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Bordeaux 2013: Paul Pontallier, Margaux

In the first of my face-to-face reports on the Bordeaux 2013 harvest, I met up with Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux. We had a wide-ranging discussion, taking in not only the details of the most recent vintage, but also the new building works at Margaux, blending, the Margaux research programme and biodynamics. For the purpose of this post, I will restrict myself to the 2013 vintage.

I visited Paul on the morning of October 24th; there was plenty of activity in the chai, and once he had finished there we retired to the tasting room. Over a glass of 2010 Château Margaux (I took a note – I will publish it some other time) Paul told me his thoughts on 2013 so far.

Me: Please tell me about the 2013 vintage and harvest.

Paul: There were severe problems during flowering in spring. The Merlots suffered a lot of coulure, and as a consequence are very reduced in volume. In Merlot we have perhaps 13 to 14 hl/ha, a yield not seen since the 1984 vintage. The 2013 harvest is very limited in terms of volume, with about 20 hl/ha being what we harvested overall. This is the smallest harvest at Margaux for a long time, and it is on a par with the 2003, 1991 and 1961 vintages (I thought this an interesting statement, as it shows that small harvests go with controversial vintages such as 2003, difficult vintages such a 1991, and excellent vintages such as 1961).

Thereafter July and August were both dry and hot, and by the end of the summer I was expecting perhaps a great vintage. But more problems came in September, which was very humid, leading to a very rapid growth of botrytis. As a consequence, we harvested faster and earlier than we originally intended, working perhaps five or six days ahead of our intended schedule (another interesting statement I thought – this isn’t as large a difference as I had expected). We began picking on September 20th for the white varieties, finishing on the 28th. We began on September 30th for the reds, finishing on October 11th.

Paul Pontallier, Château Margaux, October 2013

On tasting the Merlots, I confess I find them disappointing. They are lean, and lack taste; it is not that they have any real defects, it is just that they lack grace. It is possible this year that we will have no Merlot at all in blend for the grand vin at Château Margaux. I have not yet made the decision, but I have real doubts.

As for the Cabernets and the Petit Verdot especially, these are much better, indeed they might be excellent, but they are at least very good. There are no vegetal flavours in the Cabernet Sauvignon, but in this our favourable terroir was important. I have seen on lesser soils some disasters, the fruit either half-green, or half-rotten. We have had to carry out a strict selection though, and will do again at blending; it will be expensive to do what is required in this vintage. But we will make a wine that will surprise people.

My thanks to Paul for his candid report on 2013. I left after about an hour in his company. Next stop, Château Pontet-Canet.

These early Bordeaux 2013 reports are essentially funded by Winedoctor subscribers, the first purpose of this latest trip to Bordeaux having been to taste 2011s for a forthcoming report on that vintage. If you find these reports interesting, please consider taking out a subscription to Winedoctor.

Bordeaux 2013: Wait for the Fat Lady

In my earlier post on Bordeaux 2013, I gave a very brief synopsis of the 2013 growing season, one that has been – in the words of many of those I met with during my recent trip to Bordeaux – “très compliqué“. I pointed out that, with the third difficult vintage in a row, and what might be regarded as something of a ‘disaster’ vintage (when Bordeaux was smote with wind, hail and lightning) I have already heard some ask if this is the year when the price of Bordeaux finally comes down.

I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball (I’ve tried to, but people just don’t buy it – they all figured out it was just a grapefruit under a teatowel) but having had the opportunity to find out (from the horse’s mouth) how the vintage has panned out so far, I think it unlikely we will see a price collapse with the 2013 vintage, regardless of all the ‘horror stories’ heard so far. I think there are perhaps two principle reasons why I think this is so. These two reasons relate to quality and quantity.

Looking at quantity first, yields for the 2013 harvest were destined to be low from the moment when the cold spring weather decimated the flowering, in all varieties but especially in the Merlots. Then, with the very humid weather precipitating the harvest, massive selection was required to ensure that only the ripest and rot-free fruit entered the vats; this will have further reduced the volumes, and together these two factors explain why so many vats lay empty this year. Those châteaux that reported yields for 2013 to me (many simply hadn’t done the sums yet, and so were not able to say any more than “much lower than usual“) have brought in between 20 and 30 hl/ha. Some are at the top end of this range or higher, but most are at the bottom end, and some are even lower. At least one cru classé château was down at 15 hl/ha.

Next there will be, during blending, significant selections once again, with many of the top châteaux, those that can afford to, pushing much of what they have harvested into the second wine, just as they have done in previous vintages (when tasting the 2011s, for example, one château I visited had channeled 70% of that year’s harvest into the deuxième vin, and only 30% into the grand vin; don’t be surprised if we see the same sort of behaviour in 2013). And these selections will be on top of the remarkably low yields described above. Imagine a 30% selection on top of a 20 hl/ha harvest; this amounts to only 600 litres per hectare, in other words 800 bottles of the grand vin per hectare. Assuming a 20 hectare vineyard, this amounts to just 16,000 bottles, or 1,333 cases, a paltry amount for a good-sized left bank château. Alright, so there are a few assumptions in the working here, but the fact is that, in short, there won’t be a lot of grands vins from the top châteaux for the négociants to sell in this vintage.

