By Bill Blatch
We have experienced vintages like 2007 many times before. Even the great 2000 was not looking good until the weather suddenly changed on July 10th. 2001 was definitely iffy until July 20th, and 2002's cool, damp summer didn't end until September 10th. Each time, the vine had to catch up in the final part of the season, yet some pretty decent wines were made.
At the start of a dreary May and June, we thought the weather was just about to change. But it never did. We had sniggered at the old folks who had said at Christmas that a year with 13 moons could never be good. Now maybe they had been right.
But the turnaround happened on August 29th. The weather blew itself out with a day of very heavy rain, and next morning the high pressure systems returned, with dry, cool north-easterly breezes replacing the wet westerlies of the previous four months. The sun shone, and would shine permanently, apart from a few showers at the end of September and beginning of October, right up to early November. This sudden and lasting Indian summer was an amazing, unexpected, and totally welcome phenomenon, and it was to save the 2007 vintage.
In a year that has been reported as cool and wet, there were in fact two heat and drought records, one at the beginning and one at the end, sandwiching the poor summer. April was the warmest of the past 100 years, while September was the driest since 1985. These two phenomena are clearly linked. The April heat, followed as it was by high May rainfall got the vines off to an early and vigorous start. (It also got the mildew off to an early and vigorous start and there were to be many casualties during the long, damp summer). Then, at the end of the season, when the dry, sunny September, with zero rot risk, had allowed everyone to put off their harvest again and again until the perfect moment, often well into October, 2007 ended up with the longest hang in history: generally 140 days from flowering to harvest rather than the normal 110. This must have had an influence: the bunches were fed by their vine for 20 percent longer than usual.
Maybe, as in 2001, this compensates a little bit for the 10-15 percent deficiency in sun hours during the summer. The statistics for the summer months show more deficient sun hours than excessive rainfall or cold temperatures, as in 2002 and 1998. Anyone who says that he/she lost nothing to mildew is lying, but generally the better-managed and more financially able estates fared best. We also have to spare a thought for the tribulations of the brave biodynamic growers in all of this.
The oidium and the snails (which eat the young shoots) had shown up very early in April, and were generally dealt with then. But the mildew was more insidious, since it attacked the bunches directly rather than the leaves. And once it had taken hold, it was almost impossible to get rid of. Only those who were up-to-date with their preventative spraying in April managed to keep it in check.
In July we had the windscreen wipers on half-speed all the time. But despite appearances, July was not actually very rainy. The final rainfall figure of 53.6mm was lower than the 54.5mm norm. It was just dull and drizzly. August's rainfall came in five or six big showers, all in the second half. It was also less evenly spread. Mérignac registered just 83mm, the Right Bank about the same, yet the Médoc well over 110mm. The norm is 59.5mm.
By mid-August, the mildew was just about under control, but now there was a new problem: the grapes had expanded and were prone to early rot. Of course, there are sprays to deal with the rot, but they are not very effective when used just before rain, and it was just at this time that the August showery period arrived, with major downpours on "Black Monday" 20th and "Black Wednesday" 29th. One more day of such conditions, and we could forget the 2007 vintage.
Then, the following day, the miracle happened. August 30th dawned bright and clear, and, as in 2002, with a high pressure system settling over Europe, the sun would stay out virtually for the next two months. The most remarkable thing was that the rot disappeared overnight never to be heard of again.
Going into September, the vineyards were still a week or ten days ahead of schedule. Some of the early white estates started picking in late August, but generally the Pessac-Léognan whites started the week of September 3rd, continuing at a leisurely pace, as each parcel reached perfect ripeness, right up to 25th. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and everything came in healthy.
For the red harvest, some of the lesser estates who had not done the proper sprayings or evened out the crop over the summer were now obliged to pick towards the end of the week of 10th, before the grapes were totally ripe. It is hard to criticize growers whose finances don't allow them to do all the necessary things to ensure quality, but every year the same ones under-perform and then blame the CIVB when their wines don't sell.
Having run the risk of losing everything at the end of August, one would have thought that the quality producers would be anxious to get it in as quickly as possible. But they were now prepared to risk it again in order to wait for the best possible date, taking advantage of the drought conditions of September. The 45- days-from-véraison rule went out of the window, as the start was put back from the 17th to the 24th and then October 1st.
