I. The Vintage
2013 will go down as a very difficult vintage – a taxing one for each and every team at each and every Château. There was barely a stage when they could take their eyes off of their vineyards and there is little doubt that, had this vintage occurred a few decades ago, it would have been the definition of an annus horribilis. The resources available to the modern day château and various technological advancements, however, have ensured that this was not entirely the case. Today, the wealthiest châteaux are capable of mitigating many issues that they encounter in such a trying year and can still produce a good wine.
From the outset, it looked like Bordeaux 2013 would be a late vintage. Flowering eventually took place in wet and cool conditions, leading to problems with coulure and millerandage. This, in turn, reduced eventual yield (Merlot was the most susceptible variety). Sporadic rainfall was more or less present each month, with some respite in July and August, although various châteaux still noted above average rainfall in July. At this stage, temperatures rose markedly, with July standing out dramatically on the climatic data produced by the individual châteaux (never before were so many meteorological graphs produced by so few!) Although August was dry, temperatures had already started to fall. Intermittent rain through September coupled with warm conditions led to the onset of rot. (Indeed, the conditions for rot, botrytis cinerea, led to a promising harvest for the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac). The dry, white harvest had concluded in advance in fine conditions but concerns over rot forced forward the harvest date for the late ripening red varietals. It was a particularly frenetic time as the châteaux had to organise their teams of pickers so that harvest could be completed in double quick time before the rot spread further. Harvests were accomplished in a matter of two to three weeks and, in some instances, Merlot was harvested in a day or two.
To deliver a respectable quality of fruit, each viticultural team had to be particularly attentive throughout the year. Their strategies had to constantly adjust to the conditions they encountered. Their work involved reducing the vine’s canopy size to allow better aeration, cutting away parts of bunches that would not ripen evenly, harvesting rapidly and sorting the crop thoroughly on reception at the cellars. Those fortunate enough to own expensive optical sorting machines, which grade the berry by colour and size, put them to good use in ensuring the calibre of the fruit selected. It is not surprising to learn that the greatest successes lie with those châteaux with the strongest resources. We were fortunate enough to be focussing on the wines of leading properties during this trip; results from Cru Bourgeois or Petits-Châteaux will undoubtedly be more mixed, to put it mildly.
From a winemaking perspective, the challenges only continued. Cool years result in high acidity and lower alcohol levels. Some winemakers conceded that they had to chaptalize the vintage to boost the slightly feeble alcohol levels and achieve a better overall balance. Most grapes did reach a good degree of phenolic ripeness and so the tannins are not harsh and coarse in nature but are soft and only gently assert themselves. As the skins (where the tannins and colouring material of the berry are found) were not in perfect condition, winemakers therefore had to opt for softer extraction methods than would be the case in a superior vintage. This all means that 2013 will be a forward, early-drinking vintage.
In short, the vintage varies from château to château given the impact of the different decisions each team had taken. Overall, it is a softer, more delicate vintage of light to mid-weight wines with fresh acidities. In most instances, winemakers will curtail time in oak, in order to preserve freshness and retain those succulent fruit notes that will make the wines easy and enjoyable to taste from shipment. There are a handful of wines that stand out from the pack and offer a little more body and structure, but this is not a vintage that demands patience. Some, however, do lack mid-palate intensity and can come across a touch hollow and others are a bit too light and ethereal, carried only by youthful acidity...
II. To buy or not to buy
As fascinating as all the trials and tribulations of a difficult year may be, the question remains; are the 2013s worth buying en primeur? To my mind, purchasing en primeur is driven by one or other, or even a combination of the following factors:
- Is this likely be the lowest pricing level at which this wine will be available in the market?
- Will this wine be available in the market after it has been bottled and subsequently shipped?
- Is this a property which the client has followed from one vintage to the next?
- Is the price for this wine likely to rise on account of demand or critical acclaim?
I would not bet against some of the prices softening once the wine is physically available in the UK as no-one can dub it a must-have vintage. I am sure that 2013s will be available in the market at a later date and I do not foresee sourcing specific wines to be a problem in the years to come. On the other hand, clients who follow a particular property often prefer to secure their wine en primeur out of habit. And finally, there is no scope for price growth from a speculative perspective; the quality is simply not there to create the necessary demand.
