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The Death of Sauternes

I was concerned to learn today, thanks to this piece written by Jane Anson, of a move by a number of Sauternes producers to apply for the Graves appellation for their dry wines. History can teach us something of what might happen should they succeed.

First, a little background. In Sauternes, many estates produce a dry cuvée alongside their sweet wine, a move which has in many cases gone a long way to help balance the books. With sweet wines chronically unfashionable, dry wines are a useful addendum to an estate’s portfolio; not only do they reduce the volume of Sauternes building up in the cellars (helping to balance supply and demand, and supporting already fragile prices) but they are a distinct revenue stream in themselves. They may sell for less money (although not that much less, to be honest, especially when you get away from the really famous estates) but the yields are much higher; the volume of juice and thus wine obtained might be three or four times what you get with dehydrated, botrytised grapes.

The Sauternes producers have a problem though; although you might think most people buy on the basis of critics’ recommendations, or your own knowledge and experience, on the domestic French market appellations are still very important. A Graves is held in higher regard than a basic Bordeaux, and the Sauternes producers feel they have been held back by the fact that their dry wines only have the basic Bordeaux appellation, and not the more prestigious Graves appellation. They see a chance to label their dry wines as Graves as a route to higher prices and better sales; hence the call for just such a reclassification.

Château d'Yquem

They may well be right; just to the north of Sauternes and Barsac is a little sweet wine appellation called Cérons, and it is one I have recently described in my newly expanded Bordeaux wine guide. Here in Cérons, the dry whites have always had the Graves appellation. And so when interest in sweet wines fell away, there was a lucrative route out of destitution; stop making lesser-known and unfashionably sweet Cérons, and start making more appealingly dry Graves. That’s exactly what the majority of estates did, and this is why Cérons is today little more than a Bordeaux curiosity; only a handful of estates still make sweet wines, while most have converted totally to dry.

In Sauternes, a move to the dry whites also being eligible for the Graves appellation will ultimately have the same effect. Sure, big name estates will carry on, and it may be that with improved income from the dry whites the future of the sweet wines at these estates is even more secure. But – regardless of the moaning of merchants who must suffer the Lafite-Rieussec tie-in, and who find Sauternes a chronically difficult sell – there is still at least some interest in the wines of Yquem (pictured above), Rieussec, Suduiraut, Lafaurie-Peyraguey and the like. These wines will continue on. But you can wave goodbye to the likes of Haut-Bergeron, Dudon, Bastor-Lamontagne and other small châteaux that are more likely closer to the fiscal edge. Even lesser classed growth estates, like d’Arche, Romer, Romer du Hayot and the lesser-spotted Suau will feel the pull of dry wines. A move like that proposed may well make those with dry wines to flog a few extra sous (are there any involved in the process that have a vested interest in the prices of the dry wines, but are not worried about the sweet wines, I ask myself), but it would change the landscape of Sauternes forever. I hope that the move is soundly rejected by all those who care about the future of Sauternes.

2013 Reflections: Bordeaux

Looking back at the past twelve months, I see Bordeaux has kept me busy just as much as the Loire, perhaps more so. I visited the region twice, for eight days in April, and then three days in October, taking in predominantly the wines of the 2012 and 2011 vintages respectively. These were the most significant updates of the year, with a 73,000-word report for Bordeaux 2012 with 350 tasting notes, and a 22,000-word report and 120 new notes for Bordeaux 2011. Thanks to the annual Ten-Years On Tasting hosted by Bordeaux Index I was able to make a thorough review of 2003 Bordeaux (11,000-word report, 70+ notes), and earlier in the year I published a review on 2010 Bordeaux (22,000 words, 120+ notes), following tastings late in 2012. I’ve also published a briefer look back at Bordeaux 2000 with wines from my cellar (16 notes). That’s not a bad schedule for twelve months, and I don’t think there is any other source of Bordeaux coverage – in print or online – that is as broad or as detailed. If there is, please do let me know – I might just subscribe.

