What Erasmus says on Bordeaux 2013
“Taken out of context I must seem so strange” sang Ani DiFranco in Fire Door, the ninth track on her debut album released in 1990 on her own record label, which she set up at the age of eighteen. This came on the back of a long history of busking and playing in coffee shops, since the age of nine. More than twenty years on she continues to write and to perform, to considerable critical acclaim, despite commercial success somehow eluding her. Some people are just determined, I guess.
Context is all important, and I was reminded of this last week at the annual Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting. This tasting sees a small and very select group of some of Bordeaux’s leading châteaux descend upon London, each bringing an armful of bottles from the four most recent vintages. The fact that the last two are usually still in barrel is no barrier to them being poured, so that means this year the tasting featured 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011. Accepting the fact that the comparison of barrel samples against bottled wines can be seen as a flawed approach, this is still a fascinating tasting, a rare opportunity to compare vintages across a range of Bordeaux châteaux and appellations. What is more, as the event is annual a regular attendee can watch the wines progress through the élevage; initially there is a comparison with the three preceding vintages to be made, but a few years later there is instead a comparison with those vintages that followed. The tasting therefore places any one vintage in a number of valuable contexts over the years. No wonder it quickly became a regular feature on my personal tasting schedule.
When I wrote up my 2013 Bordeaux report I wrote in regione caecorum rex est luscus, a rare (for me) foray into Latin. I have to confess the words were plagiarised, the victim of my theft being Erasmus, writing in Adagia. As Erasmus died in 1536, however, I’m not expecting any letters from his lawyers. Translated, the adage reads in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, a recognition that when judging the 2013 vintage from barrel I was wary – without a physical context, only my memories of other (much better) vintages – of the trap of overly praising some wines simpy because they were, being blunt, the best of a bad lot. I took some stick (well, I received a few emails of complaint, anyway) from the Bordelais for my parsimonious scores. But I felt they were justified.
Having revisited the 2013 vintage twice now, immediately after the primeurs at the Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting last year and again last week, the opportunity to taste the wines in the context of other vintages has been invaluable. The 2011 and 2012 vintages have so far been constant companions but last year the 2010 vintage was also present, and this year the good but far-from-brilliant (no matter what some with vested interest might say) 2014 vintage was there too. The upshot of tasting in context only served to highlight even further the weaknesses of the 2013 vintage. These are delicate wines, fresh with acidity, crisp and needle-like in many cases, with little in the way of backbone and structure. The fact that Stephan von Neipperg has already taken the 2013 Canon-la-Gaffelière from barrel and bottled it (and the 2013 La Mondotte, while still in barrel, will follow soon I think) tells you something of the delicacy of the wines, which is ironic as his are some of the most convincing in the entire vintage I think.
To be clear the wines are far from terrible, in fact many feel quite drinkable, and the Bordelais deserve praise for what they achieved in such a wash-out vintage. But placed against the other vintages, not just obviously superior years such as 2010 (and last week 2014) but also 2011 and 2012 it is clear that these wines aren’t really the grands vins we look for in Bordeaux. This region has a superb reputation for great wines, from hallowed gravel and limestone terroirs. In the majority of years these vineyards give us wines of interest, in some years wines of true greatness. But there is another side to the coin as well, and that side is 2013. This is a year of disappointment, and these aren’t (in the majority of cases) the grands vins we should expect for the price tag. Revisiting the vintage, I can’t help feeling that the reputation of this region would have been better served by declassifying the wines in many cases, producing a very good second wine and selling more off, rather than insisting in squeezing a grand vin out of it. The only estate I know with certainty that did this was Thierry Valette (pictured above), of Clos Puy Arnaud, so I tip my hat to him; I am sure some other little domaines must have followed his lead, but none of the really big names did so.
Perhaps such a declassification would be viewed by some as a sign of weakness, but it should I believe be seen as a sign of strength, of a belief that the terroir matters, that the name on the label matters, and when the wines aren’t up to it – no matter how good they might be for the vintage – they really should be taken down a notch. It’s a well-understood practice in Burgundy, where inadequate wines can easily be downgraded from grand cru to premier cru to village wine. There are one or two good examples in the Loire as well (although some still need to learn how to do it there as well – more on that in the future). In Bordeaux, though, where the process would be not declassification through the appellations but to a second wine, they seemed determined to plough on with the grands vins at all cost, perhaps as determined as the young Ani DiFranco must have been. Which is a great shame. These could have been delightful, early-drinking second wines. Instead, once bottled and sold as highly priced grands vins they are destined to be, to quote Erasmus again, largely not worth a snap of the fingers.