Bordeaux Vintage Report

‘The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated’ wrote the genial and entertaining Mark Twain. And I couldn’t but help think of this quote by day 3 of the annual trip to taste Bordeaux en-primeur. This time round it is the 2012 vintage and a pretty damned good one it is. Yet if the murmurings of some of my trade colleagues were to be believed during the last 6 months the world was about to end. Bordeaux was finished, expired, no interest, crap vintage – and the jungle drums transmit their mantra pretty quickly whether it is a message of hope (more accurately, hype, these days) or doom.  As recently as mid-March at the annual London tasting of the Cercle de Rive Droite association – a collection of Right Bank chateaux – I listened to people decrying the wines and the vintage before and during the tasting. It was an entirely unmerited viewpoint I hasten to add. There were lots of lovely wines on display from St Emilion, Pomerol and their satellites. Are people attending these events actually tasting or merely gassing and recycling received ideas? Mini-rant over – the 2012 Right Bank, at the very least, looked promising on this showing.

The annual Easter-time trip to the region itself for the Union de Grand Crus tastings confirmed this and more. From the first visit of the week at Haut Bailly to the last at Pontet Canet, it proved to be a vintage of more pleasant than unpleasant surprises. It is a vintage that produced superb wines in Pomerol, lovely St Emilions that people might actually want to drink and very good red Pessac Leognans, with even better dry whites from this appellation. The Left Bank was more sporadic with some disappointments here and there but just as many successes to make up. People who want good Pauillac, St Julien and Margaux will find them, although a bit more guidance and care may be required. I don’t like to stick the knife in but Sauternes was weak with few top Chateaux daring to show their wines at this stage it appeared. Climens reportedly made a very good set of component parts, but many others produced light, early-drinking almost aperitif-styled wines rather than the luscious glories we have come to expect. Ah well, most people have too many sweeties in the cellar already and few opportunities to open them don’t they? So 2012 might prove a good year to pass on Sauternes and find an excuse to look out the corkscrew for earlier vintages. So, overall, not exactly a tragedy.

Growing season

Bordeaux is a big region that produces as much as wine as Australia so even a fairly disastrous vintage should have some wines of merit, but 2012 is nothing like that.  Challenging yes, but manageable, especially in these modern times with capital, technology and selection at unprecedented levels. And true to the very history of the region where different grapes are planted in different terroirs for sound viticultural reasons and ‘hedging’ purposes, 2012 comes into its own. While in 2009 and 2010 Cabernet may have been king, in 2012 it was the earlier ripening Merlot that flourished before October rains came in hard and viciously to spoil any ‘Next Vintage of the Century’ parties that may, or may not, have been planned.

Earlier the season began following a cold dry winter and was characterised by a damp and cool spring that made flowering a long, uneven and arduous process. Coulure was a feature and cool weather persisted into the early part of summer bringing threats of oidium and mildew to the vines. Vigilance in the vineyard was key both among the traditional vignerons and the new ‘fancy Dans’ with their ‘Bio’(dynamic) practices. There was much spraying and Pontet Canet were among them, albeit with their ‘plant-based infusions’ (it worked as they produced a rich, clean wine from strong-skinned late-picked grapes.) The better chateaux practised green harvesting to concentrate the crop and eliminate unripe bunches. Resultant yields were significantly down, but crop thinning along with leaf thinning meant well ventilated and healthy small berried bunches were possible come harvest time.

Eventually the sun had to come out and during August and September temperatures soared, conditions resembling 2000 and 2009 with favourable cooler nights to boot. Good fruit and tannin development with aromatic freshness remained possible although hydric stress was an issue for many depending on their individual terroirs and it showed markedly in some wines from the Northern Medoc and Margaux too. Merlot from both banks tended to be harvested in ideal conditions in late September early October and many a winemaker was relieved and self-congratulatory in completing the harvest just hours before the rains arrived. Cabernet was trickier and frequently picked in warm but wet conditions in early to mid October: the greater variation on the Left Bank is to be seen in how estates handled their Cabernet.

