BORDEAUX VINTAGE REPORT by ANDREW CAILLARD MW
The 2013 vintage in Bordeaux was one of the most challenging since 1965 and 1968. Thomas Duroux of Chateau Palmer describes it as “the most complicated vintage in 20 years”. It rained almost continuously during spring. Flowering was uneven resulting in poor set, millerandage and coulure. The threat of mildew was mollified by the arrival of hot dry weather during summer. For a while vignerons were hopeful that plentiful sunshine and benign weather would allow the vines to catch up. Violent storms, wind and intermittent heavy rainfall in July and August hampered vine growth and created difficulties with fruiting. High humidity and cool temperatures prior to harvest led to a slowdown in ripening and the perfect environment for botrytis (grey rot) infection. Merlot did not perform well on the left bank. Chateau Margaux certainly was vulnerable to these conditions, but others, in their efforts to talk up the vintage, have shown superb Gallic denial. You would be forgiven for believing this might be an exceptional vintage; such is the brilliance of the best professional liars in the world.
In years gone by, the weather conditions, uneven ripening and disease pressure would have resulted in disastrous wines. Chateau Margaux avoided the worst rains by bringing in a picking team of 300 people to harvest the crop at lightning speed. Chateau Lafite also raced against the elements and won. Most Chateaux do not have this type of luxury. Sorting tables, were “derigeur” during the harvest, allowing the best berries to be selected. I can’t remember seeing any red wine with noticeable botrytis characters. The fruit, however, did not generally ripen to optimum levels. Many producers found it necessary to chaptalize their vinifications to allow the wine to reach a more attractive level of alcohol. Some Chateaux, including Cos d’Estournel at 12.7% alc, made their wines apparently without the addition of sugar. Most estates, however, found it difficult to achieve phenolic ripeness. Tannins are the framework of all red wines. They don’t have to be perfectly ripe; an “al-dente” texture can give a compelling freshness and appealing structure. But it was easy to over extract in 2013. The very best wines were those that were “unpushed” and intuitive to vintage conditions. The use of saignée (juice run off), reverse osmosis and other methods to concentrate wine, is never talked about by winemakers, but there were a few wines with soupy textures and unnatural mouthfeel.
Many of the 2013 primeurs wines have only been in barrel for a few weeks. This creates challenges because the oak characters can detract from the inherent quality of the young wines. Many Chateaux will no doubt adjust their oak maturation philosophies to match the character of the vintage. Others will use oak as a cosmetic or builders bog to fill the structural inadequacies of their wine. Acidity is also strongly present in the wines this year. This element is essential for the freshness, tension and life expectancy of any vintage. In riper years, acidity tends to play second fiddle, yet in 2013, it is a principal violin. Fruit character, perhaps the most important feature of any wine, inevitably varies according to sub region and vineyard. The very best wines of this vintage have the aromatic quality, persistence and depth of good vintages. Ultimately the most triumphant red wines are proportionate to the commitment and the financial resources of the wine producer.
Although Merlot struggled in the Medoc, it performed well on the right bank. Pomerol was comparatively resplendent with generous fruit and riper tannin backbones than elsewhere. St Emilion was also capable of making some lovely wine, but as usual the results were mixed. Pessac Leognan reds were muscular and on the rustic side, whereas the whites were minerally and fresh with strong acidities. Many feel that the dry whites are excellent. For most Australians, these wines don’t really offer value. There were some good Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant red wines made in the Medoc. However, no single sub region prevailed. If anything I preferred Pauillac, especially Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste and Chateau Batailley.
The humidity that hampered the 2013 harvest in the Medoc and elsewhere worked in favour of Sauternes and Barsac producers. There was a ‘widespread proliferation” of botrytis cinerea (noble rot) during Bordeaux’s wet autumn. The wines range from magnificent to standard in quality. The very best have a beautiful honey, barley water complexity, understated richness and viscosity and fresh acidity. Chateau d’Yquem is remarkably good. The biodynamic Chateau Climens is a beautiful expressive wine. Every year, I taste it in barrel and in parts. I can imagine the final blend and it will not disappoint.
The 20% drop in exchange rates between the Australian Dollar and the Euro over the last year will make the 2013 more expensive that the better 2012 and 2011 vintages. Unfortunately this will have a significant impact on market opportunities in Australia. It is unlikely the Chateau owners will drop their prices significantly enough to make this campaign worthwhile. The drop in demand from China and the “pipeline” full in other markets will result in sluggish sales across the world. Although this year’s primeur campaign will test the resilience of the traditional Bordeaux wine trade, there is still an impressive level of optimism. I think everyone is looking forward to moving on from the 2013 vintage. On the other hand this is the type of vintage, with a touch of bottle age, that could reappear in a more favourable light in a few years time.
