How do you remove a tractor stuck in a muddy vineyard? Carefully, obviously.
First of all, you try with another tractor. If that doesn't work, you have to borrow an even larger machine – somebody will know what it's called, but we might informally refer to it as "one of those great big things with prongs on the front" that stop it sinking into the mud and joining the tractor.
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But this was 2020 in the Médoc, where, as we know, the gravel drains well. What was going on?
There was, as you might infer, a lot of rain. This was in the early part of the year, and Lilian Barton of Châteaux Léoville- and Langoa-Barton and Mauvesin, whose tractor it was (though I doubt if hers was the only one to get stuck) sums up the spring weather: "It was so warm in the winter that vegetation started very early, which was scary. It snowed at the end of March, can you imagine? It rained until quite far in. We have a plot at Langoa which is nearly biodynamic, so we have to send in tractors a bit more often, because we can't miss a trick." That's when it got stuck.
After that (with the tractor happily removed) the weather turned hot and dry. "If I had to summarise the 2020 vintage in three words," says Jean-Christophe Mau of Château Brown and négociant Yvon Mau, "it would be hot, hot, hot". The flowering went well, and picking was early and quick.
So: a good year? As one source says, "a few properties are already communicating [quality] at an extremely high level of self-praise, which is always fascinating", given that most people have barely finished draining their tanks.
From those of a more cautious disposition, the vintage is being marked as good to very good, but it wasn't the easiest year to manage. There was a bit of frost in the spring, though not as bad as 2017, a bit of hail in places, and a lot of mildew with all that rain. Says Edouard Moueix of négociant JP Moueix, "it started raining in the second part of April and didn't stop; we had a tremendous quantity of rain. The mildew pressure was even more aggressive than in 2018. We didn't lose anything, though: we have fully dedicated people and we worked most of the weekends. But you don't see that everywhere in Bordeaux. It will be an explanation in some cases for low yields. Some properties which were hit in 2018 learnt from that experience and were able to fight the mildew in a more efficient way. The problem in 2018 was they thought they would be all right after June, and then they got wiped out."
In July it turned hot and dry, and there was a drought. This is where the Right and Left Banks diverge in their accounts of the year. Says Moueix, from the Right Bank, "extreme vintages are terroir vintages. Soils that retain water could be problematic for veraison [we'll come to that in a minute] but at no point did we enter stress." The limestone of Saint-Émilion proved its worth here, draining well but maintaining a steady water table for the vines. Gravel drains. Clay retains water. Even so, up in the more clay-rich gravel of Saint-Estèphe on the Left Bank, says Véronique Dausse of Phélan-Ségur, by the end of July the vines looked pretty uncomfortable from the drought.
Those on the Left Bank tend to see the vintage as having been saved by some August rain that broke the drought. Those on the Right Bank are grateful instead to September heat.
The Left Bank got more rain than the Right Bank, but it needed it more. Saint-Estèphe got 110mm in early August, says Dausse; in Pessac-Léognan, Brown had 40mm, says Mau. Moueix reports 27mm. "We see this every year, but it was even more obvious this year," says Moueix. Those Left Bank vines perked up no end with the water, and if it meant a bit of dilution there, the wines are still powerful. "Fifteen years ago that dilution would have been un catastrophe," says Barton. There were still some burnt, shriveled grapes coming off the sorting tables at harvest, says Dausse, especially from the young Merlot vines.
For Moueix, however, "veraison was difficult and very long: the vines didn't stop growing because only the top layer of soil had dried and there was so much water underneath – like men, vines can't do two things at the same time. They kept growing, so they couldn't do veraison in a short window." That meant uneven ripening, and clusters that were ripe on the outside but less so on the inside.
"I was expecting a very long harvest because of waiting and waiting for better maturity," says Moueix. "Then for three days we went to 40-41oC on September 12 to 14, and the berries that were less ripe caught up. We could harvest very quickly."
But whether they were saved by rain or by heat, all agree that quantities are down a bit: the quantity of clusters seemed about the same as ever, but there seemed to be less juice in the grapes. "One element is quite unusual," says Moueix: "the press wine is almost impossible to use." They don't do long macerations at Moueix – 19 to 24 days rather than the 35-40 days that some favor – and their tannins are all skin tannins rather than seed tannins, but even so, the press wine simply doesn't seem to integrate well with the free-run. "The press wine was crushing the other wines in the blend. There probably won't be much press wine in the final blends. Our cellarmaster pulled out half his hair."
Apart from the poor Moueix cellarmaster, there is general cheerfulness about quality. It seems to be a rich, aromatic, fresh vintage, with wines that are powerful but balanced. For the dry whites, Mau reports "balanced, fleshy, aromatic" wines at Brown. For the reds, "it's a Right Bank year," says Moueix, "or, as the Médoc will call it, a Merlot year."
It was also a Covid year. Vineyard and cellar workers had to be precisely organised: one-way systems in the cellars, and boxed meals being sent in rather than the convivial meals that make harvest fun. Moueix would normally have two pickers per row, one on each side. This year they had just one, and to enable that picker to pick both sides of the row at once they removed the lower leaves – which are normally going yellow by then anyway – leaving just the canopy above for shade. "It worked well," Moueix says. With two pickers, "there is always a slow person, so we would put them with a fast person to hurry them up, but what usually happened was that the fast person just did more. This way they all worked at a similar pace."
Even so, a case of Covid could have been disastrous. "I had pre-booked harvesting machines in case we had to send pickers home; it would have been a nightmare," he says.
How do you plan for a Covid harvest? Carefully. Obviously.