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Bordeaux 2013: Laurent Savovitch-Vuk, Montrose

After a flying visit to Cos d’Estournel (after my visit to Calon-Ségur) during which I managed to claw back a little time on my schedule, I headed down the road to Château Montrose. After a short wait I met up with the maitre de chai Laurent Savovitch-Vuk. This was the first time I recall sitting down for a tasting with Laurent (although I think I may have met him very briefly before, during the primeur tastings). Sadly, I forgot to take a photograph of Laurent.

We started by tasting the 2011s, as per my other visits, before I managed to grab a few words from Laurent on the 2013 vintage.

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

Laurent: The 2013 vintage has been more difficult for the Merlots than it has been for the Cabernets. Our Cabernets certainly show better quality.

We have an exceptional terroir here, on the gravelly plateau, and on the heart of the plateau we have planted Cabernet. With these vines we achieved a good maturity, and I am happy with the quality.

Château Montrose, April 2013

We didn’t have a big problem at flowering (in this I think Laurent and Montrose have had a rare experience, as most estates report difficulty at flowering, and despite this the yields – see below – are as low here as elsewhere). Besides, the vines have to suffer for a great wine.

There was botrytis here at the end of the growing season. Even so, when the botrytis arrived we had no need to wait any further because as far we were concerned the fruit was sufficiently concentrated. We picked, and obtained a yield of 25-26 hl/ha for the Merlot, and 30 hlha for the Cabernets (these are both comparable to the data presented at other estates). But the quality is better in the latter.

The meeting was conducted in French and any inaccuracies will be entirely my fault for not listening harder to my French teacher. My thanks go to Laurent for his time, graciously given, and my apologies for forgetting to take a photograph. The meeting over, I hopped into my hire car, and headed for Château Palmer, in the appellation of Margaux. I’ll make my next 2013 report from here.

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 Millet, Calon Segur

Having finished passed an hour or so with Philippe Dhalluin at Mouton-Rothschild, I hot-footed it over to Château Calon-Ségur. Actually I had spent a little longer than an hour there, and despite my foot being heavy on the pedal to my dismay I turned up at Calon-Ségur quarter of an hour after the time of my appointment.

There was a time, not that long ago, when arriving even a few minutes late – never mind 15 minutes – would have meant that your appointment at this château was forfeit. But times have changed, and my apologies to Vincent Millet (pictured below) were brushed aside. Thanks Vincent! Our greetings over, we headed over to the tasting room where a trio of bottles from the 2011 vintage were waiting for me. After tasting them (full 2011 ‘in-bottle’ report to come – probably next week) our talk naturally turned to 2013.

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

Vincent: The harvest at Calon-Ségur began on October 1st with the Merlots, and we had finished picking all of the Merlots in just four days. Then we waited, watching the Cabernets. By the end of September I had seen that the Cabernets were physiologically ripe, the skins and the pips too, but we wanted a little more sugar. We did not have as much botrytris as elsewhere, because we have more clay in the soils which absorbed more of the moisture (as with the majority of my appointments this chat was conducted in French, and I have a slight niggle that I might have misheard/mistranslated this, so apologies to Vincent if it is wrong).

Vincent Millet, Château Calon-Ségur, October 2013

After a few days we saw that the skin structure on the Cabernets was beginning to degrade, and so we began picking, starting on October 9th, and we had finished by October 13th. The yield is a little low this year, although this depends on the age of the vines. We have 50% young vines and 50% old vines; the young vines gave 50-55 hl/ha, whereas the old vines gave 25 hl/ha. Overall the yield is about 36 hl/ha, which is similar to the level seen in 2012.

Tasting the grapes I found no vegetal character in the Cabernets, and they remind me most of the 2008 vintage, especially the balance. The tannins feel good in the Cabernets and even the Merlot. I think it will be a very heterogeneous vintage, but it will give some surprises in terms of quality. It is not a great vintage like 2009 or 2010, but it is better than expected, and is more like 2008 or 2011.

My thanks to Vincent for his time, and his report on 2013. I left after about half an hour, and made a quick dash – heading south again now – down to Château Cos d’Estournel. My stop there was very brief as I tried to make up lost time, and I focused purely on tasting the 2011s. Then it was onto Château Montrose, from where I will make my next 2013 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: Philippe Dhalluin, Mouton-Rothschild

In the third of my face-to-face reports on the Bordeaux 2013 harvest, I made the very short trip – it is only a few minutes on foot, never mind by car – from Château Pontet-Canet to Château Mouton-Rothschild. Within a few minutes of my arrival I spotted the very suave Philippe Dhalluin, carrying an air of contented nonchalance, walking up to greet me. I thought this was supposed to have been a difficult vintage? He could he at least have the decency to look a little more stressed, I thought.

