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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.

6 Responses to “Bordeaux 2013: Wait for the Fat Lady”

  1. Thank you for publishing this Chris. I am always interested to hear what is going on in Bordeaux and it is refreshing to see that you have actually visited the region before making your report. It is evident that some Bordeaux ‘experts’ write on the region without even visiting. I am sure that is why you have been able to give such a fresh take on the 2013 situation, whereas other reports have followed the rather obvious party line of ‘doom and gloom’, I suspect because they have no original information on the vintage to offer.

    I’ve just subscribed to access your many other articles. I will be taking a look through them while I await your report from Paul Pontallier.

  2. Vincent, thanks. Report from Paul Pontallier later today, hopefully.

  3. Thanks for this detailed post. Will be fascinating to see how it turns out but lets hope the low-volume, high quality turns out to be true. I have also read elsewhere that some chateaux panicked and picked a little under-ripe when rot set in. It will be a complicated vintage where one needs to trust your favourite Bordeaux merchant/wine seller.

  4. Thanks Craig. It’s only a superficial take on the vintage really – my primeurs report next year will have all the gory and gritty details.

    You’re right that many châteaux picked earlier than they intended, but the risk of rot was very real.

  5. My thanks too for this report. Very interesting. I always have trouble conceptualizing how a given number of hectolitres translates to bottles – nice to see some of the broad math about that here.

    I bet you’re right about EP prices. I can’t see a drop of any significance – parity more or less with 2012, but no drop. In fact I cannot really imagine Bordeaux prices ever dropping for the greater wines – there’s just too much demand. That’s why I bought my first ever first growth EP earlier this year. Yes, I read your thoughts that buying EP is doesn’t make a great deal of sense & I certainly agree with what you say. But then, I had the money to afford it – only just! – and if I hadn’t bought it then I’d have just frittered that money away. I can’t see top growths ever really declining in price so if I hit hard times I can sell it. But my plan is most certainly to drink it…

    Anyhow thanks again for the ongoing 2013 reports – fascinating reading – I really do get so much enjoyment out of your site.

  6. David, thanks for those comments on the site, they’re much appreciated.

    There were plenty of nice wines in 2012, especially Pomerol and Pessac-Léognan, so I hope it’s from one of these communes you bought!