Disaster strikes hard when a winemaker, or even an entire wine making region, suffers the impact of severe weather during the growing season. Unlike many other wine regions across the world Bordeaux has the advantage in that its wines are made from a blend. In red wine blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot are the most planted but Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere are also permitted. With Bordeaux white wines Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle are widely used and Sauvignon Gris less so. Different grape varieties ripen at different times and can be a fail safe if one prominent variety succumbs to pests, disease or the weather. With the 2013 vintage there was a Merlot crisis and winemakers used higher proportions of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc to compensate. However, if conditions are very bad (as in 2013) and the entire range of grapes are decimated in a vineyard; Bordeaux has some little known added benefits that can be used to try to save the day.
Centuries ago Bordeaux in the 18th century used to improve its blends by adding wines from Hermitage in the Rhone to their blends. It was done in times when there was a particularly poor vintage (this was also common practice in Burgundy). Wines from Bénicarlo in Spain were also sometimes added. Nowadays it is not permitted to add wines from another region (let alone country) to Bordeaux wines under the AOC rules. But you might be surprised to discover that in a poor year Bordeaux winemakers can add 15% of ‘reserve wine’ to the blend from a better vintage. Likewise, they can also dilute a good vintage with 15% from a lesser year (this could be useful in a big bold vintage with high alcohol levels that needs ‘cooling down’).
This is known as the 85/15 Rule and was brought in by the EU, partly to level the playing field with New World winemakers who had been using this technique for some time. The 85/15 Rule applies to all EU countries and it means that winemakers can ‘top up’ with 15% of a wine with another vintage – provided, of course, that it comes from the same vineyard. It’s common in Champagne, where you often see ‘Reserve’ on the bottle labels. The 85/15 Rule is useful as it allows the winemaker to balance the wine, improve the blend and top up production from a low yielding crop.
However as long as the wine is only topped up by 15% and no more, this is not indicated on the bottle labels. So if you are a follower or collector of certain vintages you might not necessarily have a wine that is made solely from the vintage depicted on the label. The 85/15 Rule allows for wines to be topped up with older or younger vintages; so your 2007 may be 15% 2005. And, of course, this EU rule doesn’t just apply to Bordeaux.
The 85/15 Rule also applies to grape varieties and this affects New World wines rather than Bordeaux vintages. For example a wine can be labelled a Pinot Grigio even though 15% of it may contain another grape. As long as the remaining 85% is made with Pinot Grigio, that’s what goes on the label.
The other practice that Bordeaux winemakers can turn to in the event of a catastrophe is VCI (Volume Complementaire Individuel) or ‘Individual Supplementary Volume’. VCI was also brought in by the EU and Bordeaux has been experimenting with this technique which has been used successfully in Chablis since 2005. It’s also used in the Rhone and Monbazillac. Most Bordeaux red wine producing AOCs have been using VCI since 2010 and Bordeaux dry white wine producers since 2013. Bernard Farges, President of the CIVB, has explained that he has used VCI himself, adding 2011 and 2012 VCI to his 2013 vintage to ameliorate a crop failure. AOCs that are not taking part in the VCI experiment (as yet) are Moulis, Saint Estephe, Margaux, Pauillac, Saint Julien, Pessac Leognan, Saint Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac and Canon Fronsac.
VCI is a sort of ‘liquid insurance’ as winemakers can ask for permission to use it in their blend during a bad year when their harvest is poor. VCI is a reserve of wine and it works by allowing winemakers to keep their surplus wine from one year to complete any gaps in subsequent years. The winemaker must prove that he has need of his VCI in order to reach full production. (Winemakers are not allowed to exceed their permitted yield so using VCI will not increase their production, only sustain it).
Many vineyards in Bordeaux were devastated by severe hail in 2013 and vines were damaged, affecting the crop. Yields for 2013 were low and some vineyards saw their harvest decimated. In this instance these vineyards could apply for VCI, which would allow them to add wine from the 2012 or 2014 VCI vintages to top up their production.
VCI is strictly regulated by the INAO, CIVB and Ministry of Agriculture and a winemaker can only add 5 hectolitres per hectare of VCI wine to his vintage. Grape crops (yield) in Bordeaux are measured by hectolitres per hectare and each AOC has its own regulations as to the maximum yield (it’s usually between 50 -55 hectolitres per hectare).
Winemakers producing VCI each year also have to follow stringent checks. Each VCI has its own vintage and it can not be sold. It can only be kept as a reserve for a limited number of years and any unused VCI wine past this date is destroyed.
Perhaps, with climate change on the agenda, we may see more Bordelaise winemakers using the 85/15 Rule and VCI. I’ll keep you posted . . .