2020 Bordeaux red harvest in pics

2020 Bordeaux red harvest in pics

Posted by Gavin Quinney on 7th Oct 2020

For the last four weekly missives, every Wednesday throughout September, I’ve posted a photo journal of our harvest at Bauduc (bauduc.com/news) for crémant, dry white, rosé and red. It’s high time we looked at what’s been happening across Bordeaux so here, again, is a long stream of images with a few comments.

All being well, I’ll be publishing my infamous ‘weather and harvest report’ on the vintage next week, and this will be stuffed full of fascinating data and charts, with objective analysis and the occasional opinion. 2020 saw an early season and harvest, with nearly all the red grapes being harvested in September.

For now, here are some photos of a few of those grapes coming in.

All the best

Gavin & Angela Quinney

PS There’s a photo album of just the pics - click here.

First stop, Pomerol. I say first because, with the possible exception of parts of Pessac-Léognan (well, at the Haut-Brion end), the Merlot here is usually the first to ripen. Above is the former Château La Fleur Pétrus with its gravelly soils. (The Moueix family relocated the main house to a more substantial one in the village, though they’ve kept the original building – and the vines of course.)

This is a small parcel of Château La Croix de Gay, just around the corner from Le Pin, Trotanoy and other more expensive wines. This was 10 September and the harvest was well underway in Pomerol.

The thing with the plateau of Pomerol is that the quality of the Merlot is always high, year in year out, almost regardless of extreme weather. In this case, summer drought. More on that next week.

This is what you might call the stackable deep crate method of hand picking.

11 September at Petrus nearby. 100% Merlot, by the way. (Please tell me if I’m wrong about the lack of accent, compared to La Fleur Pétrus, which has one.)

It might be useful to throw in a quick map here. Pomerol is next to the town of Libourne and the much larger appellation of Saint-Émilion. Although they border onto each other, most of the Merlot and Cabernet Franc in Saint-Émilion, and its satellites like Montagne-St-Émilion, comes to maturity a little time after Pomerol. The locals often refer to this area as the Libournais but it’s better known in the wine game as the right bank of Bordeaux.

So it’s over to the left bank – of the Gironde estuary – to do some Merlot spotting there. Of course, at Château Palmer in Margaux it makes up around 50% of the blend.

I doubt they’ll move into footwear but matching trainers to harvest trays and secateurs could become a thing.

This was 14 September. It was going to be hot in the afternoon but the start of the day can be quite chilly. The two previous mornings were 12ºC.

A wise lady with that hat. It was to hit 35ºC later that day in Margaux. Healthy vines in a biodynamically-run vineyard, where random unruly weeds are a little like designer stubble.

This is the stackable tray method, as you might call it. With the added twist of having a strap to pull the tray along the ground.

This is Château Rauzan Gassies in Margaux and definitely a trainer vintage. No rain in the fortnight or so since 29 August weekend. The Merlot here looking plumper than in Pomerol, which is hardly surprising as they’d had three times the amount of refreshing rain in August compared to Pomerol, after 50 days of drought everywhere.

You can tell it’s Rauzan Gassies because they have RG on the hottes. (Are these called hods in English?) I also chatted to the fellow in charge.

Nowt wrong with this lot. The odd leaf to remove, that’s it. And the stems a little later.

They used to machine harvest this parcel – I’ve taken pictures here many times before. Regardless of quality (and I don’t think it would make much of a difference in this vintage, with clean, healthy grapes), it’s not a good look for a Grand Cru Classé to machine pick amongst all these great vineyards, right alongside the main D2 route des châteaux.

Rauzan-Ségla on the left, behind, and Rauzan Gassies on the right.

The tilting trailer method. Basket – hod – trailer. On the left, Merlot in Margaux, on the right, Saint-Julien.

Next stop Château Langoa Barton (and Léoville Barton) in Saint-Julien and some terroir envy.