One notable manager of a left grand cru classé estate said – with a slip of the tongue – of 2013, “first of all, the volumes are low, thank God“. At first I thought this was perhaps simply an expression of relief that the harvest was over, but then realised that the volumes would in that case be irrelevant. Then I thought it might be a statement that, with low quality, he was glad that he would not have to work for too hard for too long to sell the wines. That might be true, although it is perhaps worth remembering that much of the selling is down to the négociants and the Bordeaux Place, not the châteaux. There is a third explanation, one that reflects the impact of the 2013 vintage on the market. To consider this third explanation, we must also look at the likely quality of 2013.
 
Denis Durantou, Château L'Église-Clinet

Turning to quality then, despite the difficulties of 2013, with strict selection the top cru classé and similarly regarded châteaux – those that have established the highest, most eye-watering prices for their wines in recent years – are still expecting to make good wines in this difficult vintage. Before you faint at the bare-faced cheek of such apparent puffery, which seems to fly in the face of all the vintage reports, let me explain in a little more detail why the Bordelais believe this.

While some proprietors and managers accepted that the Merlots were not very exciting, many have expressed surprise at the quality of the Cabernets in this vintage. During my various meetings last week it was largely acknowledged that in the run up to harvest they were all fairly depressed. The weather was against them, and they were forced to pick early. Everybody was expecting green, vegetal, methoxypyrazine-infused wines (I will provide more detail on exactly who said what over the next week or two in my individual reports). Then came the surprise; on tasting, they found that the Cabernets do not taste vegetal.

If I had a bottle of Petrus for every time I heard the expression “une belle surprise” last week I would now have at least a case (ready for the auction house so I can buy a new car, maybe) and a few bottles left over (to drink, naturally). This was the stock phrase of the week, the sentiment expressed so regularly across Bordeaux that I eventually concluded that there must be some truth in it. Then I tasted a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon sample from the Montlandrie estate with Denis Durantou (pictured above) during a visit to Château L’Eglise-Clinet; it was pure, dark, clean and free of vegetal flavour. One taste does not a vintage report make, of course, but if he can achieve this in a lesser appellation, with the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, then there is no reason to believe the same is not possible with the same variety at Haut-Brion, or Margaux, or Mouton-Rothschild. And although some expressed disappointment in the quality of the Merlots, this was not a universally expressed sentiment. The Bordelais hope and expect to have some decent wines, despite it all. Not great wines, admittedly, but certainly not ‘disaster’ wines either.

So picture yourself as the manager of a cru classé château; in recent years the price of your wine has reached unprecedented levels. You held up prices through 2011 and 2012, despite some critcism, with the expectation of another great vintage before long. Then along came 2013. Despite experiencing the most trying vintage of your lifetime (you’re a young and upwardly-mobile manager, with your eye on a job at a first growth, by the way) you find that the fruit quality is much better than you had believed possible. With strict selection, you can make a small quantity of a high quality wine. By doing so you can release it, not worry too much about such a small volume selling through, and maintain those high prices – perhaps making a token price cut to sweeten the pill – which naturally makes price rises when the next great vintage comes along (2014, perhaps?) just that little easier to sell to the Bordeaux-loving nations of the world. What are you going to do in such a situation?

I will run through my 2013 reports – some brief, some longer, depending on how talkative the individual concerned was – in more or less the order in which I visited. Coming up first, Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux.

These early Bordeaux 2013 reports are essentially funded by Winedoctor subscribers, the first purpose of this latest trip to Bordeaux having been to taste 2011s for a forthcoming report on that vintage. If you find these reports interesting, please consider taking out a subscription to Winedoctor.

Bordeaux 2013: First Reports

Last week I spent a couple of days in Bordeaux, a visit with a dual purpose. First, to taste some wines from the 2011 vintage, now that they have been bottled. In combination with my notes from the UGC tasting in London, also last week, these notes will form the basis of a new report on the 2011 vintage, to be published in the next few weeks. My second purpose was, perhaps unsurprisingly in view of the timing of my visit, to hear about the 2013 vintage, and to gauge the confidence – or lack of it – among the Bordelais.

Over the next few weeks I will report on many of my visits on the Winedoctor blog. Next year, after I have visited Bordeaux for the 2013 vintage primeurs, I will provide a more detailed view of the vintage, with my own interpretations and tasting notes, for subscribers only. But for the moment I will let the Bordelais, the proprietors, the managers and the technical directors – I have had face-to-face meetings with a dozen such individuals from across the very top tier of Bordeaux, including Montrose, Mouton-Rothschild, Palmer, Haut-Brion, Petrus, Le Gay, Lafleur, Cheval Blanc and more – have their say.