To me, though, taking all the enjoyment from wine that is possible isn’t something that can be achieved through lists of notes and scores. It’s a buying guide, but it doesn’t bring you real depth of knowledge. That is why I persist in publishing other Bordeaux reviews, specifically a broad range of new and updated château profiles, as well as tasting updates and other reports – all told I have made over 130 such Bordeaux updates over the last twelve months. The past year has also seen a huge expansion in my Bordeaux guide, now in 44 instalments (a few at the tail-end have yet to be published, but I’m getting there). Hopefully this gives all subscribers, novice or experienced, the required depth of information on Bordeaux. When I finish the Bordeaux guide (I’ve called a temporary halt on updates while I clarify an important discrepancy on the accepted wisdom concerning Bordeaux terroir with contacts in the region) I will roll out one of similar detail for the Loire.

So what of my favourite Bordeaux wines of 2013? As I tend to avoid the Bordeaux party scene during the primeurs, and am not important enough to be invited to dinners where older vintages are poured, most of my favourite wines come from the past decade. Mine won’t be a list rich in 19th- or 18th-century rarities. Still, at least I can honestly state that I have never been duped by a bottle of 1787 Lafite or similar, and I haven’t yet fallen foul of mysterious millionaires pouring unattainable (or indeed impossible) wines, nor has anyone offered me Thomas Jefferson bottles from a suspiciously undisclosed source. In short, there are no fakes on Winedoctor! The wines featured here are also attainable; if any float your boat, there is at least a chance you might be able to track one down, if your wallet is sufficiently bulging, admittedly.

Bordeaux 2013

Early on in the year I published notes on the 2010 vintage, as mentioned above, and I shouldn’t really include these wines here as they were tasted in 2012 nevertheless there is no doubt that this is a great vintage that deserves to be in any Bordeaux-drinker’s cellar. Most striking were the 2010 Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte and 2010 Château Haut Bailly (pictured above) in Pessac-Léognan, in the case of the latter this being just one in a string of brilliant wines I tasted this year. During a visit to Château Haut-Bailly in April I retasted the 2010, which was consistently impressive, but I was equally besotted with the 2009, 2005 and 2000 vintages.

There were also great successes up the left bank, and I fell in love with 2010 Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste (which has since been added to my cellar), as well as 2010 Château Pichon-Baron, 2010 Château Pichon-Lalande and 2010 Château Léoville-Barton. It is not always the highest scoring or most famous names that stick in the mind, however, as one of the most memorable wines was undoubtedly 2010 Château Gloria, punching way above its weight (and also now tucked away in the cellar).

Over on the right bank, 2010 Château Clinet is brooding and memorable, while numerous Sauternes châteaux also made the most of a good vintage; the 2010 Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey, 2010 Château Climens and 2010 Château Coutet are all tip-top. The vintage also showed me what good value everyday drinking Bordeaux can give us, provided we know where to look for it. Appellations such as Montagne-St-Emilion and Castillon are happy hunting grounds, as the 2010 Château Guadet Plaisance and 2010 Château L’Estang proved; I have these names lodged in my memory as a ready response to anyone who says Bordeaux is only for the rich and the foolish.

Bordeaux 2013

The 2012 vintage isn’t likely to throw up any truly great wines, although I was impressed by the 2012 Château Haut-Brion, 2012 Château Lafleur from Jacques Guinaudeau (pictured above) and 2012 Château Clinet on tasting (in keeping with my thoughts that the ‘hot-spots’ in 2012 are Pessac-Léognan and Pomerol). Best of all though was the 2012 Château L’Église-Clinet which, in a perhaps rare moment of concordance (I say perhaps because I generally avoid reading other people’s notes, especially at primeur time) between my palate and that of Robert Parker, this was my favourite wine of the vintage, and his favourite too.