In the distance, on the right, you can just make out the Gironde estuary.

This plot is so close to Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, just off the D2 on the right as you head north, you’d think it was theirs. It’s walking distance though from Château Langoa.

The vines on this stony terrain are close together, and the grapes low to the ground. Being a manual harvester here is not easy if you’re tall.

It just so happened that these two porteurs mounted the ladders at the same time. I missed the shot by a fraction of a second.

You do get to see how the grapes look though. Just make sure you don’t slip off the trailer or you’d look like a right mug.

Now you may have noticed the odd mask. That’s hardly surprising in this, the first Covid vintage. A quick shout out though to the properties that made a big health and safety effort. Here this chap pushed down the nozzle on the cleaning gel for the porters all morning.

The Bartons also had tap-free water carriers – workers had to use their knee to operate it – and everyone carried their own water bottle provided, attached with a loop (right).

Thankfully the entrance is just about big enough.

Reduced catering facilities for staff this year. The signs say ‘3 to a table, max’.

Lilian Barton-Sartorius and son Damien Sartorius with the grapes coming in. Little wonder they need to borrow powerful tractors from their vineyard machinery supplier in Pauillac to bring in this lot.

Damien checking on the Merlot grapes after the de-stemming, and before the optical sorter.

Traditional oak fermentation vats for Château Langoa Barton and Léoville Barton.

Château Pichon Baron in Pauillac on a fine September morning.

Behind the scenes at Château Pichon Baron and MD Christian Seely is probably the only wine producer in Bordeaux wearing a bow tie today. Still, that’s one of his trademarks.

His other trademark is making exceptionally good wines.

A different method of getting the bunches to the winery, again.

As with most top estates, the sorting of the bunches before the de-stemmer is thorough but there’s not a great deal to remove in a year like this.

All quite calm and controlled inside the winery.

Further up the D2 in Pauillac, on the other side of the town, and this is another famous name. That’s a proper T-shirt.

Again, this is Merlot, at Château Lafite Rothschild. 14 September. The start of the harvest, young vines apart, and the Cabernet Sauvignon will follow.

Oh, and this is an important point if you ever want to take photos of the harvest. I always ask whoever is in charge if I can take pictures, and always then ask individuals if it’s ok too. Some will say no and that’s absolutely fine.

I have never been refused permission at Lafite. I took the picture on the left in 2004, and the same methods in the vineyard – for the harvest at least – are still in use today. I’ve always enjoyed watching the ‘croupiers’ at work, as I think of them, sorting the grapes on the tables on the side of the trailers.

Of course, images of 2020 are quite easy to spot. But this couldn’t have been 2004: I love it that the only moment the porter has a chance to look at his phone is soon after he’s tipped his load of bunches.

A busman’s holiday, to be fair.

Back to the right bank and Saint-Émilion for the Merlot harvest. This was 16 September, by which stage about a fifth of the crop had come in overall here, I’d guess.

Château Le Prieuré, a small, organic Grand Cru Classé owned by Artemis Domaines (Château Latour).

As with many châteaux, especially this year, the team come from a specialist vineyard services agency.

Healthy vines and, well, a reasonable crop, volume wise.

The stackable tray method of harvest, like at Palmer we saw earlier.

It’s Wednesday and it’s going to be sunny until the weekend. With these clay-over-limestone soils the ground won’t be so easy if it rains heavily.

Whichever way you harvest by hand, being a porter can be hard work.

The winery is a short distance away. Notice how dry the ground is.

Saint-Émilion a week or so later, 24 September, and by now the harvest has been in full swing.

I didn’t realise just how low to the ground the grapes could be for a machine harvester to work efficiently.

This machine has an onboard sorting system. This is a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru château – as opposed to a Grand Cru Classé where you’d be more likely to see handpicking in operation.

Machines are occasionally used by Grands Crus Classés though. This is in Saint-Éstephe, and there’s nothing wrong with it if the fruit’s in good shape.