The Wines

It is hard to generalise totally and it is best to split the analysis up into the bigger appellations although people will, with some justification, call it a Merlot year. As mentioned the Merlot based wines of Pomerol were superb: lush, succulent, pin-point small-berried fruit with a good transparent mineral component and many showing near perfectly balanced structure in terms of acidity, tannins and alcohol. No shortage of contenders for the cellar from Pomerol in 2012. St Emilion fared very well too. I personally much prefer the style of 2012 in St Emilion to the huge vintages 2009/2010 where I find many of the wines impenetrable and too gargantuan in weight and alcohol for their own good. 2012 suits the wines much better in my view – give me a Troplong Mondot 2012 to either of the recent ‘big’ years any day. Many of the top names exhibited similar restraint and there is real delineation and definition to admire in the wines with no shortage of plump, generous dark fruit. Some fine wines were made at some of the lesser names too; it will be interesting to see if pricing and allocations allows for a ‘supermarket sweep’ of these right bank appellations. The various satellite appellations of St Emilion and Lalande de Pomerol should produce rich pickings too at modest pricing levels. The dry whites of the Graves were wonderful by and large: pronounced citrus fruits, grapefruit, lemon, orange and key lime, as well as greengage to the fore with a subtle classic waxy element depending on the proportion of Semillon in the blend.  They won’t make anyone rich but they are hard to knock in 2012. The big-name normal suspects can be rounded up and other oft overlooked chateaux like Latour Martillac, even the unclassified Chateau Brown show the strength of the vintage here. The reds were not quite so homogenous but nonetheless some very high quality wines produced and it was difficult to find much at fault with names as Haut Bailly and Pape Clement even if they are produced in such different styles.

The Left Bank is where it gets complicated. I tasted good and bad from St Estephe, Pauillac, St Julien and Margaux and the Haut Medoc. From Margaux for instance there were styles that ranged from soft, light and easy-going almost 2007-like at Angludet to the heavier almost brittle Lascombes. Somewhere in the middle there were some good wines, such as Boyd and Brane Cantenac, Rauzan Segla as well as a fairly spectacular set at Chateau Palmer. This jumbled picture was repeated in the other appellations. I tasted some very good wines such as the Barton duo and Poyferre, who were really on form in St Julien but this was counterbalanced by lightweight efforts from the likes of Beychevelle. Pauillac had several winners – a decent Duhart, a pair of good Pichons and a late picked Pontet Canet for instance, although there were some disappointments too – I was not too sure about Carruades de Lafite nor, whisper it, the Grand Vin itself, if I’m totally honest. I tried less from St Estephe and the northern Medoc but what I did try looked weaker, save a terrific effort at Cos D’Estournel from new CEO Aymeric de Gironde, a really classy and unforced wine that surprised and transcended the vintage in this district. And it is not all about big names making good wines in 2012. The Haut Medoc threw up some very good wines at all levels Citran – yes Citran – Camensac, Cantemerle; all the C’s but who all scored B+ marks and above in their less glamorous appellation.

Comparisons? And…to buy?

The obvious comparison in terms of red wines or their success is 1998 – at least in the success of specific appellations – Pomerol, St Emilion and Pessac Leognan have all done well. Style-wise time will tell whether this vintage comparison is valid but qualitatively it is a reasonable first port of call. In terms of how the wines compare with recent vintages in the quality hierarchy the complication is the Left/Right Bank split. The good wines from the Left Bank whilst no 2009/10 are certainly a match for the 2008’s, with the high points possibly a little higher. The Right Bank wines are much better and in the very good vintage range e.g. 1998/2000/2001. Are we buying? The proof will be in the pricing. This year’s en-primeur campaign is probably on a knife edge. Too much optimism and hype seems to generate far too high prices, whereas too much pessimism seems to generate virtually no interest. The proprietors claim to be listening to the market and the clamour for lower pricing from merchants on behalf of the end user. As 2012 vintage is not a ‘vintage of the century’, but a good one nonetheless, there is actually a chance for an interesting pricing scheme that benefits all the players which is as it should be. The ball is in the proprietor’s court – will they want to play? We live in hope…

Kenny Stewart, Head of Fine Wines

April 2013

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It is almost impossible to avoid being exposed to pre-campaign comment and speculation each year ahead of the annual En Primeur week in Bordeaux. This year was no different. The critical discussion point once again was pricing and the absolute need for the proprietors to “get it right”. The trade is united on this key element of the En Primeur mix: this year it is vital.