Before I start though, I may as well set the scene. Nobody in Bordeaux is denying that this has been the most difficult vintage in Bordeaux for a very long time (well, almost nobody – there was one dissenting voice). With many young faces now in charge in Bordeaux, such as Pierre-Olivier Clouet, technical director at Château Cheval Blanc, Olivier Berrouet, winemaker at Petrus and Jean-Baptiste Bourotte, proprietor of Clos du Clocher, it was no surprise to hear that for many in Bordeaux this was the most trying vintage they have ever experienced. The news reports were full of stories of hail in July and August, wiping out huge areas of vines, a devastating blow for those affected. In addition a storm later on during the growing season damaged the church spire in Pauillac, and uprooted the willow trees that sit along the roadside at Château Lafite-Rothschild. As ever, though, the news stories aren’t the whole story. Although heart-breaking for those afflicted, these events do not define the 2013 vintage.

Bordeaux 2013: First Reports

There are three events that do define the 2013 vintage:

First up, spring was very cold, many recorded temperatures (no self-respecting Bordeaux château is without a weather station these days – the one above is nestled among the vines at Petrus) more than 3ºC lower than average during the flowering. This resulted in a huge amount of coulure (a disruption of flowering, causing failed fruit set), with all varieties affected although Merlot was (as is usually in the case in these matters, I believe) the hardest hit. Flowering was also delayed by the cold, meaning that this was always going to be a late-harvest year. As a consequence of the coulure, the yields for 2013 are very low. Having visited numerous châteaux in Bordeaux last week I saw that, with the harvest all finished, many of them have fermentation vats lying empty; this is a great concern for them, as it reduces revenue, but is not necessarily a great concern for the consumer (unless the prices go up as a result, I suppose), as low yields in themselves do not reduce the potential for high quality.

Secondly, the summer was very warm, with dry and sunny weather in June and July. This raised hopes that, although the crop was set to be very small, the quality could at least be very high. Those whose vineyards were wiped out by the hailstorms in late July and early August clearly had their own problems, some of them having lost the entire crop for the year, but those not affected by the hail began to feel their confidence grow.

Thirdly, and this is the coup d’état for the vintage, with a late harvest on the cards the Bordelais needed fine weather though October, and no doubt they would have taken it into November too if required, in a handful of cases at least. But harvest time was instead characterised by repeated cycles of heavy rain, usually over one or two days, followed by warm weather and dramatic humidity, which brought the threat of rot. In essence, although there are many nuances to this story (depending on the terroir first of all, also the variety, and also the men and women working the vines in question) the Bordelais were forced to pick earlier than they would have liked because of the impending threat of botrytis. Noble rot is fine for Sauternes and Barsac (which will make some good wines this year, with a focus on the large-volume high-quality first picking), but a death-knell for the red grapes. This will naturally have impacted on potential quality.

Bordeaux observers are no doubt looking forward to seeing how this is managed during the primeurs. After all, with what seems superficially (because the above summary is superficial – the time for blow-by-blow accounts will be after the primeurs, when I have visited Bordeaux again to taste the wines) like a disaster vintage on our hands, especially with this being the third difficult vintage in a row (and perhaps the worst of the three), this is the point at which the prices either come down or the system breaks. I would suggest this is certainly not the case, for several reasons. I will explain my thoughts in a little more detail tomorrow, before I begin my reports on my face-to-face meetings with the crème de la crème of Bordeaux in a couple of days.

These early Bordeaux 2013 reports are essentially funded by Winedoctor subscribers, the first purpose of this latest trip to Bordeaux having been to taste 2011s for a forthcoming report on that vintage. If you find these reports interesting, please consider taking out a subscription to Winedoctor.

Saumur-Time, and the living . . . .

I think many with a knowledge of the wines of the Loire Valley, when asked to indicate their red-wine favourite, would point to the appellation of Saumur-Champigny. It is perhaps not as widely known as Chinon, the other main contender, where the likes of Couly-Dutheil, Philippe Alliet and Bernard Baudry have been busy turning out excellent wines for many years now. Nevertheless Saumur-Champigny is home to many top-class domaines, not least Clos Rougeard, where the lesser-spotted Foucaults can be found. I’ve never managed to secure an appointment or tasting here, despite sending letters (yes, printed words of French, on paper, stuffed into an envelope, complete with stamp, posted by hand, the full works), making several telephone calls and leaving answer phone messages (all in French, again, in case you were wondering), as well as turning up and simply hammering on the gates with my bloodied fist.

Why the attraction, and all the effort? Quite simply, the furtive Foucault frères turn out the purest examples of Cabernet Franc I have ever tasted, wines with a precision and floral finesse that sometimes makes me wonder whether they have imported something magic from Burgundy to the slopes of Saumur-Champigny. If not the fruit (although you don’t get a lot of Cabernet Franc in Burgundy, so I’m told), then some secret wisdom or skill. The poise and delicate yet confident elegance of their wines defies accurate description I am afraid; you just have to taste them to experience their pointed precision for yourself.