Looking back to wines pulled from my own cellar, the most memorable was certainly the 2000 Château Gruaud-Larose, a wine of huge stature and composition which has an identity crisis, as I believe it thinks it is a first growth. This vintage naturally threw up many good wines, although none that have stuck in my mind like this one. Interestingly, many showed a surprising streak of green, not something I expected from the vintage in question. I have also tasted and reported on a lot of wines from 2003 this year, and it says something about my palate I think that none of these have made it onto my ‘favourite wines’ list – and my tasting history this year includes the supposed ‘greats’ such as 2003 Château Montrose and a number of first growths, left bank and right. No, I’ll pass on the Pavie, thank you.

Bordeaux 2013

My tastings towards the end of the year bring us forward in time once again, to another vintage which, on first inspection, I would have thought would throw up no great wines, in red at least. But the 2011 Château Lafleur is a triumph, even before we take into account the character of the vintage, and although the 2011 Château Palmer (tasted with Thomas Duroux, pictured above) is a notch behind it is a remarkable wine for the vintage and I believe the best in the commune in 2011 (although I have not retasted Château Margaux yet, but this was my impression from the primeurs last year). As for the 2010 Château Margaux, however, tasted in October, this was a true stunner, a great wine from a great vintage.

So 2011 is not much of a success story for reds, but for the sweet whites it is a rocking vintage, with my top three wines (not including Yquem which I didn’t taste this year) being 2011 Château Suduiraut, 2011 Château Climens and 2011 Château Coutet, but there are many other choices of a close level of quality. As with some of the 2010 reds, I have also added one of these three to my cellar (metaphorically at least – it hasn’t been delivered yet), this being the Climens, an estate that I visited and provided an update on earlier this year. The 2010 Château Climens was just as memorable as the 2011, although both were eclipsed by the 2009 Château Climens tasted at the château, and the 2001 Château Climens from my cellar; these are both spectacular wines.

Bordeaux 2013

So as with the Loire, there are plenty of Bordeaux buying and drinking options around; the difference here, of course, is that the prices can be a major barrier to many, me included. But with the very difficult 2013 coming onto the market soon, I suspect it will be to these other vintages that buyers will now turn. But let’s not judge 2013 before it has turned up for the trial; I will go to Bordeaux in April, to the primeurs, to assess quality for myself.

As for 2014, I will finish my Bordeaux guide soon, and continue to add new profiles and update old ones. Expect in-depth reviews of the 2013, 2012, 2010 and 2004 vintages. In the next few months I also have small ‘from my cellar’ reports on the 1999 and 2001 vintages, as well as a large report on Bordeaux 2009, which I alluded to in my recent post on 2009 Giscours. And, if you fancy going to Bordeaux to see it all for yourself, there will be a Winedoctor-led tour with SmoothRed Wine Tours in October. I will publish more details online here soon.

Later in the week, time permitting (hopefully before the year is out), my favourite wines from beyond Bordeaux and the Loire. It might be a short list though!

2013 Reflections

It’s that time where all wine writers want to look back on the year just gone, often through choosing a list of favourite wines from the last twelve months, or a count of articles published and words written, books published or awards won. In fact, maybe that time of year has already passed – it is something most writers seem to want to get out of the way by Christmas, even though it seems quite likely that festive drinking should throw up a few bottles eligible for the “best wines” list. I know mine has.

In previous years I have often published a more tongue-in-cheek review of the year, accounts of my mishaps and misadventures in the pursuit of wine knowledge. This year wasn’t really short of such misadventures, perhaps the most dramatic of which occurred during my journey home after judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Having travelled back up from London by train I made my way home from the train station by car. Travelling along unlit country roads, very late at night, it was pretty quiet; with a lone car coming towards me in the opposite direction I dipped my headlights, reducing (sadly) my ability to see into the dark gloom ahead. And then it appeared in the beam of the headlights, a life-form, alien-like, a brown body seemingly floating above the ground. Within an instant I perceived four spindly legs – so not ‘floating’ at all then – and each leg was trying to go in a different direction. I’m afraid an instant later the strange being made contact with the front of my car.