 Speculative comments re the style/quality, however, are not that helpful so we always try and reserve judgement until we have actually tasted the wines first-hand, even if the fully representative nature of many samples may be questionable. The week though does reveal the overall personality of the vintage as well as the more pronounced highs and lows.

The Growing Season

The year started with the second wettest winter in 50 years and the warmest in almost 25 years, assuring that the vegetative cycle would start early and well set up.

Temperatures took a significant hike in early March, but cold nights acted as a bit of a brake on progress. Nevertheless budding was widely evident from the middle of the month and two weeks ahead of normal. This gave rise to hopes of an early flowering and an early harvest, a precursor to a top quality vintage, at least if history is a guide.

April was very warm and dry, but May started cool and dull, causing some coulure/ millerandage on a few plots of precocious Merlots towards the end of the month. The majority of the crop, though, flowered successfully during the first half of June, maintaining the two week advantage. There was, however, widespread oidium and mildew which demanded constant and vigilant attention. The most diligent estates kept on top of the situation, never allowing the infections to take hold, at least not on the developing grape bunches. Ensuring good air circulation in the leaf canopy was key.  

As June came to a close so did summer, at least until the beginning of September! Both July and August were lacking in sun, warmth and suffered from regular bouts of rain causing the moment of ripening to be delayed and irregular. Disease pressure was never far away and the fortnight advantage had now been lost.

Then, as September arrived, so did the fine weather and it stayed, almost unbroken, for a full two months, until the end of October! A particularly glorious Indian summer established itself over Bordeaux yielding a September that was not only the third driest for a century but also the third hottest!

Harvesting the Sauvignon and Semillon grapes for the dry whites started in the first week of the month, all under benign weather conditions. Wines of fine aromatics, marked freshness as well as good richness and weight were widely anticipated.

The Merlot harvest began in earnest during the third week of September, still under wonderfully blue skies. The grapes had continued to ripen beautifully awaiting the optimum moment to be harvested. Some sorting was necessary in order to ensure that only the best fruit was retained, certainly for the finest selections. The Cabernets were brought in during the second half of October, having benefited from such an extended ripening period and consequent long hang-time.  Yields, overall, were a significant improvement on last year and for many were approaching respectability!

The dry weather of September was not especially conducive to a bounteous outbreak of noble rot, so the Sauternes harvest became very prolonged and piece-meal, often berry by berry in order to select sufficiently botrytised fruit. It needed the occasional bout of rain in October to herald new waves of botrytis. The fine weather thereafter enabled pickers to gather a crop of excellent quality, but very restricted in yield.

Resulting Wine Styles

 Red wines

The best show plenty of concentration, intensity and purity of fruit as well as a noticeable freshness (thanks to the cool summer). The Cabernets appear to be more consistently impressive than the Merlots, but exceptions are plentiful. As ever it is risky to generalise, as there are stars on both the Left and Right Bank. Nevertheless the overriding impression that the finest wines portray is one of sheer drinkability. Elegance and refinement are key descriptors. The successful wines exhibited lithe, finely grained tannins with a linearity of fruit and no excess. Care in selection is required though, as many other wines reflect a more heavy handed approach with insufficiently ripe fruit and/or excessive extraction.

In terms of similarity to past vintages, oft-quoted was 2001, or maybe 1996 or 2006 (especially in the more Cabernet dominant appellations). Some even hinted at 2010 due to the vintage’s combination of richness and freshness. This may be a little exaggerated, we feel, but it is clearly the best vintage SINCE 2010 and it will be a vintage that will be approachable in the medium term, but should also age well thanks to its good acidity.

Dry White Wines

2014 is rightly considered as an excellent vintage for dry white Bordeaux. The best wines from Pessac-Leognan are very fine indeed, offering lifted aromatics, keen-edged vitality and yet richness too.

Sauternes/ Barsac

As for the dry whites, the same marriage of richness and freshness is evident, at least for the finest wines. The marked difference between the early picked September fruit with high acidity and the later picked October fruit with its power and complexity has given the master blenders an ability to fashion wines of incredible depth yet vibrancy: a magical combination. The quality of the top echelon wines shines brightly in 2014. Past vintages that had a similar profile? Maybe 2001 or, for some, even 2011? All in all, a great result.

