Jean-Michel Cazes: An unforgettable harvest
Author: Jean-Michel Cazes
Charming, eloquent and energetic, Jean-Michel Cazes is one of Bordeaux’s legendary winemaking figures. Here, the man behind Ch. Lynch-Bages gives us an insight into the harvest that no one will forget.
Wednesday 23rd September: The day’s yield at Ch. Lynch-Bages
Tonight, we have completed two thirds of our 2020 harvest at Ch. Lynch-Bages. So far the weather has been favourable; we’re expecting a little rain at the end of the week, but most of the harvest will be safe in our vats, and we no longer have any real worries. The silhouette of the vintage is already taking shape. The bunches are numerous and well formed. The grapes, which are very ripe, have remained small because of the drought that affected the region during the summer. The skins are thick and healthy, and the juice is not abundant.
We can already say that the 2020 vintage will be colourful and concentrated and will have a significant tannic load – an asset necessary for making a wine for laying down. Nature has spoken. Now it’s up to the cellar master who, in the coming weeks, will have to bring a great deal of tact and care to the vinification process. It’s up to him to give the finished wine the elegance and balance which, along with concentration, are the hallmarks of a high-quality vintage. In our vineyard, harvest time is the high point of the wine-growing year, the moment when the winemaker’s work finally comes to fruition.
In the vineyard at Lynch-Bages
It is also the annual meeting of the men and women of the estate and the seasonal grape-pickers. At Lynch-Bages, about 300 people live together for a fortnight. Most of them are regulars. Many come from the region; others have arrived by special bus from the villages around Mirandela in northern Portugal; others come from Spain or Eastern Europe. The foreigners find their accommodation in the comfortable bungalows of the nearby campsite of Saint-Laurent-Médoc. All languages are spoken in the rows of vines. At the stoves, 12 hours a day, the eight cooks are at work to keep the hungry fed.
This year, the grape harvest has a new dimension. Our new vat room facilities, which we started building in 2017, are at last ready and we are using them for the first time. We have to get used to the premises and master the new equipment. It takes us one or two days to get up and running, and to learn the ropes; but we’re quickly up to speed. Our equipment works perfectly, and is everything we hoped it would be.
After three years of work and three vintages produced in temporary facilities, our entire team is now seeing our hopes and plans become a reality. As the days pass, we come to understand that we are now able to carry out our vinification with even greater precision, and to make the most of the quality of the Pauillac terroir.
The challenge of Covid
In addition to these long-planned technical changes, there is – of course – an unforeseen event; the vast, destabilising imponderable which has upset our organisation. Above all, 2020 will remain in our memory as the year in which the coronavirus erupted. For several weeks now, the epidemic has been threatening the smooth running of the harvest. The fear of contagion is everywhere. In the vineyard, of course, where our three harvesting teams operate. And, above all, in the cellars where the appearance of a “cluster” could lead to a paralysis of operations – the consequences of which would be difficult to predict.
We have prepared ourselves with the greatest of care and have taken every possible precaution. First of all, we had to make sure that everyone coming to help with the harvest had taken a Covid-19 detection test. In Mirandela, a local laboratory tested the entire Portuguese team before they travelled to France. In Pauillac, the Lynch-Bages staff underwent the same test at the nearby laboratory. For the seasonal workers, the Regional Health Agency, the official body, did it very well and delegated two nurses to take the samples. Everyone played the game. Over two days, last Monday and Tuesday, we were able to test everyone.
Aware of what was at stake, all the health services were mobilised. We didn’t have to have to wait long for the results – they were with us within 24 hours. Only one positive case was detected among our potential harvesters, and, thankfully, we were able to isolate them before there was any risk to the others.
Wearing a mask is compulsory everywhere. In the vineyards as in the cellars, we obey the instructions with great discipline. Everyone is aware of what is at stake. We’ve had to make lots of changes, for example instead of the usual communal fountain where the pickers can go to get a drink, everyone has individual water bottles. The team leaders are equipped with electronic thermometers; they take temperatures at the slightest alert. Hand sanitiser dispensers have been installed everywhere. Everything is constantly disinfected. And, of course, we wash our hands again and again and again. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to have our meals together. Some receive trays, boxes or single-use bags. Others are welcomed in turn, in small groups, into the huge dining tent set up in front of the château, where guests can maintain the necessary distance from each other.
In the vat room, there are no more visitors. There are no invitations to the harvest kitchen either. Gone are the many friends, neighbouring château owners or Bordeaux wine merchants who come every year to share our table, taste a few wines and soak up the harvest climate. This year, we have sacrificed the joyful atmosphere of the harvest and the cheerfulness of the meals for the sake of safety.
Now, there are only three days left. Soon, the big doors of the vat room will close and the pickers will be back on the road. Like me, they will regret having been deprived of this year’s gerbaude, the traditional celebration of the end of the harvest, by the arrival of a visitor as malicious as it was unexpected.
But, there is hope; we will meet again next year.