2011 Harvest

2011: "Never more than this year - in spite of the some forty-six harvests I have experienced since my beginnings as a winegrower in Burgundy - have I felt and understood the importance of luck and gamble in the success or the failure in the face of a vintage".

At the time I am beginning to write this traditional report, trying to describe the broad outline of the vintage just after the harvest, the North wind that we had been expecting since May is back, bringing full sun and fresh nights, offering a wonderful end of season, enhancing the autumnal colours of the vineyards and intensifying the scents coming out from the wineries where the wines are fermenting. When today the vigneron awakens in these blessed mornings, he cannot help thinking of what the 2011 harvest would have been if April had not been hotter than July and had not led the vineyards to an ultra-early vegetative cycle in which they were permanently ahead of the seasons.

2011 seems indeed to give credit to those who talk of a climatic change or at least of a climatic disorder.

The vegetative cycle of the vineyards was marked by an outstanding earliness due to very high temperatures in early April. Those unusual temperatures were associated with drought conditions that were also unusual in Spring.

The vineyards like heat and drought. They were prosperous until the flowering, with no attacks from their usual enemies: mildew and oidium - and progressed quickly and harmoniously. There was only one drawback: under the sudden effect of a few very hot days, quite a few berries "roasted" in the sun.

By the very early flowering - the mid-flowering occurred on May 20th, at around the same time as in 2003 or 2007 - we saw a complete change in the weather with dominant winds from the West and South bringing rain and storms. The North wind, which is usually accompanied by beautiful dry weather, was never there, even though it blew on Palm Sunday, April 17th, and, should have been the prevailing wind of the year, if we trust the old saying.

But it is well known that gods do their utmost to deceive us, humans - Homer repeats it throughout the Odyssey - and the vignerons, like poor Ulysses shaken by elements, had to cope with those chaotic conditions that lasted in May, July and August in the form of sudden alternations of cold, rains, heat, sometimes scorching, followed each time by violent storms.

In this general context, the Côte de Nuits was spared. Rains were not as frequent as in the Côte de Beaune. For instance, Nicolas Jacob, our vineyard manager, and his young team managed to protect the vineyards from mildew and oidium all through the Spring without too much difficulty. They did the ploughing and organised all the vineyard works in time, while keeping exclusively to biological treatments. In 2011 especially knowledge, experience and tenacity were put to the test for months in order to win the challenge. 

But the ultimate enemy was on the look-out: botrytis indeed did not take much time to appear. Rains had provoked abnormally big berries and at veraison (which spread out over three weeks) micro-cracks and even bursts had formed in the loose skins.

Fortunately, the low temperatures in July slowed down the vegetative cycle and the development of botrytis. Botrytis indeed likes damp heat, but stops its action as soon as it is cold. This cold phase was favourable as it strengthened and thickened the skins of the grapes.

By August 15th, there was a complete "change of scenery": hot and stormy weather set in with very high temperatures, almost scorching, and the maturation of the grapes accelerated. Thanks to the reserves of water retained in the soil and the luminosity favoured by still-long days, photosynthesis functioned at full blast and the production of sugars increased very quickly while acidities fell, both in a spectacular manner.

The vintage was taking a totally different direction, far more qualitative. This came as a relief to us.

Of course the storms, that regularly accompanied the return of heat, provoked anguish. Some places in Burgundy were hit by murderous hail storms, but the Vosne area was spared. We should have seen a spectacular progression of botrytis, but that did not happen thanks to the thickness of the grape skins and to the quick return of the sun after each storm.

During that time, the Côte de Nuits profited from the heat and was not much affected by storms. By late August, even if a good part of the advance that had been gained in the springtime was lost as the weeks went by in June/July, the grapes were approaching full maturity. The vineyards were reaching the end of their cycle but we were aware that if the storms had kept on coming back after each period of heat, the botrytis might explode and we ran the risk of losing the crop.

Never more than this year - in spite of the some forty-six harvests I have experienced since my beginnings as a winegrower in Burgundy - have I felt and understood the importance of luck and gamble in the success or the failure in the face of a vintage.

