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2013: a vintage rewarding the finest terroirs
26 November 2013
Mother Nature will have put us to the test in 2013, presenting an early challenge with a wet spring. Hence, difficult flowering conditions caused some coulure (shot berries) and millerandage (abnormal fruit set, with berries of uneven size). This environment paved the way for a small crop and the need for meticulous sorting during the harvest. Fortunately, a hot (especially in July), dry summer enabled the vines to recover from this difficult spring, although not enough to make up for the delay in phenological ripeness. Our vineyards were practically unaffected by the violent hail storms that devastated certain parts of Bordeaux.
The months of August and September were devoted to preparing for a late harvest. This included thinning out late-maturing bunches in each plot to retain only grapes that were ripe from a technological and organoleptic standpoint. Picking started on September 17th for the whites and on the 24th for the reds. The weather alternated between beautiful sunny periods and rainy ones. Combining two qualities essential to winegrowers – patience and vigilance – we had to find just the right balance between waiting for optimum ripeness and anticipating the arrival of rainy spells -generally conducive to the development of grey rot.
We also needed to be very rigorous in sorting the grapes to eliminate the consequences of a poor spring (millerandage) and autumn (grey rot). This was absolutely essential in 2013 in order to produce quality. To achieve this goal, we asked pickers to be extremely vigilant and to harvest only perfectly sound grapes.
In front of each vat room at Château Haut-Brion and Château La Mission Haut-Brion, a sorting table was installed to produce a further selection prior to destemming and before the introduction into an optical sorting machine (a "tribaie" densimetric sorting machine at Château Quintus) which helped us to fine tune the already meticulous selections made by the pickers and sorters.The alcoholic fermentation went very well and the last vats are now finishing their malolactic fermentation. The most salient feature of the 2013 vintage is that yields are very small – about 25-30 hectolitres per hectare, compared to 44 hl/ha last year.
The other major characteristic of the 2013 vintage is its quality, which is, of course, our ongoing and overriding concern. We are pleased to confirm that so far the wines show fine structure, reminiscent of such good vintages as 2004, 2007 and 2008.
Our work is now focusing on careful tasting to prepare the final blend – to "construct" the best possible wine for this vintage. This will be followed by barrel ageing adapted to the profile of each wine.
Even though Mother Nature did not exactly make things easy for us, we can honestly say as of now that our intimate understanding of our terroirs, combined with advances in sustainable viticulture and oenology, has enabled us to produce quality wines. Such results would unquestionably have been impossible 40 or 50 years ago...
Château Haut-Brion is the oldest and by far the smallest of the "Premiers Grands Crus" vineyards of the Gironde 1855 classification. Château Haut-Brion is one of the few remaining family-owned domains of the Bordeaux region with a history going back to the 16th century. It has been owned by the American Dillon family since 1935.
There is an amazing dual hit of black fruit and fine-grained tannins here, which is rounded off with a wonderful creaminess. The fruit is encased in a huge structure, which is not always easy to assess when tasting en primeur, but it has a lovely fleshiness to it and the wine is multi-layered with flavours evolving in the mouth. Notes of cocoa, vanilla and tar show towards the finish and it all ends completely seamlessly. The tannins are extremely ripe and well-integrated. Ch. Haut-Brion is often understated at this stage, which serves to underline how fine this wine will be.
Château Haut-Brion Thomas Jefferson, the american ambassador to Paris and later President of the United States of America, visited Haut Brion on May 25th 1787 commenting in his journals about the soils of the vineyards as well as mentioning that there were four vineyards of first quality Château Margaux, Château Latour Ségur, Château Haut Brion and Château La Fite. He also wrote:"Haut Brion is a wine of the first rank and seems to please the American palate more than all the others that I have been able to taste in France.“ Jean de Pontac began constituting the Haut-Brion vineyard, in the Graves region, in 1525.
His descendants went on to produce "New French Claret," the precursor of today's great wines. Their efforts enabled Arnaud III de Pontac to sell his wine under the estate's name as early as 1660. Called “vin de Pontac”, then Haut-Brion, it gained a fine reputation and enormous success in London. The first of the Bordeaux great growths was born. Through the centuries, the owners and managers of Haut-Brion have been obsessed with perpetuating the château's reputation for quality. Classified a First Growth in 1855, Haut-Brion has done everything possible ever since then to maintain its standing. To perpetuate its Grand Cru status, an estate and its constituent parts have to be maintained over the centuries, suitable grape varieties for each plot have to be chosen, and a relentless selection process carried out. Today, a great American family, the Dillons, has been continuing this tradition for seventy years.