We first took a tour of the new facilities at Mouton-Rothschild; these are, no bones about it, very impressive indeed. A selection of wooden and steel fermentation vessels, with access on two layers, spotless, high-tech but also traditional. I have some photographs, including the remarkable wooden vats with their glass inserts giving a window in on the fermenting wine within, but I will save these for a forthcoming overhaul of my Mouton-Rothschild profile, due in the next month or two. No wonder Philippe is so relaxed, I concluded, with such marvellous facilities at his disposal.

With our little tour done we secreted ourselves within a tasting room, where I took a first look at the 2011s (report to follow). As we tasted, I also quizzed Philippe on the 2013 vintage.

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

Philippe Dhalluin: Spring was awful and very cold, at least 2ºC below average for the time of year. The only pleasant month was March, which was not so bad. We had a difficult flowering; this was during the week of Vinexpo. We had a lot of coulure (this was mid-June by the way – Chris). The most affected variety was Merlot, as is usual in this case. Certain plots were very badly affected, although which was hit worst depended on the character of the plots in question.

Philippe Dhalluin, Château Mouton-Rothschild, October 2013

Then the weather improved, and towards the end of June and in July it was warmer, more so than in 2010. But during August it was not so sunny; the weather was good, dry, but not what we hoped for. And in September we were lacking the sunshine we needed to get perfect maturity. It became humid, as we had some rain followed by warm weather; the temperatures exceeded 30ºC in a wet atmosphere, and so we got hit by botrytis. As a consequence we started harvesting the reds on Monday 30th September. We had already finished the whites the previous week, by the way.

We literally threw everybody out into the vines to get picking because of the threat of rot, even office staff. We have some organic vines here as a trial, and these were the first to be harvested. At one point we had between 500 and 600 pickers in the vineyard. We feed them all, and so we can keep a track of the numbers of workers by how many meals we serve – on October 9th we fed lunch to 695 people (NB – these figures relate to all the Rothschild properties, so include Clerc-Milon and d’Armailhac as well as Mouton-Rothschild). The rate of picking was very high – on one day we managed 25 hectares. The last fruit to be picked was the Petit Verdot at Château d’Armailhac, which was Monday October 14th.

We used optical sorting in this vintage, this performed fairly well but it was not perfect in its selection. As is the case elsewhere, we have harvested a smaller volume than usual this year, approximately 60% of normal. The wines have a lot of colour, and except in certain plots, it is the Cabernet Sauvignon that will count in this vintage (mirroring the words of Paul Pontallier here). We will be able to make a good but not an exceptional wine, at least at level of the 2008. People will see that when they come to taste next year.

My thanks to Philippe for his time, and his report on 2013. I left after about an hour, and made another short journey north, this time into St Estèphe, and to Château Calon-Ségur.

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: Jean-Michel Comme, Pontet-Canet

In the second of my face-to-face reports on the Bordeaux 2013 harvest, I drove up from Château Margaux and arrived just on time at Château Pontet-Canet, where I had an appointment with Jean-Michel Comme.

No sooner had I arrived than Jean-Michel (pictured below) appeared. We headed into the chai and upstairs, where he had a half bottle of the 2011 ready to go. After tasting, I got around to the 2013 vintage.

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

Jean-Michel: This has been a small harvest, and many vats are empty. The yields are low, 15 hl/ha approximately, this is less than half what we had last year, when it was 34 hl/ha. People will say this is low because of biodynamics, but everybody has low yields this year; we are perhaps slightly lower than others, but the low yield is universal and due to the vintage, not biodynamics. We have managed the vineyard in the same manner as usual. We allow the natural balance of the vines to determine the yields, we never try to reduce the crop, for example we don’t green harvest. We don’t cut the shoots, and we don’t deleaf. All the potential that comes from the vine goes to the wine.

This has been a more difficult year, the main problem was coulure, but in the end I am confident in the quality. It is difficult to say this after such a complicated vintage, as people will think it is a joke, but I will present the wine with confidence in spring. The wine is still on skins at present, but I can tell it is not a wine of low quality.

Jean-Michel Comme, Château Pontet-Canet, October 2013

Nothing in the world comes for free though – if you want to produce the best wine in the world, you have to take harsh decisions and follow them. Biodynamics is very significant for our success. Under biodynamics the quality of the Cabernet Sauvignon improved quickly, but the Merlots followed more slowly. You can see this in the Cabernet Sauvignon this year. Even a few days after the véraison the berries are good to taste. Also, after instituting biodynamics, I have noticed that the difference in ripening of the Merlots and the Cabernets is much less than it used to be.