Deer Damage, May 2013

Being a very small deer – it all happened so fast that the impact had occurred before I even realised what this strangely put-together lifeform with no head (which must have been bent down, or perhaps up out of the beam of my dipped headlights) could be – the damage to my car (as above) was not that great. You can still see bits of fur embedded in the bumper. The photograph doesn’t show the dent on the bonnet where I believe its head impacted. I checked the deer – it was quite dead, and having been travelling at 60 mph (spot on the speed limit) I am certain it was, thankfully, killed instantly. The repairs were not cheap though, despite the unimpressive appearance above. I am afraid my attendance at the Decanter World Wine Awards turned out to be rather more expensive than expected.

I am sure that, if I were to sit and reflect, I would find other droll or disastrous moments during 2013 to discuss (not least being refused admission to the last train to Scotland in Kings Cross Station later in the year because, despite the fact it had not left the platform, the doors were locked ready for departure), but it is the requirement to “sit and reflect” that is the problem. This year I haven’t really had much time to spend on thinking, or reflecting, or planning. The reason is that I have been working so hard on improving and expanding the information behind the Winedoctor paywall, which was established on March 31st this year, in order to give my subscribers the best possible service for their money. It has been this move to running a subscription service, more than anything else, that I will remember when I think back to 2013.

The move from funding Winedoctor through advertising to a subscription service was not one I undertook lightly. Who would subscribe? How many? How much to charge? There was some welcome support from a number of quarters, including Will Lyons (of the Wall Street Journal) and Gavin Quinney (of Château Bauduc) and I very much appreciated their words at the time. Interestingly, there were also a couple of snarky comments from better established wine writers; I know the wine writing world is not without its fair share of bitchiness, but the willingness of some higher up the wine-writing ladder to take a kick from above was certainly new to me.

Although nerve-wracking (and also exciting at the same time), the move to a subscription basis has also been quite a liberating experience, because I no longer worry about vanity metrics such as Klout and other ranking systems, many of which tend to reflect how active you are on social media. Such ranking systems never take into account how many subscribers you have – in other words, how many people are willing to pay for what you write. It is my subscribers that matter now, and I am happy to say there are many hundreds. I’m looking forward to the day (hopefully!) when I can write thousands instead of hundreds. Who knows, it might just come.

Madeira terraces, July 2013

I would like to thank all my subscribers for their support during 2013; it was a sink-or-swim year for Winedoctor, and I am delighted that Winedoctor is front-crawling along very confidently, hopefully based on my commitment to keep visiting and exploring my two regions of interest, Bordeaux (two visits this year) and the Loire Valley (three visits this year) plus the occasional other region (this year I also visited and reported on Madeira, above). My year-one target for subscribers (I’m not usually this organised, but I had to draw up some targets for a business plan to submit to the bank and the credit card handling company) was reached ten days after putting up the firewall, and my year-two target after one month. After nine months I am edging towards my year-five target – come April, and the end of the first year of Winedoctor subscriptions, it seems clear I will have to develop some new targets!

I would also like to thank some notable UK retailers and merchants, in particular Giles Cooper of Bordeaux Index, Charles Lea of Lea & Sandeman, and the team at Lay & Wheeler, all of whom have been supportive in the last year, either through invitations to significant tastings, or publicising my notes and other writings. Thanks also as always to Jim Budd and Richard Bampfield, who have been supportive in setting up visits and in Jim’s case even arranging and hosting an entire harvest-time trip.

I shall round off here by wishing all my readers festive best wishes, and much joy in the year to come. Over the next few days I will publish a few reflections on my favourite wines of the year, as well my plans for the year ahead (which will include a Winedoctor-led four-day tour of Bordeaux – full details to follow) and also my annual statement of disclosure, a now-regular ritual that seems to delight some, and infuriate others. All the more reason to press on with it then.

Bordeaux: Off the Beaten Track

After reporting on a good-value Bordeaux earlier this week, the 2010 Château de l’Estang, from the Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, here is another less pricy Bordeaux of some merit. The style here is completely different; whereas the 2010 Castillon majored on Merlot, and showed the purity of fruit from this top-quality vintage very nicely, this wine shows a much more reserved, slightly austere character, which takes some time to really open up in the glass.