Saumur Château, July 14th, 2010

Something else the brothers – or at least those who are selling the wines – seem to have imported from Burgundy is a taste for grand cru pricing. In recent years the cost of a bottle of Clos Rougeard has rocketed to an unprecedented level. I was annoyed when the top wine, Le Bourg, doubled in price, a jump up which already put it at the very limit of whether I or not I should be buying it for my cellar. When it doubled again, reaching a level in the 2009 vintage four times what I recall paying for the 2003, it was time to call it quits. I’m not saying the wine isn’t worthy of grand cru pricing; after all, I opened with a suggestion that this was perhaps the top red wine of the entire Loire Valley. It’s just that I have other more efficient drains on my bank account (three of them, all teenagers) and I can’t buy wines priced at the current level of Le Bourg as anything other than a very occasional, single-bottle treat. So the problem then is, where next for more regular drinking? Who do we turn to in Saumur-Champigny when Clos Rougeard leaves the party? Naturally I have some preferences, but I recently decided to taste more comprehensively, across perhaps a dozen or so domaines in the Saumur and Saumur-Champigny appellations, to see what sort of quality was on offer, whether my preferences were appropriate, and to guide other buyers of the wines.

With this plan in mind earlier this year I made a concerted effort to update my knowledge of the Saumur and Saumur-Champigny appellations, and I tasted through the wines of the following domaines; Domaine des Roches Neuves, Château de Villeneuve, Château du Hureau, Domaine Filliatreau, Domaine de Nerleux, Château de Chaintres, Domaine du Collier, Clos Cristal, René-Noël Legrand and Château Tour Grise. In each case I was looking for an alternative source, to see where I might spend my Saumur sous with Clos Rougeard no longer an affordable option. I didn’t expect to find a Le Bourg or Le Poyeux replacement in all honesty, but I reasoned and hoped that I could perhaps find something close. Over the next few weeks I will be publishing my Saumur-Time reports, opinions and tasting notes from these encounters, either in the shape of domaine updates, or in new or revitalised profiles; I start today with new notes from one of the most
significant domaines in the Saumur and Saumur-Champigny appellations, Domaine des Roches Neuves, run by Thierry Germain.

Read my first Saumur-Time report, a tasting report on the wines of Domaine des Roches Neuves (subscription required).

Loire 2013: Before and After

Although I have finished my ‘from the vineyard’ Loire 2013 reports there are a few reflections still to make on my week in the Loire, starting with my visit to Domaine Baudry-Dutour. Here I found them busy picking Cabernet Franc for the 2013 Chinon Rosé, using a machine harvester with on-board optical sorting. Although I’ve seen these machines in action a few times now, I don’t recall seeing one so close-up before, and I certainly haven’t seen one with on-board optical sorting (if the image below looks familiar, it’s because I also included it in my Chinon & Bourgueil post).

Loire 2013: machine picking, before

The process is incredibly efficient, and the machine can be fine-tuned to not only to determine how vigorously the grapes are removed, but the optical sorting can also be adjusted to reject more or fewer of the just-picked fruit. As far as I could see a few leaves were removed as well as grapes, but this also happens during hand-picking, when leaves are often pulled off in order to make easier access to the bunches. Here are some bunches before picking:

Loire 2013: machine picking, before

And here is the same vine after picking; almost all the grapes have been neatly removed from their stems, the vine almost untouched:

Loire 2013: machine picking, after

The rejected grapes are dumped into a tray on the side of the machine which the operator – or rather one of a small team of men running the machine – emptied out at the end of each row. In the image below he is picking through the rejected fruit, ensuring that the optical sorting is appropriately tuned. During the process he conferred with the vineyard proprietor, Jean-Martin Dutour, as to whether or not he would like to adjust the settings in order to reject more/less fruit.

Loire 2013: machine picking, discarded fruit

Below is the accepted fruit, after it has been dumped into a trailer ready to be taken into the winery. The berries were certainly in a much better condition than those rejected, although I was somewhat confused by the presence of a few clearly unripe berries, which optical sorting really should have rejected very easily.

Loire 2013: machine picking, selected fruit

Despite this experience I remain somewhat unconvinced by machine-picking, even though I have tasted a number of machine-picked wines that have been very good. My persistent doubt stems from a correlation (a weak one, admittedly) between machine-picking and lower quality in a handful of Bordeaux grand cru classé estates. I say ‘weak’ as it really relates to just a few negative experiences, and I expect there are many other confounding variables involved. I think, perhaps, I should keep more of an open mind about it, especially looking at the quality of the fruit selected here.

I have some videos of the machine in action but will have to edit them first, difficult at the moment as I am currently ‘taking a break’ exploring the beaches, castles and gardens of Northumberland (a very fine part of the country I must say).

Loire 2013: Chinon and Bourgueil

Friday was my final day looking at the vineyards of the Loire during harvest time. Having returned to Touraine on Thursday, this time we struck out west. heading first to Château de l’Aulée near Azay-le-Rideau, followed by several visits in Chinon, Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. There was a quick stop in Vouvray before I unfortunately found myself back at the airport in Tours.

