The Wines of Bergerac – The challenges of the 2018 vintage

by Martin Walker

This has been a strange year for the climate in the Bergerac wine region. The prolonged rains throughout the spring gave way to an unusually long summer marked by intense heat. At times, it felt almost as bad as the notorious canicule year of 2003, followed by the delightful Indian summer that stretched on well into October.

One of my neighbours, the son of a peasant, likes to quote the old adage – année de foin, année de rien. It means that a year that gives an abundant harvest of hay will produce little else and this was a very good year for hay. For most of my acquaintances, it was also a disappointing year for vegetables, particularly tomatoes.

So I got in touch with a number of my favourite winemakers in the region to ask how their récolte had been in quality and in quantity. These are people I know personally, whose vineyards I have tramped in different seasons, whose different vintages I know. Some are good personal friends.

Broadly speaking they are very pleased and relieved that after the terrible frosts and lower production of 2017, the wines of 2018 are going to be plentiful and many will be very good indeed. Bear in mind that it has not been an easy year in the vineyards. David Fourtout of Vignoble des Verdots, whose wines are served at the super-prestigious Hotel George V in Paris, put it this way:

“Until the end of June I was very worried. The growing season was alarming at first, some frosts in mid-April, then hail storms and above all we had to struggle, with success, against all the challenges of disease and the ailments thrown up by the very wet spring. In short, it was a real battlefield. But the miracle came in July with the return of good weather and now we have good yields and superb quality. It’s such a relief.”

“It all came together. The early rains meant that the wines could handle the summer drought,” David went on. “At the start of September, we had vines and grapes in perfect health. Even though the budding was late, the great weather of September and early October granted us a great harvest of whites and rosés and the wines will be well-balanced, very aromatic and highly expressive. Certainly, our best whites will be worth laying down for some years.”

“The 2018 reds will be a great vintage. We could pick both the Merlot and Cabernet at perfect maturity. The hot, long summer stimulated the production of tannins along with the taste of the grapes. We know we’ll have terrific reds, dense and concentrated. And the sweet wines have a rare aromatic purity since the noble rot began its work on perfectly mature grapes. In short, we have a spectacular year,” he concluded.

David Fourtout’s main vineyard is to the east of Bergerac, about three miles north of Issigeac. Sean and Caro Feely are some twenty miles to the west in the Saussignac, on higher ground. They produce their wines with the bio-dynamic method, and the quality of their whites and red managed to dissuade me from my suspicions that this was so much mumbo jumbo. They work incredibly hard, raising two daughters, running gîtes, wine courses and wine tours while making great wines, even as Caro manages to produce terrific and highly enjoyable books about life in a vineyard.

“Our 2018 vintage started wet and difficult but ended on a high with beautiful weather,” Caro informs me. “The final result for us is very good, the whites have a little less acidity than usual due to the hot summer and autumn but are very expressive and the reds are promising and showing beautiful balance but they still have a long way to go before we bottle them (we usually bottle our reds about 3 years after harvest). We’re looking forward to bottling our 2016 reds in April – a delicious vintage.”

Further north across the river on the plateau in the Montravel, near the château of the great 16th century humanist Montaigne, is Château Moulin Caresse where Sylvie Deffarge and her family have been making wine for nearly three centuries.

“The 2018 harvest developed under excellent climatic conditions with a lovely potential for quality,” Sylvie told me. “The quantities we produced were satisfactory if not very high, which is what you would expect when the quality is this good. The 2018s will be a very fine vintage. We were able to pick selected grapes for our very special wine, Coeur de Roche, which we only produce in the very best years.”

Back across the river Dordogne in Gageac-et-Rouillac, Humphrey and Sue Temperley have a glorious view and make terrific wines at Château Lestevénie. Hugh Johnson gives their wines his top, three-star rating and I heartily agree.

“The lower yielding reds from the calcaire (chalky area) have given us a superb quality, rich, spicy and certainly as good as 2015 if not better,” Humphrey says. “The whites were tricky because the Sauvignon Blanc was slow starting in the spring and ripened later than usual. The Sémillons were perfect. The blend of the two together with our Muscadelle have made a delicious dry white and a wonderful base for our Crémant. Our Saussignac hand harvest was completed on 27th October just before the weather broke on the following day.

“After the awful disappointments of 2017 and its frosts that cut our yields by more than half we can look back on 2018 as challenging, with the drenching rain of spring and then the canicule, but ultimately brilliant.”

Pierre Desmartis of Château La Vieille Bergerie just to the north of the town of Bergerac, whose wines won gold medals at the big Paris exposition three years in a row, tells much the same story.

“The climate meant that it was not an easy year, one that really tests the skill of a winemaker,” Pierre says. “But I am delighted with the way our white wines, rosés and the Rosettes turned out, giving us an excellent year, generous in both quantity and in quality. The reds were a real challenge because the heat boosted the sugar and the alcohol content, threatening to overwhelm the taste and it wasn’t easy to get them balanced. Still, we managed. There will be some great wines to enjoy.”

Martin Walker, author of the best-selling ‘Bruno, chief of police’ novels, is a Grand Consul de la Vinée de Bergerac. Formerly a journalist, he spent 25 years as foreign correspondent for The Guardian and then became editor-in-chief of United Press International. He and his wife Julia have had a home in the Périgord since 1999 and one of his great hobbies is visiting the vineyards of Bergerac.

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