Here’s my article for Harpers Wine & Spirit magazine, May 2014 issue.
2013 is turning out to be the vintage that nobody wanted.
Certainly not the growers, who experienced the most difficult growing season in years and the most fraught of harvests. Yields too were well down.
The Bordeaux negociants and wine merchants around the world aren’t too happy either. At the bottom end, they’re paying 25% more for bulk wine for their brands and own-label lines because of the small crop, and at the top of the pyramid, the majority of leading chateaux have failed to breathe life into another subdued en primeur campaign by not reducing prices enough. Consumers, meanwhile, haven’t shown much interest from the day the grapes were picked.
There is, however, some good news. The dry whites are very good and many sweet whites are excellent. White vines, though, only make up 11% of the vineyard area, so the real money is on red. There’s some good news here too, as most professional tasters discovered during the en primeur barrel tastings in late March and early April. While the wines are relatively light, they’re not let down by green, unripe tannins (thanks to good weather in July and August) and a great many will provide attractive drinking over the next decade.
But the question is, at what price? The market has responded to small reductions off the 2012s (which was a better vintage for red) of between 0 and 10% with a big ’no thanks’. People need to see some benefit from investing early in these wines, and recent vintages have shown that buying en primeur isn’t what it used to be. And, of course, there’s no sign of Parker yet to guide us on our way.
The growing season
What set 2013 apart, and made life in the vineyard so awkward, was a cold first half of the year and the unusually horrible months of May and June. By the time we got to the late flowering at the end of June, the vines had been on a go-slow from a lack of sunshine, too much rain, and the (often overlooked) cold soils and sub-soils. Bordeaux has had rain during flowering before, but in 2013 the vines – especially old Merlot – really struggled with putting energy into growth and the floraison simultaneously.
With poor fruit set, especially on the Merlot, yields were well down. Bad weather during flowering would also have an adverse effect on the development of botrytis and this would become critical later on during the harvest. (There’s much argument among growers about the effectiveness of anti-rot treatments during flowering but I’ll spare you that one.)
July was hot and dry, thankfully, and August was par for the course. The trouble came with some summer storms, the most damaging of which was on 2 August when around 10,000 hectares of the Entre Deux Mers, the source of much AC Bordeaux, were hit by hail. (We lost 50% of the crop at Chateau Bauduc in under 10 minutes.) Parts of the Cotes de Castillon were also damaged but it should be pointed out that none of the famous chateaux of Bordeaux saw any significant hail damage.
With late, difficult flowering and then a protracted veraison in late August, when the grapes change colour, we needed exceptionally fine weather in September and October for the vintage to be turned around.
After a drizzly, cool mid-September, hopes were raised in the last week of the month as the dry whites and the first selection of sweet whites were picked during a week of sunshine. Then came a triple whammy. Rain over the last weekend of September, then a warm and sticky few days, followed by heavy rain around 4 October, caused everyone to bring forward their harvest plans as botrytis spread rapidly. Merlots – not only vulnerable to the poor flowering but also more sensitive to rot – were rushed in while some chateaux could hold out for their Cabernets. Many Médoc estates alongside the Gironde, with its beneficial breezes, picked in the second week of October. The date of picking each parcel at the right moment has never been so crucial.
’Better than expected’
After so much bad press about the vintage (but we should be grateful that so many people are interested) it was almost inevitable that the wines were going to taste ’better than expected’ this Spring during the primeur circus in Bordeaux.
At the top end, Bordeaux doesn’t do bad years like the poorer vintages of the sixties, seventies and eighties. There’s too much money at stake, and points make prizes. The huge investment, not just in impressive new wineries but in people, knowledge and better viticulture, means Bordeaux can turn out good wine in even the most challenging of conditions. Great terroir and sufficient resources to sort the grapes, and blend just the right plots, are key in vintages like 2011, 2012 and especially 2013.
I tasted around 500 of the top wines over ten days in late March and early April. The only ones I missed, of potential interest ’en primeur’, were a few smaller production St-Emilions.
For me, the most successful wines of the vintage are the best sweet whites of Sauternes and Barsac. The mid-harvest rains had an impact here too, so selection, in every sense of the word, is important. It’s noble rot you want, not the grey stuff.
2013 is a very good vintage for dry whites too but again, selection is important.
For the reds, chateaux at so many levels and in so many appellations should be congratulated on producing such good quality wines in 2013, given how tricky the various stages of the growing season and the harvest were. But let’s not get carried away. There are no truly exceptional wines. The best were made in the spirit of the vintage and will surprise a few people in years to come, not least in blind tastings.
Many of the best wines, from Pauillac to Pomerol, are attractive, lighter-bodied clarets in the old-fashioned sense. Some are really enjoyable and merit a 90 point score, which used to mean ’outstanding’. Or 17/20, if that’s the correct equivalent.
The majority however lack depth, concentration, intensity and, most of all, joy. Many of my notes include the line ’a good effort for the vintage’ but with a score below 90. I suspect that’s how Robert Parker might see it.
We’re seeing a quick en primeur campaign, especially on the Left Bank. Are the wines worth buying at this stage?
Recent track record is against them, investment-wise, so there has to be a compelling reason to purchase with another 12 months to go in barrel. The élevage, or barrel ageing, will be crucial for some of these gentle and fragile wines. Many of my notes, far more than usual, say ’re-assess in bottle’.
Some chateaux are making sure that their 2013 is the cheapest vintage available on the market. That’s a good start.
What to buy
Sauternes and Barsac
If you’re a fan of sweet white wines, there are some great wines here. I’d pick out Climens and Coutet in Barsac for star quality at a terrific price. The only downside, if you can call it that, is that 2013 is the fifth top vintage for sweet whites in just seven years: 07, 09, 10, 11 and 13. Compare prices, style and quality with 07 and 11 (I slightly prefer 2011 to 2013).
You don’t have to be one of the few that can afford the Pessac-Leognan dry whites from La Mission and Haut Brion (500 cases produced of each, for the world). Try Malartic Lagraviere, Latour Martillac, de Fieuzal and Olivier.
Small production reds
Many chateaux made much less wine in 2013 – through low yields and draconian selection – and this could be the reason for adding the better, small production wines to a collection.
Several Pomerols that fit into this category are l’Eglise Clinet (830 cases), La Petite Eglise (540 cases) and Trotanoy (1500 cases instead of 2500). I didn’t go for Vieux Chateau Certan 2013 as much as recent vintages but, with only 1000 cases of 2013 instead of 4000, there’s not much to go round of this popular wine. Clinet made 3750 cases.
10 recommended 2013s
Calon Segur £420
Grand Puy Lacoste £345
Clerc Milon £330
Feytit Clinet £330
La Petite Eglise £ ?
La Dominique £240
Domaine de Chevalier red £300
La Tour Blanche £340