Château Bel Air de Royere

This is, I suspect, mainly because we have moved back to the 2008 vintage here, although the fact that this wine includes 30% Malbec in the blend may perhaps also be important. The 2008 Château Bel Air la Royère, from Blaye, has a fresh, fairly dark hue. The nose is attractive, with dark berry fruits, quite tense in its suggestions, lightly smoky and with touches of tobacco leaf, bright and rather keen. The palate is as tense and upright as the nose suggested, although there is a little more supple weight in the middle. A rather firm tannic backbone, with a dry and savoury substance through into the finish, and fresh acidity. It needs food to show its best, but in the right circumstances, it works well. 14.5/20 (December 2013)

Disclosure: This wine was a sample from Cadman Fine Wines.

Bordeaux 2013: Olivier Berrouet, Petrus

After leaving Denis Durantou I made my way over to Petrus, where I had an appointment with Olivier Berrouet at, if memory serves me correctly, 4:15pm. Petrus has been a building site for the past year or so, and as this was where my appointment was I was expecting to see all the hoardings and fences taken down on my arrival. It wasn’t so, and in fact the place was deserted except for a few workmen.

Certain that I must have either the time or venue incorrect, I decided to phone to check. A few phone calls (in fractured French) later and I had determined I was at the right place, at the right time. And then, up above me, from the Petrus ‘site office’ (the uppermost of two stacked containers with windows) apeared Olivier Berrouet. I hadn’t even noticed the offices.

After unlocking one of the giant doors to the new chai we headed inside. Olivier Berrouet poured a glass of the 2012 Petrus, and I asked him about the 2013 vintage. I think Olivier (pictured below) was tired though; it was late Friday afternoon on October 25th, and the work had been non-stop since harvest began in early October. He was looking forward to his first weekend off all month. As such, our conversation ended up being quite short.

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

Olivier: It is a small harvest this year, but I don’t have the exact figures yet (obviously they had the same coulure here as elsewhere, with Merlot worst hit). It has been a complicated growing season, but we didn’t suffer with rot. This was because we intervened at the right moment with the necessary treatments.

Olivier Berrouet, Petrus, October 2013

This is surprising to many people; even my father did not believe it (Olivier’s father, Jean-Claude Berrouet, was winemaker at Petrus for 44 vintages before Olivier took on the role). He was in California (I assume because he continues to consult, and he has clients there) and he didn’t believe me. He felt we should be out picking when we didn’t need to as we weren’t suffering the same rot as others. Then he returned, and saw it for himself.

We began picking on October 1st, and finished on October 8th. The harvest went well, except for a little rain on October 4th. Not enough to cause any major problems though.

With that, I left Petrus, and headed back to my hotel. It has been fascinating hearing about the vintage direct from the horses’ mouths, and I hope readers have found these little 2013 reports interesting too. This report brings these series of updates to an end though. Next stop, the primeurs, in April next year, when I will be able to taste the young wines for myself and see how the winemakers have dealt with what 2013 threw at them.

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: Denis Durantou, L`Eglise-Clinet

After leaving Baptiste Guinaudeau at Lafleur it was another micro-drive to meet Denis Durantou at Château L’Église-Clinet. This was an interesting meeting, as Denis flitted between several visitors (including me) who had all turned up at the same time. After pulling the cork on three of his 2011s, L’Église-Clinet, Les Cruzelles and Montlandrie, we spoke of 2013. This was quite a different experience to many of my other meetings; whereas throughout my trip to Bordeaux the mood on 2013 had been generally rather muted, Denis was robust in his defence of the vintage. He was also the only person to offer a taste of 2013 to back up his claims.

As with some of my other reports I’ve translated from French. Hopefully I’ve got it correct.

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

Denis: It’s like this. In 2013 we had a little hail, and then we had a little rain. This is all normal. Ultimately we harvested during mid-October – this is normal. So the vintage is a little later than ideal – this is normal.