Jean-Martin Dutour

At L’Aulée, Marielle Henrion told us she had been picking since September 28th, with alcoholic potentials of about 11%. This doesn’t sound ideal, but bear in mind that Marielle is Bollinger-trained, and specialises in making Crémant de Loire, so lower potentials (and higher acid levels) are just fine here. Then it was on to Domaine Baudry-Dutour, where we met Jean-Martin Dutour (pictured above). Jean-Martin summed up the two main features that he feels will define the vintage. First, there was a warm summer, bringing excellent potential (although we shouldn’t forget some hectares were lost to hail, which hit Chinon, albeit to a lesser extent than in Vouvray). Second, and less positive, a very late harvest, meaning that converting early hopes into quality in the bottle may be rather difficult. He finds phenolic maturity this year better than it was last year in Chinon, when it lagged behind the technical (sugar) maturity somewhat.

In addition he describes having a little rot in the fruit this year, but in small quantities and only present under the skin of the grapes, not visible on the fruit. This doesn’t affect the taste, he says (as an aside - I must admit even with superficial rot on much of the fruit I have seen, Sauvignon Blanc especially, I haven’t once picked up the ‘taste’ of rot in any of them, and believe me I have popped a few furry berries in my mouth the past few days). This sub-surface rot does, says Jean-Martin, fade the colour of the wines, and it can degrade the tannins, making them finer, which caused him to liken the vintage in Chinon to 1997 or 1999, both years with very fine tannins in Jean-Martin’s opinion.

Picking machine with Opti-Grape on-board optical sorting

Out in the vineyard, picking was well underway, although really only for the rosé at present, the fruit coming in with 11% potential. The fruit was being picked by machine with on-board optical sorting (shown above), a relatively new innovation. As for reds, they are obviously looking for a higher potential, and it may be that some chaptalisation is required. Harvesting for the red wines is yet to start.

By the time we left Baudry-Dutour the rain was settling in and it continued on and off for the afternoon. By the time Jim Budd and I found ourselves in the vineyards of Bourgeuil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil it was dry again, but as I waited to board my plane at Tours an hour or so later it was raining once again. We took a look up on the mi pente slopes at Jacky Blot’s Domaine de la Butte, which were probably the best tasting red grapes I sampled this week, with sweetly perfumed skins giving real flavour (it is surprising what little flavour most grapes on the vine have) but they also had ripe, clean and brown pips, a contrast to many of the grapes we tasted down on the more sandy soils below where there was obvious methoxypyrazine character in the fruit, and the pips were still green with adherent pulp. Then we called in on Sébastien David (pictured below, clearly in good spirits despite the difficult vintage), who told us his potentials currently ranged from 11.5% to 12.5%, not too bad, but that the acidities were still high at about 6 g/l. As with others, he is hoping for cold weather now to stave off the rot, having given up on obtaining further ripening. His plan was to start picking today (Saturday 12th October). Somewhere along the way we also squeezed in a visit to Frédéric Mabileau, where he clearly runs a very tight ship during harvest time (in fact there are numerous visits made this week I haven’t mentioned, as I have aimed to give a flavour of what we did, not provide a comprehensive summary – but information, report and pictures from all my visits will make it onto Winedoctor somewhere, somehow).

Sébastien David

Before reaching the airport we stopped off at the new Château Gaudrelle facilities, on the road running into Vouvray at Rochecorbon. They lost 50% of the crop in the June hail here. They began picking last Wednesday, starting with the fruit for the bulles. The acidities are still very high indeed here though, up to 8 g/l, and so the vines are certainly not ready to be picked for still wines.

My journey back was uneventful, although I did nearly board a plane to Glasgow instead of Edinburgh by mistake, the two flights leaving from adjacent gates only five minutes apart. Sadly, since I left, Jim Budd reports that the rain has continued and been heavy, further dampening spirits no doubt.

Thanks to all the vignerons I visited in the past week, to the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins du Centre who put me up for two nights in Chavignol, and most of all to Jim Budd and CRM for their guidance, chauffeur’s service, introductions and hospitality. You can read those of Jim’s reports that correspond with mine starting here.

Loire 2013: To Pouilly

On Thursday morning I crossed the Loire to explore the region of Pouilly-Fumé, calling in at a number of domaines in Tracy-sur-Loire, Pouilly-sur-Loire, Les Loges and Saint-Andelain. There was continued activity on the roads as we departed Chavignol, yesterday’s rain stepping up the pace a little, before it could turn the rot to grey. Fortunately the temperatures have dropped somewhat, which the vignerons are happy about. There is an acceptance that there will be no further ripening now as the weather simply isn’t good enough, and indeed warm weather would simply advance the rot. Cold weather, however, will retard the development of the rot and keep things clean while the vignerons get the picking done.