Bordeaux Vintage Report
Bordeaux 2013 has been a challenge for everyone and considering that the vintage was written off by some, even before a wine was tasted, it is pleasing to find that good terroir and good winemakers have created good wines.
Our Chairman, Simon Berry, in his blog about the potential of this vintage, reflected on how " we may never see a bad vintage again. The weather conditions in 2013 were truly dreadful: only a hot July and August bucked the trend. Some estates – anything between 20 and 50, depending on whose palates you trust – had the terroir, the technology, the money or the mastery to come up with wines which are truly worthy of their brands."
Simon Berry concludes that a new pattern emerges in the way Bordeaux vintages are assessed. "There will be no more highs and lows, peaks and troughs, triumphs and disasters – now we will have great years, and perfectly decent years. So perhaps we should treat Bordeaux like we treat our music: looking out for the latest release from our favourite artist, and buying it expecting to be surprised at their development, or a new interpretation. We could use painting as an analogy, or a favourite actor if you prefer. But the concept of sticking to a group of your favourite châteaux, buying a case or so from each vintage and watching their development over the years is not such a strange one. "
Bordeaux Red Wines Assessment
Historically low yields, historically different blends (Ch. Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande in Pauillac have produced a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon for the first time in 2013), and the requirement for rigorous selection, were recurring themes that winemakers were keen to discuss with us during our visit to sample the vintage in late March and early April 2014.
This, plus the effect of weather patterns during the growing season and the differences in terroir have caused great inconsistencies in style between appellations and even between wines from the same commune or indeed vineyard. Take for example Ch. Margaux, who used no Merlot for the first time in their Grand Vin for 2013, and Ch. Palmer who had 49% Merlot in their blend. These two properties from Margaux have different terroir with Paul Pontallier of Ch. Margaux explaining how theirs is perfectly suited to Cabernet Sauvignon and Thomas Deroux of Ch. Palmer being very happy with his Merlot harvest. Good terroir and having plantings of the most suitable grape varieties upon it made the creation of good wine a bit easier.
However, winemakers still had a crucial role to play with the most successful wines of the vintage being able to preserve the balance between the wines’ aromatic expression and a precise, silky structure. Rich, fleshy fruit was hard to find and quite simply came from properties who were able to conduct slow, gentle extraction during vinification. Handling the fruit gently was very important as the grapes were more fragile than in recent years.
2013 is not a great vintage and, across the board, we may not even be able to class 2013 as a good vintage. But what is unfair, is to judge every wine as a collective. In years such as these it is important to taste as many wines as possible and judge them on their merits, while meeting the winemakers to hear about the difficulties they face and learning how they overcame them.
All vintage assessments have to begin with understanding how the weather influenced the winemaking process and it is quite clear that 2013 was a complicated vintage. Spring was long and cold, with the first six months of the year seeing very heavy rainfall. In fact, the rainfall was so high in St Estèphe that Ch. Calon-Ségur recorded an extraordinary 230 days of rain during 2013, compared with a 30-year average of just 124.
Average temperatures in April and May were the lowest of the decade and this all caused great concern, with many seeing flowering severely delayed and others fearing that their vines may shut down completely. In almost all cases, this lack of sunshine caused coulure and millerandage, which reduced the yields.
Vines don’t tend to prosper in cold, damp conditions so it was fortunate that the summer weather improved, with July proving to be particularly hot, and followed by some extremely high temperatures and stormy weather in August, especially in the earlier part of the month.
At the end of the summer and moving into September, the weather became even more unpredictable with a mixture of humidity, rain and warm temperatures causing concern.
Ripening isn’t necessarily affected by this type of weather pattern, but it does increases the likelihood of botrytis, which was found at many estates. Where severe attacks of botrytis took place, and indeed in many cases where predicting the optimum period for grape ripening and thus harvesting wasn’t possible, estates had to harvest very quickly and relied upon the responsiveness, perseverance and hard work of their grape pickers tremendously.
In many cases the grapes did ripen fully, but the unfortunate mixture of unpredictable weather during the key early and late months, meant that many properties struggled to provide a richness and flesh to the fruit on the palate, something which is found almost across the board in the exceptional and warm vintages such as 2009.
Having been difficult to predict throughout the growing season, and generally arriving very quickly and requiring fast responses, harvest arrived late, with some properties harvesting in late September and others during early-mid October. This of course varies from estate to estate and indeed across the variety of different grape varieties which are planted. It should be noted however, that whilst the harvest should be classed as late, we are only talking about a difference of a week to ten days in some cases.
Preventative methods proved their full worth once again. With canopy management, de-leafing, green harvesting, and in many places bunch selecting in August, having a positive effect on the outcome of the wines. Despite this, ripening within bunches was still uneven, so a lot of work was required in the vineyard and in the cellar, carefully selecting and carefully managing the fruit throughout the winemaking process.