Neil Sommerfelt MW, Fine Wine Buyer April 2015

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The Growing Season  The warm daytime temperatures of early March started to become much higher, but the cold nights quickly halted a very precocious bud burst and the few swellings that were noticeable in some warmer sites around the middle of the month were promptly arrested by cold north winds of 22-26th . The first few days of April stayed cool but the vine was getting impatient. Its wood was strong and healthy and it was raring to go. So, when the weather suddenly warmed up on 6th April, quickly peaking in the high 20s, there occurred the most amazingly rapid bud-burst, whites and reds, Merlots and Cabernets, all in unison. It became clear we were off to an early start to the growing season. With the added help of rain during the last 10 days of April, the foliage raced ahead. May continued very dry (April had seen a 70% rainfall deficit and May would be almost 60%) and also very hot as the foliage continued to grow well. The vines were now ready to flower but got slightly delayed by the cooler nights from 14th -23rd . Then, with the very regular warmth of the next 10 days, 10-12°C every night and 21-24°C every day, it blossomed into the most rapid, even flowering possible, this being perhaps the most important stage on the way to a quality vintage. The heat climbed during the first few days of June, culminating at 35°C on 4th. Such a sudden burst of heat just as the flowering was concluding could have been an issue, in the form of an aborted grape-set, but it came just after the main part of the job had been done, timed perfectly to accelerate the end of the process. With the gentle warmth of the following week and with some beneficial rain the week after, the bunches started to look in fine fettle. Now there was the prospect of a September rather than October harvest, a further indicator of a top quality vintage. The only snag at this point was the extreme heat and drought. June was turning into the fourth successive month of 50% rainfall deficit and of scorching temperatures: April and June were both a full 3.2°C above the mean normal temperature and both broke records for the number of sun hours, and in the case of June, just as the sun is at its most powerful. Up until now, the vine had withstood the pressure of drought and heat remarkably well. The month ended up as the fourth hottest July in the region in the last century. The vines started to suffer, especially those on lighter soils, but only here and there as total shut-down, more generally as a sort of closing in on itself, ceasing to give priority to its reproduction in favour of its own survival. This key three week period was enough to ensure that the grapes would remain very small and that they would prematurely thicken their skins. It was precisely now, with the vines at the end of their tether, that the air started to change, the wind at last bringing some dampness from the ocean. All this quickly escalated into two violent coastal storms on 22nd and 24th July, which then changed into strong rains as they passed over the parched vineyards, providing up to 30mm inland, especially on the Right Bank. This set the stage for what came to be known as “August 2015’s rains of salvation”. With 13 days over 30°C, August remained hot but it brought four welcome episodes of rain – eight in Sauternes (which would account for the very early first stage of botrytis this year). This August rainfall was unequally distributed: up to 140mm on parts of the Right Bank, up to 100 in parts of the Médoc and Graves. It also coincided with the “véraison”, which quickly became the most even and earliest since 2009 and was finished by the weekend of 8th -9 th August under the influence of the re-invigorating rain showers. This premature halt in the growth of the foliage and the nourishment of the bunches was possibly the biggest factor in explaining the extreme health of the crop at the end, allowing most proprietors to wait calmly for the optimum picking date for each parcel and variety. The harvest started during the week of 24th August with the earliest dry whites in Sauternes and PessacLéognan. Apart from light showers on 31st, they enjoyed perfect sunny conditions and suddenly much cooler temperatures. In addition, the diurnal / nocturnal difference, often 15°C between night and day temperatures, ensured excellent acid retention and lovely freshness. The spritely but powerful Sauvignons were quite clearly the leaders over the softer-styled Sémillons, which had not reacted so well to the August moisture. Rain was then forecast for the middle of the month, normally September rain accelerates the harvest dates (1999, 2006); this time it delayed them. Growers could sense their grapes’ resistance and didn’t need to fret unduly or to panic. The geographical distribution of this rain was very erratic, at its heaviest in the northern Médoc, only 40mm or so in Pessac-Léognan, Margaux and Sauternes, and varying from almost 0 to 40mm on the Right Bank. With the return of sunny days and cold nights 20th September -1 st October, almost all the rest of the Merlots were picked, at leisure, each parcel constantly being re-scheduled to take advantage of maximum ripeness, wherever possible always delaying rather than advancing the programme. The great majority of the top estates picked their Merlots over the last 4 days of the month, in perfect conditions. This year, both Cabernets (Cabernet Sauvignon & Cabernet Franc) were picked simultaneously, and with the return of fine weather and cool winds from 8th October, they could be concluded once again at a leisurely pace. The weekend nights of 3 rd -4 th October brought heavy rain, once again especially on the Médoc which motivated the Left Bank to accelerate more than the Right Bank. By the time the rain returned on 27th, the whole harvest was finished, with the final Cabernets and Sauternes in perfect cool and sunny conditions around 20th -22nd . Resulting Wine Styles  Red Wines  The reds range from acceptable to very good to quite superb (with some chateaux possibly producing their best wines ever), depending on many different factors, not least of which being the amount of mid-September and early October rain and how the grapes reacted to it; also how stressed they got in the extreme heat/drought of June & July. It is a very complex picture, but generally speaking, Left Bank Merlots are lighter, less fleshy and solid than their Right Bank counterparts, Left Bank Cabernets gain in intensity from North to South, meaning that Margaux and Pessac-Léognan did very well, Right Bank Merlots range from a more delicate style on the thinner cooler soils to an extremely impressive brooding, powerful style on the St Emilion Côte and parts of the plateau, especially in the parcels and zones of lesser rainfall. However, there are, as so often, many exceptions to this generalisation. There are some outstanding wines in most communes, albeit not always with same degree of consistency. As a result of all the ‘regularity’ of ripeness dates, the wines are beginning to show a true vintage hallmark. The character lies firstly in their naturally quite high alcohol levels, secondly in their often enchanting aromatic complexity and thirdly in the remarkable silky texture of their suave, lithe tannins. The best wines are beautifully balanced marrying purity, intensity and freshness culminating in wines of undoubted poise and class. Dry White Wines  The dry whites, harvested in the most perfect conditions possible, after invigorating August rainfall and during the brilliantly sunny coolness of end August / early September, have an extraordinary freshness and clarity of fruit, enhanced by the generally greater proportion of Sauvignon in the blends. They have fine concentration (lower average yields per hectare than the reds). They possess a similarly refreshing acidity to the ‘07s and ‘12s. Furthermore, and in tune with the times, there has been a trend to reduce the level of new oak influence. Sauternes/Barsac 2015 is an outstanding vintage for Sauternes/Barsac. The origin of its quality is to be found in the extra, very localised, June and August rainfall which precipitated a very early start to the development of botrytis. Most estates picked in a series of four “tries”. For each, pickers were spared the tedious task of weeding out the bad rot, because there just wasn’t any and nobody had to pick in the rain either. As a result, the fruit arrived in a wonderfully pure and high quality state. Most juice was in the magic window of 20-22° potential throughout. The majority of the harvest came in during the second and third “tries” of the first two weeks of October and for once the final “tries” during the week of 19th October were just as pure and just as fine. The style of the wines is intensely rich, but, with a few notable exceptions, less absolutely sweet than the more “spherical” 2005 or the very powerful 2009: very generally, the average sweetness for the Crus Classés of the 2015 is around 130g/l rather than 140-150 for the 2009. But their main feature is the great definition of fine, fresh fruit, even more so than in ’07 and ’11 but a little less dense than the latter. Conclusion In general, all growers are extremely pleased with their wines, many exceptionally so. Quite clearly 2015 is by far the most eye-catching vintage of the last five years and, in line with current trends, and contrary to the year’s weather, the best wines are beautifully refined. There is far less instance of “excess” than many previous vintages. Their fine balance will allow them to age very well indeed, with many wines also lending themselves to earlier drinking thanks to the sheer beauty of their seductively creamy tannins. Past vintages that were most often quoted as being ‘similar’ in style & quality were 1985 & 1989, with the most bullish comments hinting at a blend of 2009 & 2010! Finally, I must thank the highly respected Bill Blatch in Bordeaux for agreeing to allow us to be informed and guided by his own erudite & authoritative 2015 Vintage Report. Neil Sommerfelt MW, Fine Wine Buyer April 2016

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