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.
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.