Didier Pabiot, Nina Schomakers

Once over in Pouilly we enjoyed a whistle-stop one-morning tour of the appellation, hearing about the 2013 harvest along the way, picking well underway here, and we also tasted a little freshly pressed juice. Most domaines seem to have begun last week (generally towards the end, although some were earlier) or Monday this week. At Château de Tracy for example, picking began by hand on September 26th, and was about to finish. At Jonathon Pabiot, where we spoke to Didier Pabiot (Jonathon’s father) and Jonathon’s, partner Nina Schomakers (pictured above), with only a relatively small vineyard to pick they were happy that they had begun at the right time, and they were halfway to completion. The alcoholic potential here is about 12.2%, a figure with which they are very content. And, as elsewhere, although the Sauvignon Blanc here carried some rot, it remains noble and clean tasting, and without any sweetening concentration. At Michel Redde the potentials ranged from 10.5% to 11.7%, so a little lower here, with yields between 50 and 55 hl/ha.

In Saint-Andelain we call in to see Benjamin Dagueneau (below), where we tasted the 2013 juice, of which there is very restricted quantities. The picking from Buisson Renard, for example, would usually come close to filling a 9100-litre steel vat, but this year there is only 1950 litres (possibly ‘so far’ – I forgot to ask if there was more yet to come), about 20% the normal volume. Benjamin has clearly been working hard to maximise quality in this difficult vintage, with “tri, beaucoup, beaucoup, beaucoup” being his summing up of the vintage. After the juice we also tasted through all the 2012s from vat, and I will add a report on these wines to the subscribers area before long.

Benjamin Dagueneau

We called in at Masson-Blondelet who had begun on Monday this week, finding acceptable ripenes and a little rot, but small yields due to hail earlier in the year. And then with a long drive ahead of us Jim Budd and I headed back to Touraine, but not before stopping off with Denis Jamain in Reuilly. Denis was close to finishing picking all his whites and reds, and finds quality in the latter higher than in the former. The alcoholic potential here is between 12% and 12.5%, and the yields are not at all bad, with 35 hl/ha for Pinot Noir and 55 hl/ha for Sauvignon Blanc. Denis believes that it is soil type that will have made the biggest difference in this vintage, with more sandy soils encouraging rot, but limestone terroirs more resistant. After that, he says, it is all down to when you started picking.

Today (Friday) we are heading downstream to Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, then sadly I will be heading home via the airport at Tours. I will post a report on Friday’s visits tomorrow.

Loire 2013: Les Tables de Tri

There isn’t a road between Sancerre and the associated villages of Chavignol and Bué that I didn’t travel down yesterday. Well, perhaps that is something of an exaggeration, but it was certainly a busy day as we flitted about from vineyard to vineyard, domaine to domaine.

We spent a large chunk of the morning with the globe-trotting Jean-Marie Bourgeois, ‘emeritus’ chairman of Henri Bourgeois. Now into his eighth decade Jean-Marie no longer personally directs operations at the expansive Henri Bourgeois facilities in Chavignol, leaving this to other family members. Nevertheless he is clearly not slowing down, and the list of destinations just visited or planned for the near future – all for the marketing of Bourgeois Sancerre of course – showed the now global appeal (exotic destinations, such as Singapore and China, featured heavily) of the wines from this little corner of Berry.

Sorting at Henri Bourgeois

After seeing the sorting (above) on vibrating table de tri, we drove out to take a look at some Pinot Noir vines in Saint-Satur, the fruit here looking fairly healthy, as it has down across the region. Whereas the Sauvignon Blanc has generally been afflicted with rot, this is generally less so for the Pinot Noir. I imagined at first this reflected the slightly more advanced ripeness of the white variety, perhaps with more fragile skins (the berries certainly are fragile in some cases) but the Pinot Noir is now sufficiently ripe for some domaines to be picking, so that can’t be the whole story. Then it was on to Domaine Laporte, of which the Bourgeois family have been proprietors since 1986. Here we saw machine picking of Sauvignon Blanc, and an inspection of the fruit shows that, as elsewhere, it was showing some rot here and there. The rot is generally dry though (it still hasn’t rained) and thus it tends more towards the noble type of rot rather than grey rot, and repeated tasting of the fur-covered berries did not reveal any off flavours (this has been the case over the last three days). There were four machines picking the one vineyard here, the whole job taking two days in total.

Sorting at Vincent Pinard

After our visit to Henri Bourgeois Jim Budd and I made a long sequence of other visits. We met Vincent Pinard at his domaine, with his sons Florent and Clément. There was an emphasis here on sorting, sorting, sorting (table de tri shown above), and it has probably paid off, as the juices here were certainly the most exciting to taste, showing great concentration wrapped around vibrant acidity. Chez François Crochet we met the ever-delightful Carine Crochet who again reiterated the difficulties of the vintage. They began picking here last Thursday (October 3rd), and have been making heavy use of the table de tri. They have a team of 30 working in the vines, 26 pickers and four managers to direct the teams. The alcoholic potentials here range from 11.5% to 12% in most cases, but go up to 13% on some plots.