Denis clearly felt the vintage to be normal. I didn’t think I would get any further detail than this, so changed tack.

Me: Please tell me how 2013 differs from previous vintages.

Denis: It is a vintage in which I believe that the greatest terroirs will do best. There was a problem with rot on some vines, but this was not the case on my old vines. We have less tannin than in other recent vintages, such as 2012, but this is not a problem. On the whole, I don’t have any major problems in this vintage.

Denis Durantou, Château L'Église-Clinet

To drive home his message, Denis (pictured above) poured a sample of a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, from the Montlandrie estate in Castillon (labelled as 802 – I believe this was the plot number). There was no denying that this wine, with a dark hue and vibrant crimson rim, showed no sign of vegetal flavours. It was clean and crunchy, youthful, the fruit ripe and pure, with a fresh, clean character and most importantly ripe tannins. It was convincing.

Alright, so one sample from one plot on one estate does not prove anything, but Denis clearly had some reason to be confident about the vintage. He pointed at the glass.

Denis: And this is Cabernet Sauvignon, and it is not a great terroir. If we can achieve this at Montlandrie……

The implication is clearly that others, working grander terroirs, may well have achieved more. Despite this, other than Denis, the Bordelais are very muted when talking of this vintage. I am really looking forward to tasting the wines during the primeurs next year.

In the meantime though, on with my visits, and my final 2013 chat of the day, and my final update, will come from Olivier Berrouet of Petrus.

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: Baptiste Guinaudeau, Lafleur

It’s a one-minute walk from Le Gay to Lafleur, both properties sitting just to the north of Petrus, the latter two châteaux firmly on the Pomerol plateau, Le Gay just on the edge as it slopes down to the Barbanne. It’s about fifteen seconds by car. I pulled up and was greeted by Sylvie Guinaudeau; we spoke for a while about work at Lafleur and Grand Village, their estate in Fronsac, and we also talked of their holiday in Scotland last year. The Guinaudeau family sell some of their used barrels to one of Scotland’s leading whisky distilleries, Bruichladdich, who make a series of whisky releases from various top Bordeaux estates including Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, Yquem, Haut-Brion, Lafleur and others under their First Growth label, and so they were delighted to be able to visit the distillery.

Before long Baptiste Guinaudeau appeared, and we went inside to the living room of the château where he and his wife reside (Jacques and Sylvie live at Grand Village). After tasting the 2011s, grand vin and second wine, as well as the 2012 (a bonus!), talk turned to 2013. As with quite a few of these Bordeaux 2013 reports the meeting was conducted in French, and I have translated Baptiste’s words; I hope I have got it all correct!

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

Baptiste: In a vintage such as 2013 vintage you need everything nicely organised, otherwise you end up in big trouble.

There was a lot of rain during the winter and spring, although this wasn’t a real problem here as our soils can absorb a lot of water.

Baptiste Guinaudeau, Château Lafleur, October 2013

Thereafter we saw unfavourable weather during spring, in particular May was 3ºC colder than normal. As a result flowering was impaired, although we were not hit as bad as some other domaines. There was a reduction of about 20% in the Merlots.

Thereafter late spring and early summer had some better weather, with June and July both hot, and the rest of the summer remained hot and dry. August was very sunny, and it was a little like 2008 in some ways, a vintage that was somewhere between Bordeaux and Burgundy.

I don’t have firm information on yields yet, the Merlots are down, but not dramatically so. As for how the wine tastes, we will see at the primeurs.

I left Baptiste before I would have liked to, as another appointment was looming. Happily I managed to squeeze in a taste of that 2012 Lafleur before I left for my appointment with Denis Durantou at Château L’Église-Clinet, from where I will file my next report.

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: Vincent Bernard, Le Gay

I pulled up at Le Gay dead on time and Vincent Bernard (pictured below), technical director for Domaines Péré-Vergé appeared on the steps of the château before I had even turned off the ignition. Two minutes later we were inside, and Vincent was pulling the corks on all his 2011s. Once we had finished working though those wines, I steered the conversation towards the 2013 vintage.

