A few weeks ago, I blogged about the record high summer temperatures across much of Europe and how these might lead to the same problems growers experienced in the heatwave year of 2003. Then, many wines tasted ‘cooked’ and lacked freshness and most were past their best much sooner than expected. But, the reports I’ve seen recently suggest that my worries may have been misplaced. In fact, the word is that, so far, the grapes harvested this year have shown excellent levels of ripeness and volumes are up on 2017.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that there have been no challenges during the growing season; many have noted that, as the heat was accompanied by humidity, vine diseases, notably mildew which attacks both leaves and berries, have been a major problem. And harvesting has had to be careful and painstaking as pickers are often finding healthy grapes and shrivelled, dried out berries in the same bunches.
But the 2018 harvest is only part way through and, where later ripening varieties are involved, things are still uncertain. Take Bordeaux as an example: there, the white grapes were all gathered in by the end of August and are now safely in the fermentation tanks. Now, thoughts are turning to the Merlot, which, in most places will be reaching full ripeness. I’ve not heard that the storms that affected the UK last week had an impact on Bordeaux to any great extent and, hopefully, that variety will be soon be picked and it, too, will no longer be subject to the vagaries of our autumn weather.
More problematic is the Cabernet Sauvignon which some growers are insisting needs at least another three weeks of dry, warm weather to fully ripen. Will they get it? There will certainly be nervous eyes looking at the skies for rain clouds. The decision of when to pick is such a crucial one; too early means the grapes are short of peak ripeness and the wine will taste thin and green but waiting may risk rain, rot and a ruined crop.
The challenges of being a winemaker!
There’s more Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the world than any other wine grape – almost 300,000 hectares (just over 700,000 acres) according to the comprehensive study published by the University of Adelaide in 2013. That area has more than doubled since 1990 and is almost certainly still growing. There are now commercial plantings of the variety in more than 30 countries.
I’m not surprised at its popularity with growers; it’s a grape capable of producing very high quality red wines and its name is widely recognised by wine lovers – always a help with marketing. But it needs to be grown in the right conditions: too cool and you get unripe, leafy flavours; too warm and the wine tastes of jammy or cooked fruit.
Interestingly, in its home region of Bordeaux, you almost never see a wine made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon – there, they usually blend it with Merlot and other varieties – a legacy of the time when that part of France was, on average, a couple of degrees cooler than it is today and growers regularly struggled to ripen their Cabernet.
But elsewhere – California, Australia, South Africa, Chile and the ‘new kid on the block’, China – 100% Cabernets are common and it’s not hard to find a really good bottle, for example Robert Oatley’s Finisterre from Margaret River in Western Australia. The climate there is ideal with warm, dry summers meaning that harvest can often take place as early as February (equivalent to August in the Northern Hemisphere), minimising the threat from autumn rain.
Finisterre is quite restrained and subtle but has the lovely sweet blackcurrant fruit flavours that I always associate with a good Cabernet Sauvignon, topped out with some soft spice and just enough tannin to suggest that the 2013 vintage has a good few years more ahead of it. Usually £18.99 at Waitrose, but it’s worth waiting for one of that supermarket’s regular ‘25% off’ offers when this wine becomes a great bargain and one not to be missed.
Not so long ago, I blogged about a Chilean wine that was voted overwhelmingly the best of the day at a course on the wines of the Americas I ran at Stoke Lodge. And now, another bottle from the same country, opened at home recently, has confirmed my view that Chilean wine really is going places.
Errazuriz’s Max Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Waitrose, £12.99) is full of lovely red berry fruits enhanced with subtle vanilla flavours from 12 months oak ageing. At almost 3 years old, the tannins are still noticeable but neither they, nor the 14% alcohol are in any way intrusive. This wine is just beautifully balanced.
Errazuriz is a long established company producing a number of different wines. Their entry level bottles – widely available in supermarkets and other high street chains for around £8 – £10 – are always reliable and worth buying, while their more premium offerings often outshine wines selling for several £s more.
Their ‘Max’ range, named in honour of the company’s founder, Don Maximiano Errazuriz, is from sites at the foot of Mount Aconcagua where the combination of warm days and cool nights is ideal for ripening the grapes while retaining good acidity. The Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted comes from vines planted more than 20 years ago on gravel-rich soils. This copies what we find in Bordeaux where the best Cabernet Sauvignon regularly comes from vines planted on well-drained, gravelly soils; the reflected heat from the stones helps ripen the grapes while the good drainage means the vines have enough water to grow but aren’t rooted in cold, damp earth. The use of older vines, too, is a sign of quality – they typically yield wines with more intensity and character.
So, while wines from Chile are already deservedly popular in the UK, I’d suggest exploring those at a slightly higher price – that’s where the bargains really begin.