Alphonse Mellot, pickers' transport

At Alphonse Mellot we found a huge team of pickers on La Moussière; with six mini-buses, two Landrovers and several white vans (above) parked up on the lower slopes of the vineyard, there must have been at least 50 people picking here. We followed up by visiting the winery in Sancerre; the sorting here looked much lighter, a quick pick over before the fruit went up the conveyer belt to the pneumatic press. I guess with so many people in the vineyard, they would argue that is where the sorting is happening. Alphonse Mellot Junior couldn’t meet us as I believe he was recovering from the previous days picking, which may have gone on late into the night, but we tasted some juice instead. Yields here are about the norm, at 40-45 hl/ha. We were on the Chavignol cuvée before I found something exciting, this juice showing good concentration and lovely acids to balance it; the alcoholic potential here was, after the tri, said to be 12%.

Sorting at Domaine Vacheron

We visited Domaine Fouassier, a good-sized biodynamic operation, where yields were reported as normal (average 40 to 45 hl/ha, but ranging from 35 to 50 hl/ha depending on the plot) and alcoholic potentials ranged from 11.5% to 13.5%. We finished up at Domaine Vacheron, where we spent some time both with Jean-Dominique and Jean-Laurent Vacheron. Here they have been picking since September 27th, and the yields are reported as 53 hl/ha for the whites, not at all short. Curiously they have found here that despite a very even and rapid flowering during the spring, the Sauvignon Blanc does not seem to have progressed evenly, with one-third of the fruit quite green, one-third ripe, and one-third showing rot; there was no forthcoming explanation as for why this should be. The table de tri was very active here, with a large team working on it (above), sorting Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir discard due to rot was fairly high at 25%, more than I would have expected from what we have seen in the vineyards, although the evidence was there to see in the disposal bin (below).

Discarded fruit at Domaine Vacheron

Today (Thursday) Jim Budd and I are off to Pouilly-Fumé, with possible visits to Domaine Didier Dagueneau, Alexandre Bain, Jonathon Pabiot and others.

Postscript: As I write this it is about 7am and there has just been a sudden downpour of rain. It was quite heavy, and I can now hear the rainwater gushing down the gutters of the street outside the window of my hotel room in Chavignol. This isn’t welcome news for those yet to bring their furry fruit in. More report tomorrow…..

Loire 2013: Reuilly to Sancerre

On Tuesday Jim Budd and I headed out of Touraine, taking a route parallel to the Cher for much of the way, as we headed up to the vineyards of the Centre. That brought us first to Reuilly, where we stopped off to meet Claude Lafond, and to taste a little of his 2013 juice.

Claude Lafond

Claude (pictured above) has a very swish looking operation on the edge of the village, which he runs with the help of his daughter Nathalie. We tasted his 2013 Pinot Gris juice, which was clean, had plenty of flavour, soft texture and some nicely enveloped acidity. I thought it was surprisingly good. At his suggestion we then abandoned our plans for a roadside picnic and took an impromptu lunch with him and his team of workers. Claude, who inherited his domaine from his father André, is a mine of information on the history of Reuilly, its vines and wines, and how the appellation has waned (to near extinction) and waxed over the years. More importantly, his 2010 Reuilly Le Clos des Messieurs, made from full-ripeness Sauvignon, changed with one sip my understanding of this appellation. His are wines I am clearly going to have to get to know better.

Philippe Gilbert

Then it was on through Quincy, the Loire’s first-ever appellation, it having been ratified in 1936. It is a remarkably small appellation, and we passed through here before heading up through the vineyards of Menetou-Salon. Here we stopped off to meet Philippe Gilbert (pictured above), whose wines I enjoyed when I tasted them earier this year at the Renaissance tasting in Angers. We found him just clearing up after lunch, and after hearing of his Sauvignon harvest so far we then followed him out to see him and his team picking Pinot Noir (below).

Philippe Gilbert, Pinot Noir

I was struck by the fact that, as we moved from Touraine into Menetou-Salon and then Sancerre, how the alcoholic potentials climbed. Whereas Touraine producers may well resort to adding sugar – those whose personal dogmas don’t forbid them doing so, at any rate – this is much less likely in Menetou-Salon and Sancerre. Philippe reported alcoholic potentials comfortably higher than 12%, up to 12.9% on some pickings. The Sauvignon Blanc juice tasted clean, fresh, with nicely buried acidity.

Vincent Pinard

Then it was on to Sancerre, and we didn’t make too many domaine visits here, instead accosting people in the vineyard as and when the mood took us, as we enjoyed a veritable tour of the appellation, stopping off around Bué, looking at the Clos de la Poussie, then towards Chavignol where we took in things on Les Monts Damnés and the Beaujeu vineyards, then over to Sancerre taking a detour into La Moussière, the vineyard of Alphonse Mellot as we went. One person we accosted in the vineyard was Vincent Pinard (pictured above), who was just moving from one vineyard to the next, and he spoke to us from the cab of his white van (the ubiquitous vehicle of the harvest). Vincent confirmed what others had said, that it had been a difficult vintage and the harvest was a testing one, with rot a problem and very selective picking required.