The ’tilting trailers’ work for both hand and machine harvesting.

Cabernet Sauvignon in Saint-Julien and the stackable deep crate method. (I’m making these method names up but that’s how I see it.)

This is Château Beychevelle, one of the most sought-after ‘brands’ for some years now.

This block is just down the slope from Château Ducru Beaucaillou. 23 September and there’d been some light rain over the past few days.

Sorting through the bunches at Château Beychevelle, Saint-Julien. They have actually changed the process slightly since last year, though I don’t think that’s going to hit the papers.

After the de-stemmer and heading to the optical sorter.

Grapes all approved by the optical sorter and on their way.

Lightly crushed – split, even – and into a mobile unit called a cuvon. I don’t know the word in English.

The smart cuvons go in and out of the lifts.

The grapes are then unloaded into the fermentation tank below.

The state of the art winery at Château Beychevelle is a far cry from the old one before the extraordinary renovation. The team here are still down to earth and approachable. (I asked them two hours before if I could pitch up.)

When I came home, by the way, Ange asked me how things were looking. ‘At Beychevelle it’s about the same’, I said, referring to last year’s handling of the grapes. ‘The same as ours?’ she replied. ‘Er, no, not quite. They’re a little more upmarket.’

Gladys, left, and her friends picking Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyards of Château Léoville Poyferré in Saint-Julien, with the great Pauillac Châteaux Pichon Baron on the left on the horizon, Pichon Lalande in the centre and the long winery building of Château Latour on the right.

Gladys and I are on first name terms because, after I’d asked if I could take pictures of them and we chatted briefly (she’s from Avignon and had done the Champagne harvest first before heading to Bordeaux), I promised to send some of my pics to them via WhatsApp. This happens quite a bit and seems more than fair.

Another great Saint-Julien estate and Château Léoville Las Cases.

They have a mobile sorting table in the vineyard, which some famous châteaux favour too. Vieux Château Certan and Lynch-Bages are two of them, though I wonder if with the new cellars at Lynch-Bages whether they’ll carry on with that process.

Château Léoville Las Cases.

Once checked, the grapes plop into a tilting trailer. In the winery they have an optical sorter after the de-stemmer.

It’s not just the top estates that hand pick. Chåteau Balac planted these young Cabernet Sauvignon vines in 2016 and hand picking is the gentler option. And any vineyard with a harvest going on and a friendly dog deserves to be included.

Château Balac is a Cru Bourgeois estate near Saint-Laurent in the Haut-Médoc. They recently sold ten of their 20 hectares to better known châteaux.

Some of the wineries of the leading châteaux mentioned above are exceptions rather than the rule. Bordeaux is made up of thousands of small wine ‘farms’ like Château Balac.

Though that’s not to say that many petits chateaux aren’t equipped with the latest technology. This is Château La Cardonne/Château Ramafort in the Médoc with their recent investment of the latest de-stemmer and optical sorter.

Back to Margaux – last stop – and the final Cabernet Sauvignon at Château Malescot-St-Exupéry. This is Gilles Pouget, the winemaker, putting the harvest into the cold room to chill down the grapes on 2 October.

Again, checking the bunches before the de-stemmer and the transfer of grapes upstairs.

A last check.

Before the grapes are crushed at the end of the line.

The grapes and juice are pushed along into the fermentation tanks. On the left, concrete tanks, and on the right, stainless steel – just the top of the tanks are visible as this is a mezzanine floor.

The last of the Cabernet Sauvignon in Margaux, Friday 2 October. We’d had a few clear days at the end of September and by the 30th nearly all of the harvest had come in. But not quite.

October began very soggily indeed for these last few grapes, and the pickers. We were all pretty grateful that 2020 had been an early season.

All our harvest updates and newsletters are on Gavin's blog.

You can see pics of this harvest and more in our Bauduc photo albums.