Wanting absolutely to wait until the grapes are fully ripe is the first rule. Doing it at the risk of losing the crop is the second one. Both are linked and both played their part to the fullest in 2011. 1) We had to wait beyond reason in order to pick ripe grapes. 2) We were lucky not to have any storms or humidity during the entire harvest, whereas those unfavourable conditions were everywhere around us and could have caused an explosion of botrytis should have they lasted 2 or 3 days more. The gods were at our side again.

We began the harvest in Corton on Friday September 2 and in Vosne-Romanée on September 5th. The weather was hot and dry, but uncertain, and we feared the pessimistic weather forecast for the following days. Thankfully the harvest proceeded from September 5th to 13h without any rain at all during the day.

In early September, the mildew had "bitten" the upper leaves of the vineyards and autumn colours were beginning to appear everywhere. There were also many berries that had roasted in spring, "figgy" berries that we had absolutely to keep for their richness in sugar and also an unusual number of green berries that had not changed colours.

Needless to say how important and difficult the work in the vineyards was this year. The harvester who cut the grapes that went their way to the winery had a major job: like a miner filtering the gravel by the river's edge in the hope of finding gold, he was asked to follow rules that are different every year and pick up the material, i.e. grapes that the fermentation in vats would transform into Romanée-Conti, La Tâche... the gesture of the harvester is the last selective and qualitative human gesture before the grapes go into the vats with their definitive qualities and defaults.

The harvesters were given clear instructions this year: let fall the berries that had roasted in spring, cut with clippers the parts of the grapes that had been affected by botrytis and most important, as it required judgement and experience, leave behind the vines bearing big or unripe berries where botrytis had largely developed. Those vines were harvested in a second passage at the end of the "big harvest".

Of course, the final touch to the sorting was accomplished in the winery where the grapes, before falling into the vats, passed by a team of 14 people assigned to reject what might have been neglected by harvesters. It should be noted that the vibrating table, set this year at the head of the sorting table, eliminated an impressive quantity of ladybugs and larva!

Due to the delicate sorting, the picking was not rapid and lasted until September 13th in hot weather with the threat of storms and rains hanging over us every day like a sword of Damoclès... that never arrived.

That is why I would like to stress again the importance of luck in the success of a vintage. If the grapes had been wet, even if only after one storm, the crop would have been lost in the twinkling of an eye. But on the contrary, the dates we had chosen to harvest were the right ones and we can thank the gods for giving us a mild end of season... and the possibility to harvest perfectly ripened grapes.

We must admit that the reduction of the crop, due to the attacks from the botrytis and other enemies of the vineyards and of the grapes, was significant in 2011, despite the defences we used. It should be around 30%. But this reduction is also a factor of quality. It has to be looked at like the result of a natural thinning: while the yield is reduced, the quality of the grapes is increased. In 2011 we would never have reached full maturity if a part of the crop had not been eliminated by botrytis or "roasting".

It rained more in the Côte de Beaune where the Montrachet was hit by hail in July, but the damage was not too serious. The veraison of the Chardonnay was late and the berries resisted better to the rainy period in early August. The botrytis had less impact than in the Côte de Nuits until September 3rd when a storm in the south of the Côte de Beaune resulted in many berries turning sour. We harvested earlier than expected, on September 6th, and the grapes that we picked were wonderfully golden with a 10% percentage of noble botrytis.

The vineyards were harvested in the following order:

Corton ........................................ September 2

La Tâche ..................................... September 3-5-6

Romanée-Conti et Montrachet ..... September 6

Richebourg .................................. September 7-8

Romanée-St-Vivant ..................... September 8-9

Grands-Echezeaux ....................... September 9-10

Echezeaux ................................... September 10-11

The vinification went without any particular problems. The only necessity was to cool down the grapes that were harvested in the sun and arrived warm at the winery, but of course we have modern methods to control temperatures. Bernard Noblet and his team were constantly on the watch. Their work was not easy: when the harvest takes place in warm conditions indeed, the vats tend to ferment all at the same time and it is essential to guide them on the way and rack off at the right time. Fermentations were especially long: 21 to 24 days with a good increase of temperature.

Devattings have just finished. The wines are full of "fruit". They already show some seduction and deepness, but also a lot of finesse. 2011 should be more in terms of elegance and purity rather than of power, even though it is too early to give a definitive opinion.

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