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Bordeaux 2012: Left Bank Complexity

It is Wednesday evening as I type this, and I’m now holed up in a hotel in Libourne, in anticipation of two days of tasting on the right bank. If it’s Thursday, it must be Pomerol. If it’s Friday, it must be St Emilion. If it’s Saturday, it must be……well, I have a couple of non-primeur visits back on the left bank lined up for the morning, before my flight back to the UK.

Although I have been posting each day from Bordeaux, I haven’t said too much about the vintage. The main reason is that I don’t feel it is legitimate to throw out judgements without tasting a lot of wine. I’ve more or less finished on the left bank now (I say more or less because I would be surprised if a sample or two wasn’t poured on Saturday), and I’m beginning to build a picture of the vintage. And it is a complex one. There’s an interesting Decanter report here, credited to Jane Anson and Adam Lechmere, which opens with the statement that “there are differing reports as to the quality of the vintage“. I haven’t had a chance to hear any other reports – after tasting, and writing this, I don’t even have time to Tweet, and I value sleep more than surfing the internet when I have day after day of tastings – but I’m not surprised if the messages are mixed. They probably should be; it’s a very complex vintage which doesn’t lend itself to soundbites or simple throwaway descriptions. It is – and I wish to echo the words of James Lawther MW, quoted in the article linked above – a very uneven vintage on the left bank (no comment from me on the right bank yet, for obvious reasons). Looking purely at the red wines, quality varies from very high, in a tiny number of wines from leading left bank estates, to light and fruit-orientated wines possibly capable of providing charming early drinking, to uninteresting wines with very lean midpalates which are also lacking in flavour.

Understanding why some estates have done well, and some not, requires an understanding of the growing season. I’m adding a little to my introductory report each day, writing as I go along, as I learn more about the vintage through the wines. I’m obviously not ready to publish it yet (I will add it to the site for subscribers next week), but it will reference several key points in the growing season. Some of these are obvious – the wet spring delaying flowering, meaning from the outset the harvest would be later. The rain as the quality-conscious growers tried to eke out a few more days of ripeness. The risk, therefore, that Cabernet Sauvignons would not ripen giving a green character to the wines. The fact that the Merlots, which ripen earlier, were largely harvested before the rains. I suspect, if you’re interested enough to read this blog, you already know all this. Some are less obvious though, and explain why Cabernet vs. Merlot soundbites based on ‘green’ vs. ripe wines just don’t do the vintage or the reader justice.
Paul Pontallier, at Château Margaux, April 2013

I kicked off today with Paul Pontallier (pictured above) at Château Margaux where, as was the case with many grands vins, there was no greenness in the wines. In fact, if you taste the wines without the prejudice imbued by the vintage report, it is surprising just how little greenness and herbaceousness there is to be found in the wines. Crisp fruit character reflecting the vintage, yes; cranberry, redcurrant, red cherry, red plum and so on. And on the palate, there are plenty of leaner wines, light, without midpalate texture. But not overt greenness. I then moved onto Château Palmer, which would put to bed any doubts about the potential quality within the vintage, but here it was all about control in the vineyard based on the performance of the vines during 2011 – the vine, as I’m sure you know, has a life cycle that extends over two seasons, so the conditions during one growing season affect performance in the next. Then it was Château d’Issan, Château Léoville-Las-Cases and Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, all of which contributed something to my understanding of the vintage. Green fruit profiles in second wines, for instance, and lighter midpalates again. I finished off the day with a string of UGC tastings, with the Haut-Médoc, Moulis and Listrac tasting, the Margaux tasting and the Sauternes tasting.

One aspect of the vintage that is very important, and liable to be overlooked by those selling the vintage as ‘green’ is the later-summer heatwave. August was the warmest since 2003, sufficiently hot to cause the vines to shut down, especially young vines. At Margaux, for instance, young vines started dropping their leaves in August. The effect of this hot weather is tangible in the wines in several communes, sometimes in a negative way – with robust, chewy tannins as a result – and sometimes beneficial – as with older vines, with better-established root systems, or with vines planted on more moisture-retentive terroirs – where the vines could cope with the heat, and use it to get on with ripening the fruit. And this is before we get to the effect of work in the vineyard, such as carrying out an extra green-harvest in order to encourage ripening. Like I said, it’s complicated. More detail next week.

Thursday kicks off with the Moueix tasting; as their offices are something like a two-minute walk from my hotel, and I don’t kick off until 9am, I feeling very relaxed about the morning.

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