping for a lunch of good food and wine.

This year was not quite the same. "[We had an almost] military organization to protect everyone," explained Veronique Dausse, general manager at Château Phélan Ségur. "Liters of gel hydroalcoolique [aka hand sanitizer]. Masks compulsory for everybody inside and outside. Disinfection of baskets and scissors several times a day. Everything took more time."

Despite the challenge of a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in France, Bordeaux has brought in its 2020 harvest. Leading vintners report the wines are promising, delivering a high note at the end of a chaotic growing season.

Both the growing season and the harvest, and now the vinification, have unfolded against the backdrop of the pandemic, with authorities imposing frequently changing restrictions as infection rates ebb and surge. In the Bordeaux region, hand gel and face masks are ubiquitous, and the wine trade has quickly adapted.

Damien Barton Sartorious, whose family owns châteaus Léoville Barton and Langoa Barton in St.-Julien, reports that when the pandemic started, social distancing rules were implemented for vineyard work, with one person per plot. When a task brought people closer, they donned face shields.

At Château Giscours in Margaux, the management quickly realized that the estate could help the winery team isolate and stay safe. With its forests, lake, stables, cow pastures and vegetable gardens, the property was its own rural hamlet. Twenty families live on the estate.

"We had never felt this village feeling of what Giscours is," reflected general manager Alexander van Beek. "To live during a confined moment, together, with the vegetables from the garden, the meat that comes from our cattle, it's a dimension that sometimes we forget in this very fast-living world. You forget to see what is in front of you."

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Come harvesttime, most vintners developed real concerns about establishing protocols for guaranteeing the safety of the work force and the timely picking of the harvest at optimal ripeness. "If one person in the team got COVID, then the whole team would have been taken out," said Barton Sartorius. "And then how do you pick the grapes?" Normally they hire their own pickers; this year they relied on a subcontractor, who had more flexibility to assemble small cohorts and keep them separate.

At Giscours, they rely on 180 pickers—international students, interns, and even a village in Poland that has sent a group every year for 18 years. "They come in one big bus. We have a wonderful campsite for them," said van Beek. "We were very worried we would have a border blockage between Germany and France, and then of course the Polish would not be able to come. But they made it just in time."

Other groups are housed on the property. "We had to put together certain protocols for them—masks, washing their hands, and we keep them in specific cohorts," said van Beek.

Van Beek was philosophical about the challenges. "It's part of life and you have to be creative and find a way to go forward."

Sorting red grapes
Team members sort grapes before they go into the vats at Chateau Haut-Bailly. (Photo by Philippe Lopez/ AFP)

A chaotic but rewarding season

The harvest came after a chaotic growing season. It started with hail and thunderstorms, followed by a wet spring that threatened the vines with mildew. Cool temperatures marred flowering. Then July and August brought hot, dry conditions. Rain showers were sporadic.

"The season has been very different depending on the location. Thanks to the summer weather, phenolic and aromatic potential of the reds are impressive," said Pascal Chatonnet, general manager of Vignobles Chatonnet and a consulting enologist. "So we can expect a very good to exceptional vintage."

Exceptional, but also challenging. "Some lost everything with early hailstorms," said Chatonnet. "Spring had been excessively wet, so there was heavy pressure of downy mildew, especially on Merlot."

Cabernet Sauvignon yields were impacted by the cool flowering period in mid-June. But the season changed drastically when July and August brought heat. Low rainfall during summer reduced berry sizes, further impacting yields, with water stress particularly hard on estates with sandy or deep gravel soils. Vines on limestone or clay did fine.

Rains in August helped ripening. Chatonnet said the result was "very thick and dark skins, no green aromas, brown and quite ripe seeds since the first days of September—I have never tasted so easily the seeds—which makes us expect a high potential!"

DBR Lafite CEO Jean-Guillaume Prats was upbeat about their Right and Left Bank properties. "In Pauillac we see some similitudes with 1959 when looking at weather and the various analyses," he said. "Pauillac with its gravels has performed extremely well in July. Pomerol has benefited from the rather cooler temperatures of the end of August."

In Margaux, Giscours' technical director Didier Forêt said, "The weather was very hot and dry, so we started picking around Sept. 6. The Merlot was ripe and we picked at the right time to keep the beautiful freshness. The Petit Verdot is perfect, very fresh with good ripeness." They waited to pick the Cabernet, giving it time to fully ripen. "We waited for a little rain—autumn weather—to ripen the Cabernet Sauvignon exactly how we want it."

Further inland at the Barton estate in Moulis, Damien's sister Melanie Barton Sartorius, technical director at Mauvesin Barton, said the clay in their soil carried the vines through the drought. "It's a cold terroir. So normally we are later to ripen than other Moulis. But this year the clay helped a lot because of the water stress."

On the Right Bank in St.-Emilion, Stephan von Neipperg said that harvest at châteaus Canon-La Gaffelière and La Mondotte started later than expected, in mid-September, and finished quickly, with lower-than-average yields. "The harvest went well. Despite a warm and dry summer, we haven't been impacted by hydric stress, except on very young vines. Berries were smaller than previous vintages but nicely concentrated and balanced."

Despite the challenges of a pandemic harvest, Prats said he was thinking of others facing even bigger challenges. "I would like to take the opportunity here to send warm regards to our friends in Napa who have suffered very severely," he said. "We know that the vineyards of the Médoc would not have recovered from the phylloxera in 1865 without the importation of [American] rootstocks. We feel obliged to them and send all our support."

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