Tricky vintage. Singed or scorched (cramé or échaudé, take your pick) grapes. Rotten grapes. Grapes which had failed to turn colour properly. All needed to be sorted out. In Bordeaux there has been much experimentation with sorting in different ways, and all the properties do it – to a greater or lesser extent. Some are downright maniaque, but very often it is they who have made the best wines.
The French verb is trier, to sort, the noun un tri, so in Sauternes you perform multiple tris, to select in the best, most rot-affected grapes each time your go into the vineyard. In red wines, the selection is more or less the other way round, to select out anything that is not a perfect ripe black grape.
The vendange verte is really the first step in the process. In July the viticulturalists pass through the vineyards cutting out the bunches which are the last to turn colour – so as to force the vines to concentrate their energy on those that remain.
At the harvest, the grapes are picked by hand (in the crus classés at least). These days they are normally harvested into small cases so as not to crush grapes under the weight of others. There will already have been a first selection by the pickers, and a secondary one either at the end of the rows or on arrival at the chai. At Château Margaux they picked any parcels affected by the ‘échaudage‘ of June twice, so as to completely separate any singed bunches from the very start. When these were picked they were sorted as berries and some did go into the ‘Pavillon‘ (the second wine).
Once in the chai procedures vary. We were told of one machine which, after destemming passed the berries through a kind of air blade, which blows with sufficient force that anything that is not round (bits of stem, rotten or squashed grapes), will be caught by the blast and blown out. More normally there will be vibrating tables, manual selection (sometimes two teams, one after the other, or before and after de-stemming, to remove anything that is pinkish, or bits of stalk, and so on. But as one winemaker said, ‘it’s all very well for the first hour or so, but people get tired…’. One solution that has been in place for several years is the circular specially designed sorting table at Château l’Arrosée, which requires the sorter to actively pick up the grapes he wants and put them into the hole in the centre – a selection ‘in’ rather than a selection ‘out’.
This year’s big story was about the new optical sorting machines. Bruno Eynard at Lagrange has had one for three years, and described it as nothing more than a ‘gadget’ in 2009 and 2010 when the grapes were so healthy it was not needed, ‘but in 2011 it really came into its own – even after the manual sorting it removed around 3%’. He went on to emphasise that it’s all about how these machines are set up as to how much they remove. He was pleased to announce that from next year he will have the second generation version, with three cameras instead of just one. These machines can be set to detect colour variations which are invisible to the naked eye. This video gives an idea of what is going on. (Those with Celtic ancestry will feel at home with the soundtrack).
At Mouton, Philippe Dhallouin produced some extraordinary statistics: the new machine has removed 8% of the harvested grapes, and that when they looked at what had been rejected, they found it had a potential alcohol of only 5%, and nearly 10% acidity. So just as well then!
At Pichon Baron Jean-René Matignon said that even in 2009 and 2010 the optical sorter had removed 2-4% (across all their vineyards including Pibran), but that in 2011 it had removed 10% even after 5% had been discarded before the de-stemmer.
These machines cost €100,000 or more but the feeling amongst most users is that they pay for themselves very quickly in a year like 2011. If you don’t want to buy one, you can always rent – as the Bartons did at Mauvesin Barton in 2011 – their first harvest on this property which they only took full contol of in August.