A bountiful harvest
In Bordeaux, 2016 has been a year of quantity and quality. We finally finished picking Friday 21st October – almost the latest ever (we somehow stretched it to the 30th October in the difficult 2008 vintage). The late harvest this year was not actually due to a difficult year, more an idiosyncratic one, as reported in our previous newsletter. As a result, we did need an Indian summer to get the optimum ripeness, and indeed the weather was as warm and benign as could be, right through the harvest period, and also during the early part of winemaking, which helps when wine is fermenting in outdoor tanks, benefiting from the warm, but not too hot, temperatures.
Harvest dates – we picked the whites on 17th September, a few days later than the 10-year average, but the reds needed longer; Merlot was 6th October (two weeks later than average), Cabernet Franc the same day (about a week), and the Cabernet Sauvignon, as said, 21st October (10 days or so later than normal).
As I write, the heavy work in the chai has calmed down, as all the reds have finished their malolactic fermentations, and all wines are run off their lees and stable, ready for the next major action which will be after Christmas when we get the white and rosé ready for bottling, and blend the reds.
One noteworthy change this year – no sulphur was added at harvest time, which should reduce still further the total quantity in our wines. Typically, sulphur is added three times; at harvest, stabilisation, and bottling. We have now cut the first one out altogether. Our wines were already quite low in terms of sulphur content, well within the organic certification rules, but we want to reduce its use as much as possible (whilst maintaining, crucially, the stability of the wine in bottle). Relying more on natural processes and less on additives as time goes on is an essential part of what we do here at Chollet, however it takes time to develop the techniques and experience.
Quantity and quality – the importance of the right yield
We have mentioned before the importance of a good yield when aiming for quality – which we would define as good, ripe fruit with depth of flavour – meaning about 1 bottle of wine per vine, more or less. That equates to a pretty low yield, compared to the maximum permitted, hence the truism that ‘low yield is good for quality’. However, even with that approach, yields on a larger scale can vary a lot, depending on various things, including the percentage of the vines performing at their optimum level, how many are missing/diseased, and how densely they are planted. To illustrate, imagine one hectare (10,000 sq metres) of vines, planted at 3,000 vines/hectare. That would make about 3,000 bottles of wine, assuming all are in good condition. Take out 20% poor or missing vines, you have 2,400 bottles from that same area. Same yield per vine, same quality, but less yield per hectare. Now, if the same hectare was planted with 5,000 vines, all in good condition, you can make 5,000 good bottles from that area. Much better. Beyond that, the 1 bottle/vine ratio falls down a bit – but the point is, a well planted and maintained hectare with good soil can make more wine of the same (or better) quality than a poorly planted and maintained one. Also, the cost of maintaining that one hectare is about the same in each scenario. The commercial arguments are obvious, although there is more technical work in a densely planted vineyard, whereas less dense means bigger machines can access the vines, increasing speed.
Here at Chollet, we have been working hard to achieve a better yield, through improving soil quality, replanting poorer sections of the vineyard, and simply keeping up with the work, although of course the weather plays a huge part year on year. Looking over a longer term, the graphic below shows how our average yield per hectare has changed since we started 10 years ago.
Our previous example of a well-maintained hectare planted with 5,000 vines producing 1 bottle per vine equals a yield of 37.5 hectolitres per hectare (shortened to hl/ha, and equivalent to litres of wine per 100 sq metres of area. This is how it is measured in France – another way of thinking about it is weight of grapes per acre, 37.5hl/ha equates to around 2.8 tons per acre).
See below how at Chollet we have gone from approx. 25 – 35 hl/ha over the 10 years, with a dip in the (very) poor weather years of 2012 and 2013.
Below is a quick illustration of yield (ie, amount of wine) from a given area of vineyard – from the left, if it were planted at 3,000 vines per hectare, not in great nick; 3,000 vines well maintained, and 5,000 well maintained. More wine, same quality, less relative cost. Only problem is, in order to achieve the magic 5,000 per hectare, there’s always a cost, up to about 15,000 Euros per hectare if all the vines need replacing. Once up and running, though, we can look forward to our happy right hand barrel – nice and full.
One more item regarding yield – if low yields are good, high yields can be bad for quality. For this reason, maximum yields are restricted, with variations between appellations. This table shows a comparison of yields versus maximum permitted – for example, in our appellation of Sainte Foy Cotes de Bordeaux, red is restricted to 52hl/ha (around 7,000 bottles), but for organic growers that is not achievable. Our aim is for between 35 and 40hl/ha. Some other examples are; St Emilion Grand Cru is capped at 50 hl/ha, champagne is 65hl/ha, Alsace around 80hl/ha, on the other hand Chateauneuf-du-pape is restricted to 35hl/ha.