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Nimble Adaptations at Saint-Estèphe's Lafon-Rochet
By Rebecca Murphy
Nov 3, 2020
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Château Lafon-Rochet is in the Saint-Estèphe appellation in Bordeaux.  It has been owned by the Tesseron family (not related to the Tesserons of Pontet-Canet in Pauillac) since 1960.  Today a third-generation family member, Basile, has taken on the responsibilities of estate.  I recently attended a virtual live harvest at Lafon-Rochet guided by Tesseron that was created by The Bordeaux Wine School and moderated by Mary Gorman McAdams, MW.  

We met Tesseron in a vineyard near the winery where a crew was harvesting in the background.  He discussed key points of the vintage, which appears to be an early one at every step along the way.  Budburst beginning March 20, was 15 days earlier than average, flowering was around May 23, 12 days earlier, veraison around July 29, eight days earlier.  So, the 2020 harvest was two weeks earlier.  

He noted that temperatures during the growing season have been 2.3 C warmer than 30-year average.  From June 20 to August 10 there was only 8 millimeters of rainfall.  August & September were warm and dry, but not excessively dry which allowed steady ripening.  It was dry and warmish weather during the harvest.  Merlot is ripening well, and they were the grapes that we saw the picking crew harvesting.  Cabernet Sauvignon is slower to ripen and Tesseron said there is a risk of botrytis.  Overall, the grapes have lower acidity and lower density of anthocyanins, while sugar levels are moderate.  
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Winegrowers are learning to manage new extreme growing seasons.  “There is no easy comparison with any recent vintage,” he said, “in fact the past three vintages have had extremes unique to each year.”  He noted that there was lots of rain in winter, then, “just after lockdown (for Coronavirus), amazing weather.  My kids were swimming every day. Then a bit of rain, so good flowering, but then rain again, so we didn’t produce much.”

Tesseron acknowledged that Bordeaux winegrowers are accustomed to seeing extreme weather.  For example, in 2011 a hailstorm destroyed about 60 percent of their crop.  However, he said “My father is 80 and he has never seen anything like this – the heat waves, the dry, the storms we have had lately.  We knew there will be storms, but not all at the same time, and we don’t know how to play with that.  That’s the reality.  Then, you are asking is the 2020 vintage similar to other vintages?  To be honest, in the past 3-4 years, I can’t say that any vintage is looking like another.  And, I couldn’t rely on historical points of view like weather conditions because there was nothing like it.”  

Because of these tumultuous weather events, he decided he needed to relearn how to work in the vineyards.  He found people to help him, specialists in soils and pruning to develop vineyard practices and techniques to deal with these extreme conditions.  “We thought we needed to work the soil, we thought it was a good thing.”  They stopped using the herbicide Roundup and began to work the soil thinking it was the next step.  But in working the soil “we found we were killing it somehow.  The first few inches were drying and we didn’t have any life there,” he said.  They have adopted an approach of regenerative agriculture, specifically agroforestry, which is cultivation and use of trees and shrubs with crops and livestock in agricultural systems. “Somehow, for ages our viticulture has been working against nature and now we are thinking, let’s go the other way around.  Agriculture and nature must go together, and mankind is going to link that together,” he explained.  The idea is to give back life to the upper soil by protecting it from wind and sun.  Rather than applying commercial fertilizers, they are using wood mulch to protect the soils and provide nutrients to soil fungi.  “We’re going to replant about 13,000 trees throughout the whole property to make a connection between the vines and nature,” he said.

Other changes in the vineyard include delayed pruning, increasing vine trunk height to reduce leaf area, limiting leaf removal to protect grapes from sun’s rays, reducing planting density, adapting harvest dates and times, choosing rootstocks and grape varieties that ripen later and more resistant to water stress, resistant varieties, rethinking plot location, reducing pesticides and preserving biodiversity.  He also wants to allow grass to grow and to reduce treatments, even natural and organic, to reduce involvement with the vines.  He has reduced bottle weight so they now have one of the lightest bottles.  He plans to stop using wood boxes replacing them with cardboard. “Many things,” he said, “and it is only the beginning.”

He was showing us the grape reception area in the winery and noted the optical sorter, an amazing machine that selects the grapes for the desired characteristics defined by the winemaker.  Tesseron said “I was not a big fan of it did not want to use it at all.”  However, his consultant Jean-Claude Berrouet, retired winemaker from Château Petrus, said to him “you know this machine that you don’t want to use, I have been waiting for this kind of machine my whole life.”  Tesseron told us, “We began to use it.  And yes, it is working really well.”

Regarding the 2020 vintage he said, “The wine is good, no question about it.  The juice is really good.”  He noted that the only problem is the lower quantity.  “It should be well balanced.  The level of alcohol is quite low.  It should stay around 14%.”  He also pointed out that it’s the beginning of the processing so his opinion may change.  McAdams asked about freshness.  “Since we picked a bit earlier than usual, we should have freshness and as the botrytis and rot is coming a bit early we are still going to keep the freshness.  It’s funny because you have the drought with the little shriveled berries, but we aren’t going to keep those, only those bunches that are intact and those are really good, really fresh.  It’s not a perfect year in terms of ripening.  The seeds are not brown, so it’s not perfectly ripe but it is going to be fresh, that’s the good thing about it.”