The Wines of Bergerac – Atmospherics and alcohol

by Martin Walker

The more we learn about the 2018 vintage, the more extraordinary it appears. The wet spring and early summer, with constant threats of mildew, was a real challenge not just for the eventual harvest but above all for the growing trend towards organic wines.

Wet weather means mildew and there are two main ways to tackle it. The first and most common is to spray with copper sulphate, but use too much and the vineyard can lose its organic certification. The other solution is to trim the young leaves, which are most vulnerable to mildew. On a small vineyard, this is possible but very labour-intensive. On larger ones it is almost impossible.

The Bordeaux region, being more oceanic, had it even tougher. Indeed, some vineyards claim it all came down to a single day – Sunday 20th May. It had rained on the Friday and Saturday. If the vineyard had not made special preparation, with staff and supplies, to spray on the Sunday, it was too late.

Hugh Ryman of Château de la Jaubertie, one of the outstanding vineyards of the Bergerac and himself one of the most gifted winemakers, tells me that for him the nightmare lasted even longer.

“On 30th June ‎if you had asked me to bet on the finish of the growing season, I would never had imagined such a good finish. I was betting on a disaster scenario. And there is contrast between those who were hit by mildew or hail which meant almost no yield, and those with a generous harvest and exceptional quality.

“This said, it will be an interesting year. What we believed to be later than normal harvest suddenly accelerated due to hot weather and water in the soil. We started picking at Jaubertie on 9th September and the heat of September/October took many by surprise. Everybody was hoping or waiting for rain to accelerate tannin ripeness, but the rain never really came.”

The result, he says, is that the white wines are good but not exceptional. “The juices tasted better than the finished wines and the alcohol is higher than usual. The reds will be more interesting as the conditions were so exceptional that everybody could decide on the style they wanted. Picking could be decided on either fruit flavour or pH or tannin ripeness.”

(pH is used in wine to measure ripeness in relation to acidity. Low pH wines are higher in acidity and will taste tart and crisp, while higher pH wines are more susceptible to bacterial growth. Most wine pHs are between 3 and 4; about 3.0 to 3.4 is desirable for white wines, while about 3.3 to 3.6 is best for reds.)

“We opted for fruit and balance and avoided exceeding 15 degrees (of alcohol) but many picked above with riper flavours. The reds at Jaubertie are very good but at Mondazur (our Pécharmant project) they are superb. For the sweet wines, due to the lack of rain and humidity, you had to wait and be patient and do many tries, but the result is worth the frustration.”

The Pécharmant region as a whole did well in 2018, and I asked François-Xavier de Saint-Exupéry of the region’s classic Château de Tiregand how he saw the 2018 vintage and on the whole (after a miserable 2017 when the frosts wiped out half his crop) he is very pleased indeed.

“We can already taste some very fine results, depending on the varieties of grapes. The Merlots display notes of very ripe red fruits, like black cherries, almost like fruit soaked in syrup. The tannins are very soft, even before the secondary (malolactic) fermentation. After this, they could be even softer.

“With our Malbecs, the first notes suggest a strong taste of cassis [blackcurrant], almost syrupy. It is quite remarkable. But then come the notes of violets. This year, I am fascinated by the Cabernet Francs. They have at the same time a great power and an extraordinary finesse. Thus it is dense and long in the mouth, a splendid quality. It is a very great year for this grape.

“The Cabernet Sauvignons are powerful and opulent with red and black fruits. They were almost the last to be picked and need to fill out, that is to say to rest on the lees to complete their structure for drinking. Overall, this promises to be a very rich and aromatic vintage, but there could be a problem with the high levels of alcohol. These wines will reach 14.5 degrees or more, because of the warm September, dry and windy, which concentrated the juice in the grapes. They will be lovely in the mouth but the high alcohol could discourage some consumers.

“It reminds me of the first Grand Millésime that I made in 1998, with 70 per cent Merlot and 30 per cent Cabernet Franc, and because of this year’s extraordinary Cabernet Franc we may well make this blend again for the 2018.

“Overall, 2018 will be a fine vintage with good yields, which we truly need to replenish our stocks in the Pécharmant. All the winemakers agree on this. But the technical question of the degree of alcohol in the wines is more and more urgent. The solution lies in reducing the surface of leaf. Perhaps this will have to come if these dry, hot summers become the norm.”

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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