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White wine production at Château Margaux goes back to the end of the XVII century. The cellar master at that time recounts how he was one of the first to separate the white grapes from the red during the vinification. Sold in the XIX century under the name « Château Margaux vin de sauvignon », it has existed under the brand name « Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux » since 1920 and its label has not changed since that date.
The eleven-hectare vineyard is composed only of Sauvignon Blanc. It is situated on a very old plot of the Estate that had long since been planted with red vines and then been dug up because of the high risk of spring frosts. Production techniques, as well as the selection have been completely reviewed since the years 2009/2010 in order to reach a higher level of excellence; only 1/3 of the harvest is bottled, the remaining 2/3 is sold loose. So the quantity of Pavillon Blanc has been greatly reduced and isn’t more than one thousand cases. Today it benefits from the new wine cellar’s ultra-modern installations designed by Norman Foster.
The finesse, complexity, richness and the length in the mouth of Pavillon Blanc are incomparable for a wine produced from 100% Sauvignon. The very latest vintages, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 in particular, have opened up new horizons in quality, ageing capacity and style which has become more mineral and much more complex. A significant part of the harvest is bottled in magnums which create optimum ageing conditions.
In 2013 the precocity of the Sauvignon was a more determining asset than usual, because the grapes were able to achieve full maturity before the botrytis started to develop seriously. The low vigour of the vines, linked to their age (35 years) and the terroir as well as to the low yield, equally contributed to preventing the rot from spreading quickly, although Sauvignon is usually prone to it. Previously the cool and very dry August, greatly contributed to the success of this vintage by enabling the grapes to ripen stress-free, and under conditions that preserved both their acidity and their aromatic expression.
2013 has benefitted from the great changes that have been introduced to the vinification process over the last five years, the aim of which is to produce a white wine that is more complex and richer, but also fresher and lower in alcohol. Success in this great challenge will be attained by a lot of effort and a drastic selection… The Pavillon Blanc consists of less than 40% of the harvest.
Pavillon Blanc 2013 is probably as great a success as 2012 or 2011, with a slightly lower quantity. (April 2013)
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