Jean Philippe Delmas / Château Haut-Brion / Vintage 2012
The first notable estate to begin picking for the white wine was Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut Brion. They began harvesting, September 4, 2012. This was followed one day later by Chateau d’Yquem which started picking Sauvignon Blanc, September 5. Those early pickings are destined to be used in their dry white, Bordeaux wine “Y.” The real news for lovers of Chateau d’Yquem is the rain that fell in late September. That is exactly what is needed to help with the development of noble rot, or botrytis. 2012 marks the first vintage that the dry white wine of Chateau d’Yquem will be vinified in their new, gleaming vats. Chateau Haut Brion picked in the early morning hours as usual, with the goal being to preserve the grapes freshness and aromatic complexities. Jean Philippe Delmas described the fruit by saying it reminded him of fresh, sweet, peaches, pears, and even citrus.
Chateau Haut Brion completed their harvest for the white wine grapes at Haut Brion September 14. We managed to speak with Jean Philippe Delmas about the 2012 Bordeaux harvest for the white wine grapes at Haut Brion.
Tb: What dates did you start and finish your white wine harvest for the Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Sauvignon Gris?
Jean Philippe Delmas “For the Sauvignon Blanc, at Château Haut-Brion the harvest started September 5 and took two days, ending September 7. The Sauvignon Gris was picked in one day, September 6. We finished with the Semillon on September 14, after 4 days of picking.”
Tb: Was it the same dates for Chateau La Mission Haut Brion?
Jean Philippe Delmas It was almost the same, except it was one day earlier. We started picking the Sauvignon Blanc at Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, September 4, ending September 6. The Sauvignon Gris was started and finished September 4. The Semillon was harvested between September 6 and September 14.”
Tb: What are the potential alcohol levels and pH?
Jean Philippe Delmas “For Chateau Haut Brion, the alcohol is 14% and the pH is 3.37. For Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, the alcohol is slightly higher and there is a bit more freshness as the pH is 3.32.”
Tb: While it’s far too early, can you please let me know from an analytic point of view, what previous year does the 2012 Bordeaux vintage remind you of for the white wines?
Jean Philippe Delmas “At this stage of the winemaking process, from an analytic point of view, the 2009 vintage would be the closest.”
Soil: gravel soil with a subsoil of clay and sand Production area: 48 ha Grape varieties: 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Cabernet Franc, 42% Merlot Average age of vines: 37 years Harvest method: by hand with the sorting out on trailers Winemaking: computer controlled pumping-overs and thermoregulation according to the temperatures of the must and the marc Ageing: 18-22 months in 80% new barrels
The 2012 Bordeaux vintage report.
The 2012 Bordeaux vintage is a year for vineyard management and workers. Call it a wine makers vintage, or change your tune and name it vineyard managers vintage. Either descriptor works perfectly. The estates with the financial ability to take the necessary actions in the vineyards during the season, coupled with the willingness to severely declassify unripe grapes will produce the best wines. Even then, it’s going to be a difficult vintage with small quantities of wine. From start to finish, the growing season and 2012 Bordeaux harvest have been stressful for the vintners, the vines and with the grapes now in the process of being vinified, the winemakers.
The 2012 Bordeaux vintage did not get off to a good start. Following a cold winter and wet spring, the April rains drenched the Bordeaux wine region. Following the April rains, there were outbreaks of mildew, which required spraying. May was warmer than April. Things cooled down a bit again in June. All this brought on flowering that was late and uneven. That resulted in small bunches with berries that ripened at different times, which brought down the quantities and necessitated in serious work in the vineyards and intensive sorting at harvest.
While a growing season is never over until it’s over, uneven flowering is never a good omen. The lateness in the flowering pushed the entire vintage back 2 to 3 weeks, depending on the chateaux. Generally speaking, late harvests are not usually harbingers of good things to come.
If everything that took place until the end of June didn't offer what happened next offered additional challenges with 2012 Bordeaux vintage. After an average July, Bordeaux experienced a torrid heat spell and drought in August and September that stressed the vines, especially the young vines. At one point, temperatures soared to 42 degrees Celsius, which is 107 degrees! Other days crossed 100 degrees. It was extremely hot and dry. The vines shut down and the vintage was on track to be even later than originally anticipated. Close to the end of September, things improved due to the much hoped for combination of warm days, cool nights and some desperately needed rain, which helped nourish the vines. The initial days of October offered reasonably warm temperatures during the day, coupled with cooler weather at night for vintners with Merlot ready to pick.