What of the prices then, anyway? At this stage we have very little to go on. The only notable release to date is that of Château Pontet-Canet. Proprietor Alfred Tesseron explained during our visit that he was frustrated by the negative commentary on the vintage – some of which had emanated from Bordeaux itself and some of which had been penned by journalists who were not even making the trip to Bordeaux to taste the wines. He was particularly critical of Dr Alain Raynaud, President of the Grand Cercle de Bordeaux, who recently suggested a blanket reduction in price of 30% if the vintage was to be deemed attractive en primeur. Monsieur Tesseron took exception to this and suggested that each château had to make their own decision over what constituted a fair price relative to the quality they individually achieved. It is hard not to sympathise with his view point.
This year, Pontet-Canet caught everyone on the hop by releasing early and at an identical price to the 2012. Liv-ex show that the 2012 was released in London at £690 per 12 in bond and today shows an average list price of £676 and a benchmark market price of £602 per 12. The market is not short of supply. The loyal following for this highly-rated estate will be tested with the 2013 vintage. It is however one of the finer wines of the vintage; a streamlined, elegant, lighter Pontet-Canet with a suppleness and vibrant red berry fruit. Qualitatively, it is probably on a par with the 2012 – or a whisker behind – but that still does not satisfy the questions above. One should then also consider the virtues of the 2006 and 2008 vintages of this property; Liv-ex market prices of £640 and £610 respectively both come in under the most recent release. I am only using Pontet-Canet as an example in the absence of others but it does illustrate the Bordeaux proprietors’ predicament: just what price might make this campaign work?
In our 4th Quarter Market Report 2013, I commented that even the right price might be the wrong price in the eyes of the market; such is the current lack of appeal. Those few châteaux who refreshingly issued honest appraisals of their wine this year, acknowledged the need to pull pricing back in order to send a signal to the broader market. Everyone wants to see the vintage move through, rather than adding to the raft of unsold recent vintages that are queuing up in Bordeaux. Just how this will happen is hard to foresee. The only determining factor will be the release pricing. Pontet-Canet is a brand that is flying high and is liked by innumerable wine critics and commentators. Many other illustrious properties do not find themselves in such a comfortable position and, should they push their release price too far, I cannot see the market sympathising with the low yields and hard work they endured in 2013.
III. The critics
The last thing the market needs is a protracted, drawn out campaign. Fortunately this year’s en primeur campaign is likely to be a short, sharp affair as there is no reason for the châteaux to hold back their prices. American wine critic, Robert Parker, has said that he will not release his notes and scores until the end of June. Jancis Robinson has confirmed she will not taste this year and instead her sidekick, Richard Hemming, is being sent to taste. James Suckling has visited and we hear that, for the first time, former Wine Advocate critic, Antonio Galloni, has been touring the region. It is likely that he has recognised the opening afforded him by Parker’s later travel plans and sees it drawing more attention to his website vinousmedia.com, but I doubt he will herald his first reviews with scores in the upper echelons of his scheme!
I still think it is worth tasting each and every year, irrespective of the early pronouncements and the quality of the vintage. I like to make my own mind up and it is only by visiting and tasting first hand that we are able to provide guidance and advice. I certainly learn more each year I visit as I am better able to piece together an understanding of the vineyard map and the approaches taken by each individual Châteaux. Additionally, there are some appealing wines this year (as there are in each and every vintage), but only the next couple of months will show whether this is a merely a fascinating divergence or whether it is something of modest interest to the wine merchant and client alike. I have my suspicions as to which way it will fall, but we will have to wait and see where the prices come in. As I finalise my edits, Château Gazin has released this morning at a price which is down just €1 on last year. Perhaps an ominous sign.
Following this report, we will be issuing tasting notes on a handful of wines that showed well and may gain our endorsement if reasonable pricing prevails. If you are in need of early drinking Bordeaux, and we feel that the release prices are in line with a realistic expectation for these properties in such conditions, we will of course draw these to your attention as and when the wines are released.
For further commentary on Bordeaux 2013, please visit our News section.
Simon Larkin, MW