Apart from 10mm on September 22nd, there were only a few little showers of 1-2mm from September 21st to October 10th. These had no effect on the harvest, which continued at a very easy pace as each parcel got to optimum ripeness. By the weekend of October 6th, most of the Merlots were in, all except the latepickers such as the St-Emilion garagistes; those whose vineyard was in such good shape that they could afford to hang on; and terroirs that always ripen much later. As the Merlots finished, so the Cabernets began, most of them during the week of October 8th. They had benefited from the September conditions and were generally more concentrated than the Merlots. As high pressure returned around October 11th, this exceptional warmth was replaced by as much daytime sunshine but much cooler nights, which all had a remarkable drying effect, as for the '86 Cabernets. We have ended up with red wines that are disappointing from some of the lesser properties, but clearly very good from many of the more serious estates. They seem to have the same discreet weight as the '06s but are generally softer, with smoother tannins than their straightjacketed predecessors. At 12.5-13.5% for the Merlots, and 11.5-13% for the Cabs, alcohol levels are well below modern norms. For many, this will be a welcome return to what they would call true claret.
The Merlots are very variable. The Cabernets, however, are generally very successful. Franc on the Right Bank is not tremendously powerful but fresh and silky-textured; Sauvignon on the Left is well-defined and smoothly tannic. They clearly benefited from the autumn sunshine. Without the underlying power of the Merlots, the Left Bank Cabernet Sauvignons will have to fend for themselves this year.
Overall, the wines are of similar weight to the '06s, but with a totally different constitution. While the '06s currently have more middle-weight and a tighter finish (the harvest was more hurried because of the rain), the '07s will certainly have a smoother texture, which will make them not necessarily better than their predecessors but certainly more approachable. The vinifications were conducted carefully in order to preserve just that element of smoothness.
Sauternes has had the best of this vintage, which comes as no surprise. Comeback vintages are not unusual here, where fall is by far the most important season. Remember '97? Or '83? The dry September had stopped the botrytis in its tracks, but the warmer, damper conditions of early October had brought it on strong, and when it got concentrated by the dry week of October 15th, that week accounted for the major part of this beautifully concentrated botrytis harvest, which continued well into November in ideal conditions.
Here '07 has nothing to do with the regularly hot, dry years that produce the really rich, heavy Sauternes, when the botrytis comes in a rush on already very concentrated grapes -- as in '05, '03, '90, '47, and '21. It is rather in the family of long harvests, spun out over many pickings as the botrytis arrives throughout a dry autumn, to produce the finer, more nervous style of wines like '88, '89, and '01. The overall impression is of finesse, richness, and purity. This impression will be enhanced by lower alcohol than the '03s and '05s, often 13.5 rather than 14.5%, while the sweetness will be relatively high, often 130-140g/l, with refreshing acidity, often 3.7-4.2g/l.
The dry whites are of great class -- as in '06 but with a bit more power. Picked in perfect conditions, with a permanently good forecast, everyone took their time, and could afford to wait for the optimum day. Such a long, stop-start harvest meant that the style is very pure, and the nature of the wines is of fresh, fine, tangy fruit, with pronounced acidities, not at all like the big wines of the hot years '00, '03, and '05, but in the style of the cooler years '01, '02, and '04. They seem to have the aromatics and the acidity of the '01s but not the same weight (August was hot in '01); they have something of the tensile nature of '02 (but the '02 summer had been cooler and the wines were harder); they seem to have less of the softness of '04 and a greater vibrancy in the fruit. But maybe the most important signal to their quality is that the people who made them really like them...
In such an irregular vintage, there is always a bit of everything. Some yields were remarkably high, but as a general rule it was a short vintage. The Right Bank, with its earlier, more efficient flowering, has produced more (typically 45-50hl/ha) than the Left Bank (often 35-45hl/ha), while in the basic Bordeaux appellations it is more like 45-55hl/ha. Yields in the top estates of Sauternes were not too bad, at 10-18hl/ha (the maximum for the AC is 25), with not much to be declassified. (This is the first year for growers to be given the option of a traditional single appellation approval tasting or of a vat-by-vat tasting. The former wins them the traditional 50 hl/ha maximum yield; the latter 55hl/ha).
How does '07 stack up against other vintages overall? '78, '83, '02, and '04 all shared an off summer and a September recovery. In '78, this recovery came later, and the bunches, with little green harvesting in those days, were irregularly ripened, giving a sharper tone to the young wines. '83 had a more opulent summer and the wines were probably fuller. '02 is meteorologically the closest year to '07, but it had a cooler summer and a later turnaround than '07, resulting in harderstyled fruit and greater acidity. '04 with its big crop and very late harvest is probably stricter in style. '07 will be smoother than all these - maybe what '79 would have been if it had been made 30 years later. So this turnaround vintage got off to a good start, almost lost it in the middle, and then made a superb comeback at the finish. Nobody is claiming these are the wines of the century. Without modern methods of vineyard management, 2007 would have been a write-off. But even with them, a continuation of the end-of- August weather would have written it off anyway. There would have been nothing more to do than to pick in a hurry before it spoiled irrevocably. It was an amazing volte-face. In spite of everything, maybe somebody up there still likes us.