In the Medoc, it was hurry up and wait. Tom Petty could have been blasting with “Waiting is The Hardest Part,” because growers needed to wait as the Cabernet Sauvignon was having difficulties ripening. This was already October. The conventional wisdom says, at some point, there was little to be gained by waiting and more to lose, so the 2012 Bordeaux harvest started taking place. Some estates began picking young Merlot in late September, but most held back until about October 1, with a few growers waiting another week or longer. Most producers brought all their fruit in by the middle of October.
Pomerol is usually the first appellation to harvest, due to their Merlot dominated vines. Interestingly, picking was taking place simultaneously in the Left Bank on October 1. Numerous Pessac Leognan properties began their harvest before Pomerol. Chateau Haut Brion began working on their young Merlot vines September 17 and Chateau Haut Bailly was not far behind, with a September 27 start date. Most chateaux were in the thick of things by October 4, although Domaine de Chevalier held off until October 8.
While pleasant, cooler weather was initially forecast to continue, by October 8, things changed quickly when massive amounts of rain dropped over the entire Bordeaux region. With accompanying temperatures in the mid to upper 60’s and higher in some areas, vintners were concerned about the potential of Botrytis, due to the humid, tropical conditions. At that point, the fruit needed to be picked, regardless of the state of maturity. Similar to what took place last year with the 2011 Bordeaux vintage, ripening was uneven. It was not just bunches that were not ripening, individual grapes in bunches achieved varying degrees of ripeness which made sorting more important than ever. Optical sorting was more widely used than ever with the 2012 Bordeaux harvest.
2012 Bordeaux could be a year where the dry, white Bordeaux wines shine. The berries were picked in September, under optimum conditions. Most producers were done harvesting the white wine grapes by September 25. The same cannot be said for the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. This has been a difficult year for the development of Botrytis, due in part to the cold nights. With November closing in, most of the top estates were still nervously waiting to harvest.
All this adds up to low yields for most producers. In fact, the French minister of agriculture reported that 2012 would produce the lowest yields since 1991. It’s interesting to remember previous years like 1991, a vintage that forced some properties to declassify their entire harvest. With today’s modern technology and vineyard management techniques, vintages like 1991 which produced atrocious wine are a thing of the past. Bordeaux is not the only European wine region to suffer in 2012. Across the board, numerous European vineyards experienced difficult conditions. It was announced that across the board, production of European wines were at their lowest levels since 1975.
Generally speaking, low yields are usually a good thing. Low yields produce more concentrated wines. But when low yields are coupled with grapes that did not achieve full, phenolic ripeness, at the end of the day, the only thing vintners are primarily left with is less wine. If the small quantities of wine available to sell are used as an excuse by owners as a reason to raise prices, grapes are not the only thing that will be in short supply. Customers for their wines will be in an even shorter supply than the wines.
2011 Bordeaux has not sold well to consumers. Prices for 2012 Bordeaux wine need to be lower in price than the previous year. This is healthy for the marketplace in the long run. Ample stocks of good wines from top years are still available for sale. Consumers can easily find strong Bordeaux wine from 2010, 2009 and even 2005. There are different vintages for different markets. Some wine buyers prefer more classic or lighter years. Other wine collectors seek riper, bolder years. The marketplace welcomes both types of wines and consumers. But each vintage and style needs to be appropriately priced. Bordeaux should reduce prices on vintages like 2012 and 2011. In turn, there are wine buyers willing to pay more for the best years.
Reports from producers on the 2012 Bordeaux harvest have ranged. For the red wines, some were quoted as saying the pulp is ripe, the seeds varied in ripeness, but the skins did not ripen. In the Left Bank, there are estates that feel their Merlot turned out better than their Cabernet. In the Right Bank, producers in Pomerol and St. Emilion are optimistic about the quality of their 2012 Bordeaux wines.
The early reports show lower alcohol levels for the wines than more recent, highly rated, expensive vintages. 2012 Bordeaux wine has the potential to be classic in style, which should please thirsty fans of traditional Bordeaux wine. While quantities are small, in many cases, it’s not much different than what the chateaux were able to produce in 2011. Many vintners are comparing the 2012 Bordeaux vintage a blend of 2002 and 2008.
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