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

Vincent: This has been a vintage marked by rain and high humidity. This was the case during the spring, and as a result the flowering was impaired. Therefore we had a lot of coulure, and the harvest will be very small as a result.

Vincent Bernard, Château Le Gay, October 2013

Again at harvest time we had rain, and there was a need for a lot of selection. We started picking on October 1st, and finished on October 11th. We carried out a our first selection among the vines, and then a further selection after the fruit had arrived at the chai. This is very important in this vintage.

A few parcels were hit by botrytis near the end of the picking, and we carried out a berry-by-berry selection in order to get the best quality fruit, using intact rot-free berries. The selection at La Violette was meticulous, with sorters going over individual berries before the fruit went into the fermentation vats with dry ice (Vincent showed me some pictures of the La Violette sorters seated around small tables and chairs, which looked as though they had been requisitioned from the local primary school, each sorter picking over individual berries).

The yields will be very low, but I am unsure of the figures at the moment.

My thanks to Vincent for his time. After leaving Le Gay I turned right, and headed for Château Lafleur, an exhausting drive which lasted all of about 15 seconds. Well, that’s Pomerol for you.

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: Pierre-Olivier Clouet, Cheval Blanc

Having driven cross-country from Cadillac to Libourne it was dark when I arrived at my hotel. There was time to grab a bite to eat and also a beer (essential after a day of tasting wine, wine and more wine) in the hotel bar before I hit the sack. The next day I struck out for Château Cheval Blanc under skies that were grey, heavy and oppressive. Before long the heavens had opened and it was really bucketing down. With wipers on double-speed I edged my way among the vineyards of Pomerol to the edge of the appellation, where – just on the far side of the boundary with the appellation of St Emilion – Cheval Blanc can be found.

A few minutes later I was shaking hands with Pierre-Oliver Clouet, who has been technical director at Cheval Blanc for a few years now. We made our way through the new cellars, and up to one of the tasting rooms. After working my way through Cheval Blanc, Le Petit Cheval and Quinault L’Enclos from the 2011 vintage, I asked Pierre-Olivier about how things had gone this year.

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

Pierre-Olivier: This has been a very complicated vintage, one that has been very difficult because at the beginning we had lots of rain. During the flowering 70mm fell on our vineyards, which made it very difficult for the vines to flower, and as a consequence we had reduced flowering and fruit-set, leading to reduced volumes at harvest.

It is not just about reduced volumes though, this has also been a growing season for very heterogeneous fruit, and during July and August we carried out a lot of work in the vineyard to remove the greener fruit in order to obtain a better homogeneity, to bring the maturity of what fruit we had closer together. Thankfully we had a dry summer, giving us very small berries, which is important for the concentration of the juice and the wine.

Pierre-Olivier Clouet, Château Cheval Blanc, October 2013

During September and October though, the weather was very difficult again, and we carried out a meticulous parcel-by-parcel harvest. I was pleased to discover that the fruit and wine did not taste vegetal, although I thought before I tasted it that it would. The wines seem balanced but without a great degree of concentration.

This was a vintage in which soil has been important. Vines planted on clay achieved a good ripeness, but on sand this was not so. We have about 15% of our vines planted on sandy soils and the fruit from these vines is not good – it is going to be sold off. The quality from vines on gravelly soils is in the middle, between the clay and the sandy terroirs.

It has been a vintage I would liken to 1984 or 1993 (I have to confess I wonder how well Pierre-Olivier remembers 1984 – I was still at school then, and I am sure I am quite a few years older than him). It has been very humid, and it is important to sort out the green and the rotten fruit which, as I have already indicated, was a greater problem with the more sandy terroirs. Here the rain caused a rapid swelling of the fruit after the vines took up the water. This was not such a problem on the gravel and clay soils though.

We started picking on September 30th. Overall I think we have discarded 5% of the harvest at picking, although it depends on the soils again; on some parcels everything was good, on others we threw away as much as 12%. In doing so we were careful to exclude 100% of the rot from the chai. We finally finished on October 15th, and our ultimate yield was just 20 hl/ha, obviously much lower than is usual.