Pinot Noir

That this was so had been evident all day. I saw Philippe Gilbert take one picker to task, after he had spotted a small bunch bearing some rot in one of the hods on its way down to be loaded for transport back to the chai. Elsewhere, rot was fairly evident, but certainly not universal. Some bunches look very clean and healthy, while others have clearly suffered. Finding a touch of rot, like that above, is not unusual; the berries feel very fragile in some cases – in trying to pick them they collapse between finger and thumb, and I imagine this is relevant when it comes to the presence of rot in the vineyard. Fortunately it has remained dry, although overcast, but the forecast for the end of the week is worsening. Rain on the rot currently in the vineyard would of course be a great cause for concern. It is a vintage for draconian selection, with the potential to make good wines (but probably no more than that). There are plenty of pitfalls, and vignerons with higher yields, or who have failed to pick soon enough, or who have a more lax attitude to selection are likely to make ‘less than interesting’ wines.

Today (Wednesday) we have a whole raft of visits lined up, including Alphonse Mellot, Vacheron, Henri Bourgeois, François Crochet, Sébastien Riffault and maybe half a dozen more.

Loire 2013: In Touraine

Monday was a busy day spent flitting across the vineyards of Touraine with Jim Budd, visiting some notable growers whose wines I already know, as well as some domaines I haven’t visited before. It was great to have this mix of the familiar and the new. I lost count of how many domaines we visited altogether.

Catherine Roussel

One of our first visits was to Clos Roche Blanche, where Catherine Roussel (pictured above, with her 2013 ‘dossier’) was honest about the quality of the vintage. “C’est genial, un très bon millésime, le millésime du siècle!“, she exclaimed. All said tongue-in-cheek I’m afraid, because it was quite clear this has been a difficult vintage, with less than adequate ripeness in the fruit, and the threat of rot forcing picking. It was, she said, a vintage for the “table de tri“, indicating that a lot of sorting was required to make anything decent this year. During our time with Catherine we also tasted from 2012 and 2011, just a trio of wines as we weren’t able to linger, and we learned of Catherine’s plans for the future at Clos Roche Blanche, something all fans of this domaine will want to read. I will add an update for the domaine to the subscriber’s section in the next month.

Noëlla Morantin

From Clos Roche Blanche it was a short drive up the road to see Noëlla Morantin (pictured above), not surprising as Noëlla rents her property from Catherine. Here we learnt more about the difficulties of the vintage, and tasted some wines from 2012.

Our focus turned more towards 2013 at Domaine Ricard, with a taste of the freshly picked Sauvignon Blanc juice, yet to get underway with fermentation. Of all the juice I tasted on Monday this was the most convincing, full of expressive citrus fruit and almost tropical aromas, with texture and fresh but nicely enveloped acidity. There’s no reason to believe this won’t make good a Touraine wine. Vincent Ricard (pictured below) was looking more pleased than most, probably because he has 21 hectares of white and only 3 hectares of red, he has largely finished picking the whites, and quality here – at the top end at least – doesn’t seem at all bad.

Vincent Ricard

Speaking in general terms, the Touraine growers are in the middle or drawing close to the end of picking the Sauvignon Blanc, with many expecting to finish in the next few days if not already. The weather isn’t too bad, with blue skies and sunshine for the past two mornings, although clouding over on each day as the hours ticked by. I expect this dry but somewhat cloudy weather will continue for the rest of the week, so not an Indian summer but not leading to a rapid degeneration in quality of fruit on the vine either, which rain would certainly do. Dark clouds continual threaten this peace though, so there is still plenty of anxiety.

The Sauvignon Blancs have come in typically at 11.5% potential, which means chaptalisation is likely at many domaines, as they pump up the wines to 12.5% or thereabouts. A few domaines claimed a little more than 11.5%, with one or two hitting 12% but no more. Yields vary greatly according to the viticultural philosophy of the domaine, but they were very good in places. In terms of tasting the juices, at some domaines they certainly tasted flavoursome and clean, although I note that when this was the case we were often tasting the upper class, old vines juice, and not the juice of younger vines or lesser terroirs. At one domaine where we tasted through a selection of juices, the first Sauvignon showed a touch of grey rot, and the others all showed some rather vegetal Sauvignon character, slight in the older vines juice but worsening as we went down through the portfolio to th every young vines. Another top-flight vigneron confirmed that there was a taste of rot in some of his Sauvignon Blanc juice, and he was treating it with casein to remove it. This is a sure sign of the trials of the vintage, and indicating that even the best, organic, true-to-the-terroir domaines have had major problems this year.

On Tuesday I am heading out to Sancerre, to spend a couple of days here, exploring the vineyards of this appellation as well as Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon, Reuilly and Quincy.