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The « en primeur » week officially begins today. Nearly 1500 professionals, from all over the world, will taste the 2013 vintage. This vintage saw the light of day under complicated conditions and we knew from the outset that it wouldn’t be plentiful. It’s in the difficult vintages, one way or another, that the very great terroirs reveal their incredible supremacy. That rule remains true for 2013 but we don’t really know why. Whatever it may be, all the great cabernet plots, without exception, have produced very good wines, so clearly above all the others that the blending of the Château Margaux turned out to be easy to decide (38% of the harvest). The proportions of the grape varieties however, are unusual (94% Cabernet Sauvignon – being the largest proportion ever reached, 5% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot and…no Merlot whatsoever. So Château Margaux 2013 is a wine dominated by Cabernet, but with a balance and softness that are otherwise characteristic of Merlot.
Blending decisions for the Pavillon Rouge were severe: It only consists of 21% of the harvest and is the lowest quantity of Pavillon Rouge ever produced. However, at the cost of this unprecedented selection, Pavillon Rouge 2013 has attained a surprising quality and without doubt, fifteen years ago, it would have been included in the blending for the first wine. Pavillon Blanc 2013 has benefited from the great changes made to the vinification over the last five years. It’s probably as great a success as 2011 and 2012, but with a slightly lower quantity (less than 40% of the harvest). The « en primeur » tastings will take place for the first time this year in Château Margaux’s orangery, which holds a story that has been inscribed in the estate’s history. It was an emotional moment when, in 2010 we discovered the presence of vast apertures characteristic of orangeries. The original building, which would have served as a wine store for the barrels, dated from the XVIII century. Once the secrets had been discovered, it was decided to renovate this building as authentically as possible so that Château Margaux could recover its orangery.
Since the 17th Century, the first wine of Château Margaux has been recognised as being one of the greatest wines in the entire world. It owes its unique qualities to the genius of its terroir as well as to the passionate work of a succession of generations. It’s a remarkable wine that comes from a combination of characteristics that are only rarely found: finesse, elegance, complexity, density, intensity, length and freshness. Although its tannic concentration may be exceptional, it’s rare to detect astringency.
The great vintages are distinguished by their formidable ability to move us. The lesser vintages give pleasure to wise enthusiasts. They offer the advantage of evolving very rapidly and, reveal, after a few years, instead of power, this subtlety that is the prerogative of great terroirs. Château Margaux has an extraordinary ability to evolve. Over the years, it has developed a finesse, an aromatic complexity and a remarkable presence on the palate.
Château Margaux has sought to achieve excellence in its wines for over 400 years now through painstaking and necessarily long studies of its terroir, through a constant desire to learn and innovate, by remaining sensitive to demanding markets, and above all through a passionate commitment that has been shared by the families that have succeeded each other at the estate. At the end of the 17th century, it became part of the nascent elite “First Growths” – long before being established officially by the Classification of 1855. Since then, Château Margaux has known fame and fortune, seeing by experience how ephemeral both are.
The estate has 200 acres under vine. Each plot and each variety are treated differently from pruning throughout the growing season. Chateau Margaux’ goal is to nurture and maintain vines for as long as possible, as they believe vines need to reach 20 years of age to produce great wine. The estate is constantly trying to understand through experimentation how to improve soil health and fruit quality. Today, no insecticides are used, there is an important balance of healthy insects to counter pests, and any number of experiments with ploughing, organic farming, and biodynamic applications are ongoing. A final key point to note, Margaux has for the last 30+ years had among the lowest yields in the Medoc.
The wine was aged for 15 months, in 10% new oak and 90% second use barrels. Because of the particularities of the vintage, Cabernet Sauvignon made up an extremely high 88% of the blend, with Merlot only 12% of the blend. Importantly, the wine is held in bottle until ready to drink, which may not mean that vintages are released sequentially.
It’s in the difficult vintages that the very great terroirs reveal their incredible supremacy one way or another. This rule remains true for 2013, but we don’t exactly know why. Precocity is one of the reasons: our best Cabernet plots – among the earliest in the Médoc – had already reached a very good level of ripeness before the hasty harvest, and it came close, within four or five days, to reaching excellency. The other reasons remain, and will remain, unclear for a long time yet; the genius of great terroirs is difficult to fathom.
Whatever it is, all the large Cabernet plots have , without exception, produced magnificent wines, so clearly above all the others that the Château Margaux blending was, in fact, easy to decide. It consists of 38% of the harvest, a very classic figure. However, the proportions of the grape varieties are unusual: 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, the largest proportion ever; 5% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot and… no Merlot at all. Even our best plot, which we had the luxury of harvesting with great care, turned out to be disappointing.
So we can expect a wine dominated by Cabernet: it is indeed, but not the way in which we would have thought. When ripe enough, Margaux Cabernets have a balance and softness that are otherwise characteristic of Merlot; and of course this charm and finesse belong only to their terroir.
Château Margaux 2013 cannot claim to be a great vintage: we know very well that it was born under difficult conditions. But we are immensely privileged to have produced it at the beginning of the 21st century when all the care and attention, all the sacrifices, are possible; this wine justifies all of these efforts
2013 BORDEAUX VINTAGE REPORT
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.
by ANDREW CAILLARD MW