Field Notes from Bordeaux 2023: The Tale of Single Spies

By | 29 April 2024

How did widespread mildew affect the Bordeaux 2023 vintage?


Simon Field MW

Mildew was a persistent threat for Bordeaux châteaux in 2023. But how much say did it have on the character and quality of the vintage, asks Simon Field MW in his latest blog from the 2023 en primeur tastings.

Shakespeare’s sorrows, we recall, came not as single spies but in battalions. In Bordeaux, of late, harvests seem to provoke something of a generalization, threatened therefore by spies rather than by the battalions. In 2017 it was frost, in 2022 the drought and so forth. In 2023 it has been the turn of mildew to take center stage. A very canny spy, downy mildew, and often, as is the nature of espionage, preparing the ground for future woe. The battalions are usually lurking in the wings. 

2023 could be a year that stands out significantly due to the division it created between the well-resourced and those less so. Antoine Mariau of Château Nénin positions this year as one that favored the affluent. The amount of resources and work required to combat issues was immense. However, those who could afford it could ensure minimal damage. A small number might even argue that the end result was improved concentration in the grapes. Mildew required intense effort to keep at bay. The copper solution, likened to suntan lotion by Jean Jacques Bonnie at Malartic Lagravière, needed to be repeatedly applied – an expensive and time-consuming process. This was unaffordable for many producers in areas such as Entre Deux Mers and Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux, that were greatly affected. Those that could afford the treatment managed to protect their vines. Olivier Bernard, was emphatic about his approach. In 2023, he definitely had to apply more copper than the recommended limit of 4 tons, despite this being lesser than the hundreds of tons used a century ago.

Mildew was a result of gradually increasing warmth subsequent to budburst. It was less dangerous but persisted in 2018 and 2021. The temperatures steadily climbed as spring progressed, with April and May recording temperatures one degree above average, and June witnessing an unusual three-degree rise. This, combined with persistent rain made conditions almost tropical and called for preventative measures. Juliette Couderc at L’Evangile recalls a particularly difficult week in June from 19th to 24th, when 70mm of rain fell, requiring four rounds of treatment.

Producers without resources lost a significant portion of their crops. Even renowned, supposedly wealthy estates such as Smith Haut Lafite, which employs biodynamic practices, were not spared. They suffered losses, especially of their Merlot which was on an early cycle and therefore more susceptible. Fabien Teitgen, the Technical Director at Smith, took it in his stride, saying that against nature, he is nothing but an open-minded farmer.

Mildew, even if kept at bay, can always return, as was the case in 2018. As it turned out, there was little recurrence in 2023 after the travails of June, but its incipient threat had a bearing on the approach to subsequent leaf-plucking (especially as the humid conditions encourage extravagant foliage) and green harvesting. All the more surprising then, to learn that the better-known appellations, those with the resources, were able to report yields which were generally hovering around the average or in some cases (St-Estèphe comes to mind) higher than usual. Neither quality nor quantity suffered here, a far cry from many labels bearing the more modest colours of AOC Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur, where overall yields were closer to 30 than 50 hl/ha. The commercial impact of such a shortfall can not be overstated. 

Very different outcomes in 2023, then, and largely down to means rather than expertise. Once vanquished, the mildew, unlike, say, the heat stress of 2022, had minimal bearing on the personality of the vintage which followed. It served, however, to underline the caprice of nature and the need for vigilance. Writing this, at the end of April 2024, it is fair to say that Bordeaux has experienced plenty of contrasts; temperatures of 29°C (84°F) two weeks ago and then last week near-freezing nights and the very real dangers of frost revisited, with a battery of defences brought to bear to try to keep it at bay. One can never be too sure where the next spy may be coming from. 

Bordeaux 2023 Field notes: Out of sorts?

Bordeaux 2023 Field notes: Château La Tour Figeac—La Chartreuse de St-Emilion

Bordeaux 2023 Field notes: House of cards

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