I am very satisfied with what we achieved this year, especially when it comes to biodynamics as we have proved that we can do it. This is the third difficult year in a row, and we have had no significant loss of crop compared to other estates. We used 2.75 kg/ha of copper sulphate, a reduction from last year’s figure which was 4 kg/ha, and we are allowed 6 kg/ha. In 2011 we used 2 kg/ha though. These figures are all official, we are certified and have recently been inspected and signed off. It is important to reduce copper use where possible as I expect in the future the permitted quantity per hectare will reduce, to 5 kg/ha, then 4 kg/ha, and perhaps based on any one year rather than the current system where the figure may be averaged over five years, which means you can use more than 6 kg/ha in a year at present. We are well prepared for any reductions coming our way.

The 2013 vintage will be aged in the new cement vats which have replaced our eggs (subscribers can read more on Jean-Michel Comme’s own vat-design in my Pontet-Canet profile), so there will be less wood influence on the wine. This is a nice idea, but nice ideas aren’t always good ideas. We will see how it goes. If it is a good idea, we will develop it, but if not then we will ditch it.

My thanks to Jean-Michel for his time, and his report on 2013. I left after about 30 minutes in his company, and made the very short journey across to Château Mouton-Rothschild.

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: 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.

A Few from the 1980s

After my recent review of the wines of the ever-popular Barsac estate Château Climens, featuring vintages back to 1981 and 1979, I was reminded that one of the aims of buying and cellaring wine was that, eventually, you’re supposed to retrieve the bottles from those dark and dingy corners of the cellar where they slumber, and drink them. With that in mind I pulled a few more bottles from the 1980s (I’m a bit short on representation from the 1970s, to be honest) in the past few weeks.

Two red wines first, beginning with an old favourite from my early days of wine exploration when I think I probably knew a lot more about the Rhône Valley than I do now. I’ve enjoyed a few bottles of this vintage of Vieux Télégraphe over the years, and happily I have one or two bottles still remaining. This one showed very well, on a par with the very appealing 1989 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial from Marqués de Murrieta. Having said that, I think I would choose the latter over the former on most occasions; there’s just something very special about older Rioja. As for the 1989 Chasse-Spleen, I approached this with caution, as my last bottle had been rather off. This one, however, was just singing.

Three sweet wines follow, again from the 1988 and 1989 vintages. The 1989 Coutet has to be my favourite of the three, although I was very impressed by the 1989 Coteaux du Layon Les Coteaux from Domaine de la Roulerie. The wine over-performed for the appellation I think, even if the style was quite tertiary and unusual. I asked modern-day proprietor Philippe Germain about Les Coteaux and he didn’t have a clue which part of the vineyard it came from. The property was in the hands of the previous owner in 1989, and it doesn’t seem that very good records were kept. The 1988 Quarts de Chaume from Château Bellerive was also showing well, although perhaps not at the level I have experienced with other bottles. Perhaps this vintage is just tiring a little now. Perhaps, being honest, I have changed my expectation of what Quarts de Chaume can and should be. I have a few left; they should perhaps be drunk up, but I think I will keep them for some time yet, as an academic investigation into the plateau and decline of aged Quarts de Chaume if nothing else.

The final wine, from Warre, is still going strong even at over 30 years. It is a long way from the most highly regarded of vintages, but these bottles prove a consistent source of pleasure.

Tasting Notes

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf du Pape 1988: For the appellation this has a surprisingly pale hue, showing moderate depth at its core, but fading out to an orange-tawny rim. The nose is evolved and expressive, and more interesting than I recall from previous tastings, with rich black truffle aromas, and sweet leather notes on top. There are faint tinges of game as well, but it is somewhat brighter than this description suggests, as there is also bay leaf and juniper berry to be found here. This is fleshy on the palate, so there is no suggestion that this might be drying out, and there is still quite some grip and spice to it; there is quite some energy here in fact. Long and savoury. Showing a slightly more convincing character than my poor memory tells me it has done before, although looking back at previous notes I said very similar things. A good wine indeed, and clearly very long lived. 17.5/20 (September 2013)

Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial 1989: My last bottle of this, unless I am mistaken. Still plenty of colour in the decanter and glass, and as we would expect after prolonged wood-aging very little sediment too. The nose is really quite bright and feels a little lean at first, and it takes a couple of hours to really open up. Nice charcoal-tinged and cranberry-cherry fruit character on the nose, with the sweetness of fresh leather, scented with notes of sage, rosemary and black olive. Dark and slightly introverted, and yet defined and bright, like a slightly sour black cherry, to be more precise. Certainly an interesting nose here, captivating now, but with potential still. Some of these elements come through on the palate, with piles of fresh acids, gentle and rather reserved substance and a firm, bright, acid-bound character. A middle-weight wine, still with a savoury extract and substance, and plenty of fresh structure though. Still very good indeed. And very long too. 18/20 (September 2013)

Château Chasse-Spleen (Moulis) 1989: The last bottle I had of this, probably about three years ago now (where does the time go?) was obviously not showing well; this wine is absolutely singing on this occasion. The colour in the decanter and glass is confidently dark, with a nicely pigmented although certainly maturing rim. But it is in the nose that the wine truly reassures, with perfumed black fruits laced with hints of violets, and as it evolves in the glass also black tea leaves, bloody iron filings and even a hint of game. The palate shows a lovely harmony, and gentle sweetness, some really appealing grip and substance, and in the finish tangible extract and fresh structure. There’s a little length to it. Hugely convincing despite the wine’s age, with complex tertiary nuances of citrus alongside the more classically evolved character. On the whole, this is quite lovely. 17.5/20 (September 2013)

Château de la Roulerie Coteaux du Layon Les Coteaux 1989: This wine has a gentle, burnished gold. The nose is intriguing, opening out slowly over the course of an hour or so, showing scents of coffee and orange cake, with crunchy fruit. Overall it is fairly intense, with tertiary nuances of baked ham and cigar smoke. Despite this overly evolved character on the nose there is no suggestion that this wine is at the end of its life on the palate. There is still a glorious substance to it, a gently fleshy character with subtle hints of Demerara sugar, coffee, roasted plantain, baked corn and even a touch of sage. This is certainly complex and multi-faceted, although to be fair as the wine is given more time it does seem to tighten down into a lightly chewy, tangerine and peach sweetness, with a gently mellifluous texture. Overall, a lovely wine. 17/20 (September 2013)

Château Bellerive Quarts de Chaume 1988: A moderately rich orange-gold hue. The fruit on the nose is rich although certainly tempered by an organic and savoury edge to it. There is a seam of straw, desiccated fruit, dried apricot and lightly baked oranges. Does this latter element suggest a little oxidation on this particular bottle? The palate has a beautifully polished character, still showing a rich and deep sweetness despite the wine’s age, Very harmonious, with gentle acidity. Certainly no oxidation here, the fruit rich and concentrated, with a firm phenolic substance to the wine giving it a really appealing pithy grip towards the end, finishing up with some spice and a really fine length. Still showing the straw and sweetness of previous bottles, but not the caramel tinges I have noted. Overall, still delicious, but perhaps not at the level I have scored some bottles previously. 17/20 (September 2013)

Château Coutet (Sauternes) 1989: In the glass this has a rich, really quite fabulous orange-golden hue. The aromatics are no less remarkable than its rather radiant appearance, the fruit character redolent of bitter oranges, but this is more than matched by the scents of almonds, hazelnuts and praline also in evidence. It feels very lightly high-toned as well though, a sensation swirled with touches of quince and more of that bitter orange. The palate shows all of these flavours, with roasted botrytis character, carried along by a fabulously sweet, polished texture. There is also a layer of caramel underpinning it all, a great texture and obvious residual sugar. This is still going strong; no rush here. 18/20 (September 2013)

Warre’s Vintage Port 1980: A very fine, pure hue here, still with plenty of pigment and life to it. A very fine, savoury but pure and rather fragrant fruit on the nose, with some slightly sooty notes under the violets, but it is the fragrancy that dominates. This sense of purity comes through on the palate, which is very harmonious at the start and it maintains this character through the middle, and although it has grip and spirit to show here it remains appealing, composed and fresh. A wine of substance and light structure, more perhaps the texture and approachable sweetness is more prominent. There are figs, a fine macerated fruit character, and a firm, spicy backbone. The vintage is not regarded as a great one, but this is still a very fine and approachable wine. 17.5/20 (September 2013)

Harvest Reports: Useful or Useless?

There’s some interesting chat on Twitter today about reporting on a vintage before, during or after harvest time, and whether such early reports have any validity. Some say it’s too soon to make any meaningful comment on the vintage, and that journalists lacking in viticultural qualifications and winemaking experience are not in a position to comment anyway. Others, you will perhaps not be surprised to learn, feel different.

