Published the 09/13/2019 in Food & Wine
Beginning of September means back to work, but in Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion or Medoc, it is the exciting and decisive harvest season. The harvesting starts early september and can last until mid-November for some areas, such as Sauternes or Barsac.
“Vendanges” describes the all process from grape picking to crushing. Harvesting can be early or late, mechanical or manual. No rules are set in stone for harvesting, and many factors will influence the timing for harvesting. It depends on the wine variety, the climate but most importantly the style and variety of the wine to be produced.
Harvesting is a crucial step in winemaking. Timing is essential to achieve the right combination between sugar, acid, flavour and tannin. Monitoring sugar level is the most common way to decide whether the timing is right, using a small tool called refractometer. Winemakers hope for favorable weather conditions, as rainy harvest could cause a dilution of the wine or unwanted oxidation, and hail can damage the grapes. The white grape harvesting is almost done in some Chateau, and the white Bordeaux for 2019 are promising, combining a great veraison with a favorable weather for harvesting the last couple of weeks,
The technique used for harvesting is another key elements for quality. Labor costs, topography, how the vines are planted, are decisive factors when choosing mechanical or hand picking harvesting. Mechanical harvesting does not necessarily means lower quality, but it is important to use good machines to avoid having too many leaves or wood, often affecting negatively the wine (unwanted green notes). A thorough sorting before crushing can play a key role.
Hand picking will often be more precise, and hand-picked grapes have less chance to contains leaves, and leave room for selection on the vines. It is possible to pick only the grapes bunches that are ready, and leave other for further maturation. Most Grands Crus Classés will use hand picking, and it is often possible to attend or join the harvesting.
The “vendanges” means both busy time for the chateaux, but it is also a time for celebration, in which many locals and tourists can take part. You can join dedicated events, often happening in the weekend in the Chateaux, or contact us to live a unique experience.
In the XVIII century, the harvesting process could not start before the “ban de vendanges”, setting the starting date of the harvesting process (lifting the ban!), which has been as late as October 20th. Today, the “Commanderie du Bon Temps” organizes a Fête des Vendanges to honor this tradition and celebrate beginning of the harvesting season. This year it is set on the weekend of the 22nd-23rd of September.
The starting date also varies depending on the grapes. For instance, white grapes, that you can find in Entre Deux Mers or Graves, are picked up earlier. The Saint-Emilion and Pomerol area generally follow, with the Merlot harvest, because the berry ripens early. Then comes to turn of Medoc, with Cabernet Sauvignon. Finally, the Semillon will be picked in the Sauternes area, as “botrytis cinerea”, known as noble rot, needs a bit more time to develop.
Temperature is a key factor for a quality harvest. Picking warm grapes increases the risk for starting the fermentation before it is time. Chateaux in the Bordeaux area starts harvesting process early in the morning, at dawn, to be able to pick the precious berries at their coldest. With global warming, châteaux have a tendency to start earlier and earlier, so if you want to take a glimpse at the harvesting process, head to the vineyard early in the morning, 8-9 am, to get the most beautiful colors of the day.
Les Vendanges means that Châteaux are very busy, so beware that visiting hours can be modified. Call ahead if you want to visit, or contact us if you want to experience a day harvesting in a Chateau or participate to a private harvesting celebration and meet with winemakers in a unique setting. It is a great way to experience french lifestyle. Châteaux des Tourtes, in the Côte de Blaye area, organizes on September 28th an harvesting lunch, "les Vendanges du Coeur", where the profit will be given to charity.
And if you want to mix a visit to the vineyard and the city, I recommend to check out this article for our pick of events to attend in Bordeaux in September.