It is only a few days until I leave for Bordeaux to taste the 2013 barrel samples, and – as if we expected something else – this vintage is already shaping up to be an unusual and distinctive one. That much became apparent this morning, with the first significant release of the vintage, from Château Pontet-Canet. We have seen some long, drawn-out campaigns in recent years, fair enough in a great vintage perhaps, but neither 2011 nor 2012 merited such behaviour. I doubt very much 2013 does either. The release of the 2013 Pontet-Canet this morning, before the primeur tastings have even begun, is perhaps an indication that Alfred Tesseron and Jean-Michel Comme feel the same way.
When I spoke with Jean-Michel Comme (pictured below) just as the harvest had been completed in October last year it was clear it had been a difficult vintage for them. The yields were way down at 15 hl/ha, less than half the 34 hl/ha that was achieved in the 2012 vintage (also not an easy year). The major problem was a long, cool and wet spring, producing every flowering problem imaginable, hence the low yield. And the vines simply never caught up, despite good weather in July. Then came the rain and the rot at harvest, forcing picking before it was ideal. Pauillac also bore the brunt of one of the two major storms of 2013 of course, although on the whole damage was reported to trees and buildings rather than the low-lying vines (this wasn’t the same hailstorm that devastated the vineyards of the Entre-Deux-Mers by the way – that was a week or so later).
What does the release of 2013 Pontet-Canet tell us? First there is the timing. Is it really that Tesseron and Comme want a quick campaign for the 2013 vintage, or is it more to do with generating a little interest and trade before the scores are out? And if the latter, whose scores are they worried about? Parker isn’t going to taste the primeurs this year, and although there will by many other voices commenting on the wines in the next few months, there is no-one wielding the same level of power (by far). Whatever the reason, this is certainly not a vintage to buy blind, even with a top-performing estate such as Pontet-Canet. It is probably not a vintage to buy en primeur at all, although I will reserve definitive judgement on that until I have tasted.
Second, there is the price. The release price of 2013 Pontet-Canet is 60 Euros, the same as the 2012 vintage, and this price can be interpreted in several different ways. On the one hand, a dramatically reduced price would have indicated that the wine was of a lesser quality, and so matching the 2012 does perhaps express some “confidence” in the wine, which was how Jean-Michel said he felt about it when I met him (although this was just after harvest, and the fruit was not long in the vats, and so I’m not really sure what else he could have said at the time). But then, on the other hand, with yields slashed by half, many winemakers would reason that with reduced volumes to sell, prices should rise. If the quality was really there, surely that would have been the way to go? Instead they have gone for the middle ground.
The price of 2013 Pontet-Canet looks like a real tester for the market. With a price comparable to that of the 2012 (on which notes and scores are available of course), serious doubts about the vintage as a whole and no influential opinions/scores to sell the 2013 on, it will be difficult to see the trade taking this first release up in any quantity. This is a vintage where serious price reductions and good independent opinion are essential, and we have neither here; I expect it will be hands-off-wallets all round.