Any tasting report has to have some context; there are issues with primeurs samples, just-bottled wines and even older samples that have to be taken into consideration. The further in advance the report is of the moment when we will eventually want to drink the wine, the more caveats there should be. Harvest reports are really an extreme version of this; they have validity, and provide information, but the caveats are huge, and any ideas we might develop on the wine’s future would have to be very broad. Nobody, for instance, would start scoring at the point of the grapes having just been pressed (I can hear it now, “I give this fantastic Merlot juice a hundred points”).

Although the ideas formed may be broad, they are at least evidence-based. Here is a list of some useful information that can be gleaned from a harvest-time visit.

1. The growing season. A report on the weather during the season and through harvest can give a strong indication as to whether or not there is any hope for good quality.

2. Technical analyses of ripeness can be made, even out among the vines. Knowledge of sugar concentrations and potential alcohol can be informative; my Pithon-Paillé report coming tomorrow provides a good example.

3. Yields. Tying in with the weather report, information can be gained on the yields, and whether this reflects the growing season, or the wishes of the vigneron.

4. The condition of the grapes; are they clean and healthy, or are they peppered with rot? And if so, what’s the discard? What are the mechanisms for examining the grapes and excluding rot?

5. Otherwise, what is the fruit like; small hard berries with thick skins, or larger berries, with a higher juice-to-solids ratio?

Sorting at Sociando-Mallet, October 2012

6. Has the decision to pick been made on the basis of the fruit having reached optimal technical and physiological ripeness, or has it been rushed on by the threat of rain or some other problem?

7. Are the harvest dates relevant? Is it an early harvest, or a very late one? Either can have some influence on the style and quality of the eventual wines.

8. What’s the juice like, is it tasting fresh, rich and clean? Is it a bit green (like some I tasted in Bordeaux in the 2012 vintage)?

9. Visitors also see for themselves what’s going on in terms of selection in the vineyard, method of picking (machine or hand), sorting by hand, table de triage, machine-sorting (such as a Tri-Baie machine) or digital-optical sorting.

10. Finally, it’s also a good chance to connect with the vignerons. They may be busy, but it is one time of the year that you are guaranteed that they will be there, and not on holiday, or off showing their wines at one of the many Salons.

In short, no harvest report is a cast-iron guarantee of the quality of the wines that will result. It’s a first glance at the potential for the vintage. Reports should in my opinion be delivered in that context, expressing hope or concern for the quality of the wine, but no more than that. Harvest reports that declare “this is the vintage of the millennium” or indeed “this vintage is a wash out” are unwise and ultimately probably misleading.

Bordeaux Harvests: Quality vs. Quantity

I really should be returning to my posts on minerality today, but first up something of a plea for distinguishing between quantity and quality. They are different, and it is misleading to use qualitative terms to describe quantitative problems.

A recent release from the Le Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) on the forthcoming harvest for 2013, as distributed by the Associated Free Press (AFP), a not-for-profit news organisation based in New York, is the story I have in mind when I write this. The AFP release has been re-run on a number of websites, such as this Wine Searcher article.

The headline declares that the 2013 Bordeaux harvest will be the “Worst Harvest Since 1991“, which is an impressive piece of future-gazing as nobody yet knows the quality of the 2013 harvest. The fruit has yet to ripen, it’s only early September, picking probably won’t begin until October at the earliest, and if the weather holds I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bordelais picking into late-October. So, the Bordeaux 2013 harvest does not exist, and quality cannot therefore be assessed. It’s not like to be very high, with a late harvest projected, but late harvests (such as was seen in 2000) don’t always immediately equate with disaster.

Read the article though and a new meaning emerges; as it turns out Bernard Farges, appointed president of the CIVB in July this year, actually said “In terms of volume, the 2013 harvest is going to be the worst since 1991“. This is of course a very different matter. There is no doubt quantities will be reduced this year; this much can be predicted, with some degree of accuracy, from looking at the crop being carried by the vines. It’s a matter of extrapolation of course, but at least the statement is based on something. Nasty weather during flowering caused a lot of coulure, like that pictured above (in 2012 rather than 2013 to be honest) in a Margaux vineyard. The bunch has both coulure (the stems where the berries are missing), as well as millerandage (the hen-and-chicken appearance of the fruit).

So let’s please get it straight. The Bordeaux 2013 harvest will be small volume, the smallest since 1991. This will be bad for the bank balances in Bordeaux perhaps, because fewer grapes means less wine to sell, but as for quality, only time will tell. It could be dreadful. It could be very good indeed. I will go out to Bordeaux in late October to try and get a handle on it for myself, first hand.