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It may seem a little early to think about the 2019 harvest, but wine makers have the harvest on their minds all year round as they keep an eye on the climate and survey the evolution of the vines and the grapes. It's never too early for visitors to think about the harvest either. Although it is the busiest time of the year, most producers will still welcome you to their estates but I do recommend booking ahead to make sure. It's an exciting time to visit; it is always interesting to see the vineyards in action with pickers in the fields and the grapes coming into the cellars. It will be full on, you might have to tip toe over pipes and pumps as you discover the secrets of vinification.
Don't worry about missing the fun, Bordeaux blends several different grape varieties, all ripening at slightly different times, so the harvest can last for several months here. The Sauvignon and Sémillon grapes for dry whites are usually the first to be picked, often towards the end of August and the red grapes destined for rosé come in about the same time. Then the reds; Merlot usually kicks off followed by the Cabernets and Petit Verdot. Last but not least, the sweet white wines, where producers have to wait for the development of noble rot before they can pick, which can be as late as early November. Bordeaux is a big place, spread over more than 100 000 ha so there is variation in picking dates across the region. The right bank appellations and the left bank appellations often harvest at slightly different times. In general, the right bank has cooler soils so tend to harvest a little later - but it all depends on the vintage.
As you tour the vineyards you will see that every chateau has it's own traditions and technical differences, from the date of picking to how they pick, with manual pickers or machine harvesters. How they sort or select the grapes varies too, either in the field with mobile selection tables or in the cellar with computerised optical selection. It's worth planning several visits across different appellations and different sized properties to experience this diversity.
The Bernard Magrez properties are the perfect example of how the latest and the most traditional techniques can work alongside each other. At their flagship property, Chateau Pape Clement, they use drones to survey the vines and check maturity of the grapes. Once deemed ready, the grapes are picked and even destemme; by hand. There are differences between cellars too, seeing the grapes come in you will start to understand the reasons behind the different types of vat used for fermentation, be they oak, stainless steel or concrete, tanks or amphorae.
Where to visit on your Bordeaux harvest trip? I'm always biased towards the southern Bordeaux appellations of Sauternes and Barsac. The morning autumn mists that characterise the region, encouraging the emblematic Botrytis Cinerea rot, create a magical harvest atmosphere. Picking here requires great skill as only berries that are perfectly ripe and then infected with just the right amount of noble rot can be included in the harvest. Call in to Chateau Climens in Barsac or Chateau Guiraud in Sauternes; you will have time as it is not unusual to see pickers go through the same plot of vines five or six times to get the perfection they are looking for.
Every region of Bordeaux has its charm and its particularities. Some properties may even invite you to join in and get your hands dirty, but be warned, it's hard work. If you are planning to join the pickers here's a quick insider tip - the vines on the right bank tend to be pruned a little higher than the left bank so it's not quite such back breaking work. Pickers get to know the best addresses, where they get the best harvest lunches and the best harvest party or 'Gerbaude' when it's all over.
You can join the fun of the harvest without signing up for days of backbreaking work. At Château Gruaud Larose in Saint Julien, you can start the day touring the vineyard while the harvest is in full swing and taste the berries directly from the vines. In the cellar you will taste the fermenting juice straight from the vats and get a look first-hand at the process. At the end of the morning, join the harvesters for the pickers' lunch accompanied by a glass of the first and second wines of the property.
Nearby Chateau Paloumey also encourages visitors to join in the harvest. Alongside technicians from the vineyard, you will learn how they decide on the picking date by tasting the grapes, before sending samples off to the laboratory for more precise analysis, just to make sure. Yet another example of traditional and modern techniques working hand in hand. Then join the harvesters to pick the grapes and follow your crop into the cellar. Here you will see the different pumping over and maceration techniques and understand the influence they have by tasting the fermenting must. Of course you will join the pickers for a harvest lunch after all the hard work.
If all this sounds a bit too close for comfort, why not view the harvest from a distance. Get a bird's-eye view by taking off from the runway at Chateau Venus, flying over the vineyards of Graves and Sauternes and watching the hard work of the pickers below. You will have the perfect point of view to see how the vineyards pick at different times, based on their terroir and their grape varieties.
By Wendy Narby