Our meeting over, I bade Pierre-Oliver farewell. Outside the rain was easing, and as the day went on it became warm and very humid. This has been the story of the 2013 harvest in a nutshell, with a day or two of rain usually followed by great heat and high humidity as a result.

From here I went to Château Taillefer, although this was a much longer visit which I will use to update my profile of this Pomerol château. Thereafter I made my way to Château Le Gay, to hear more news on 2013, and it is from this latter estate that I will next report.

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: Turid Hoel Alcaras, Haut-Brion

I sped away from my meeting with Thomas Duroux at Palmer and for once the Rocade was my friend; I hit Bordeaux’s somewhat infamous ring road late afternoon, and I was concerned that rush-hour traffic may have already been building. Happily it wasn’t the case, and there were no delays. As a result I arrived at Château Haut-Brion just in time, not bad for the last appointment on a day which had seen me kick off in Margaux at 9am before then heading all the way up to St Estèphe via Pauillac, before heading down to Pessac via Margaux again.

I parked up and entered; my appointment was with Turid Hoel Alcaras, who manages public relations for Domaines Clarence Dillon, owners of both Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. I had to wait a few minutes while she bade farewell to a visiting wine merchant from Hungary and we then made our way upstairs to the Haut-Brion tasting room. With a lot of wines from the 2011 vintage to taste (this was the year that they started with Quintus, and so there were nine wines to get through) the talk naturally focused on this vintage. As the hour drew to a close, however, I asked Turid how the 2013 vintage had gone at Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion.

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

Turid: This has been a really complicated vintage. Early on it was wet and cool, and we didn’t really have a spring as such. This interfered with the flowering, reducing yields. Thereafter, however, we had a nice summer, we were fortunate as we were not hit by the hail unlike many other growers in the region (Turid is talking about all Bordeaux here – there wasn’t a particular problem with hail in Pessac-Léognan). We did have some thunderstorms though, although not enough to do any damage.

We often begin harvesting the white varieties in August, but this year we started in September, so this is a little later than is usual. The red varieties we began picking in later September, again we usually start earlier than this (Haut-Brion’s position south of Bordeaux, plus it’s urban mesoclimate, gives it a ripening advantage and picking dates are often earlier than you might expect here, and potential alcohols tend to be higher too).

Château Haut-Brion

The humidity complicated things towards the end (this would appear to be a euphemism for advancing botrytis rot) and so we then rushed towards a quick finish, with everything picked by October 11th. The pickers were working seven days a week, even picking on a Sunday – they were very tired by the time it was all over!

The Merlots are nice (notably, this differs to every other report I have heard) but it is too early to say regarding the Cabernets. What we can say is that the volumes are very low (unfortunately I couldn’t draw any figures on yields from Turid, but it seems the volume picked here is likely to be 30 hl/ha or less, matching other figures up and down the left bank). The whites are good too, the Sauvignon Blanc was particularly nice at picking, although more sorting was required for the Semillon. The wines are all still undergoing second fermentations at present, and so we haven’t had a chance to really look at them yet.

I thanked Turid for her time and I followed my visit with a short walk around the vineyard of Haut-Brion in order to take some photographs. I then hopped in my car and headed south, passing through Barsac, to see what was going on there. Being late in the day the region was deserted, and looking at the vineyards of Climens and other nearby properties all the harvesting had finished, the vines more-or-less picked clean. By all accounts there has been success in Sauternes this year, with at least one large-volume high-quality botrytis-rich picking at the beginning of the harvest. I look forward to tasting the wines next year.

I should perhaps have popped in to see the affable Jean-Pierre Meslier at Raymond-Lafon, but the light was now fading fast, and instead I crossed the Garonne at Cadillac and made my way over to my hotel in Libourne. I needed to catch up on some sleep before my 9am appointment at Cheval Blanc tomorrow morning.

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.