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Bordeaux 2013: Pierre-Olivier Clouet, Cheval Blanc

Having driven cross-country from Cadillac to Libourne it was dark when I arrived at my hotel. There was time to grab a bite to eat and also a beer (essential after a day of tasting wine, wine and more wine) in the hotel bar before I hit the sack. The next day I struck out for Château Cheval Blanc under skies that were grey, heavy and oppressive. Before long the heavens had opened and it was really bucketing down. With wipers on double-speed I edged my way among the vineyards of Pomerol to the edge of the appellation, where – just on the far side of the boundary with the appellation of St Emilion – Cheval Blanc can be found.

A few minutes later I was shaking hands with Pierre-Oliver Clouet, who has been technical director at Cheval Blanc for a few years now. We made our way through the new cellars, and up to one of the tasting rooms. After working my way through Cheval Blanc, Le Petit Cheval and Quinault L’Enclos from the 2011 vintage, I asked Pierre-Olivier about how things had gone this year.

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

Pierre-Olivier: This has been a very complicated vintage, one that has been very difficult because at the beginning we had lots of rain. During the flowering 70mm fell on our vineyards, which made it very difficult for the vines to flower, and as a consequence we had reduced flowering and fruit-set, leading to reduced volumes at harvest.

It is not just about reduced volumes though, this has also been a growing season for very heterogeneous fruit, and during July and August we carried out a lot of work in the vineyard to remove the greener fruit in order to obtain a better homogeneity, to bring the maturity of what fruit we had closer together. Thankfully we had a dry summer, giving us very small berries, which is important for the concentration of the juice and the wine.

Pierre-Olivier Clouet, Château Cheval Blanc, October 2013

During September and October though, the weather was very difficult again, and we carried out a meticulous parcel-by-parcel harvest. I was pleased to discover that the fruit and wine did not taste vegetal, although I thought before I tasted it that it would. The wines seem balanced but without a great degree of concentration.

This was a vintage in which soil has been important. Vines planted on clay achieved a good ripeness, but on sand this was not so. We have about 15% of our vines planted on sandy soils and the fruit from these vines is not good – it is going to be sold off. The quality from vines on gravelly soils is in the middle, between the clay and the sandy terroirs.

It has been a vintage I would liken to 1984 or 1993 (I have to confess I wonder how well Pierre-Olivier remembers 1984 – I was still at school then, and I am sure I am quite a few years older than him). It has been very humid, and it is important to sort out the green and the rotten fruit which, as I have already indicated, was a greater problem with the more sandy terroirs. Here the rain caused a rapid swelling of the fruit after the vines took up the water. This was not such a problem on the gravel and clay soils though.

We started picking on September 30th. Overall I think we have discarded 5% of the harvest at picking, although it depends on the soils again; on some parcels everything was good, on others we threw away as much as 12%. In doing so we were careful to exclude 100% of the rot from the chai. We finally finished on October 15th, and our ultimate yield was just 20 hl/ha, obviously much lower than is usual.

Our meeting over, I bade Pierre-Oliver farewell. Outside the rain was easing, and as the day went on it became warm and very humid. This has been the story of the 2013 harvest in a nutshell, with a day or two of rain usually followed by great heat and high humidity as a result.

From here I went to Château Taillefer, although this was a much longer visit which I will use to update my profile of this Pomerol château. Thereafter I made my way to Château Le Gay, to hear more news on 2013, and it is from this latter estate that I will next 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: Turid Hoel Alcaras, Haut-Brion

I sped away from my meeting with Thomas Duroux at Palmer and for once the Rocade was my friend; I hit Bordeaux’s somewhat infamous ring road late afternoon, and I was concerned that rush-hour traffic may have already been building. Happily it wasn’t the case, and there were no delays. As a result I arrived at Château Haut-Brion just in time, not bad for the last appointment on a day which had seen me kick off in Margaux at 9am before then heading all the way up to St Estèphe via Pauillac, before heading down to Pessac via Margaux again.

I parked up and entered; my appointment was with Turid Hoel Alcaras, who manages public relations for Domaines Clarence Dillon, owners of both Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. I had to wait a few minutes while she bade farewell to a visiting wine merchant from Hungary and we then made our way upstairs to the Haut-Brion tasting room. With a lot of wines from the 2011 vintage to taste (this was the year that they started with Quintus, and so there were nine wines to get through) the talk naturally focused on this vintage. As the hour drew to a close, however, I asked Turid how the 2013 vintage had gone at Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion.

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

Turid: This has been a really complicated vintage. Early on it was wet and cool, and we didn’t really have a spring as such. This interfered with the flowering, reducing yields. Thereafter, however, we had a nice summer, we were fortunate as we were not hit by the hail unlike many other growers in the region (Turid is talking about all Bordeaux here – there wasn’t a particular problem with hail in Pessac-Léognan). We did have some thunderstorms though, although not enough to do any damage.

We often begin harvesting the white varieties in August, but this year we started in September, so this is a little later than is usual. The red varieties we began picking in later September, again we usually start earlier than this (Haut-Brion’s position south of Bordeaux, plus it’s urban mesoclimate, gives it a ripening advantage and picking dates are often earlier than you might expect here, and potential alcohols tend to be higher too).

Château Haut-Brion

The humidity complicated things towards the end (this would appear to be a euphemism for advancing botrytis rot) and so we then rushed towards a quick finish, with everything picked by October 11th. The pickers were working seven days a week, even picking on a Sunday – they were very tired by the time it was all over!

The Merlots are nice (notably, this differs to every other report I have heard) but it is too early to say regarding the Cabernets. What we can say is that the volumes are very low (unfortunately I couldn’t draw any figures on yields from Turid, but it seems the volume picked here is likely to be 30 hl/ha or less, matching other figures up and down the left bank). The whites are good too, the Sauvignon Blanc was particularly nice at picking, although more sorting was required for the Semillon. The wines are all still undergoing second fermentations at present, and so we haven’t had a chance to really look at them yet.

I thanked Turid for her time and I followed my visit with a short walk around the vineyard of Haut-Brion in order to take some photographs. I then hopped in my car and headed south, passing through Barsac, to see what was going on there. Being late in the day the region was deserted, and looking at the vineyards of Climens and other nearby properties all the harvesting had finished, the vines more-or-less picked clean. By all accounts there has been success in Sauternes this year, with at least one large-volume high-quality botrytis-rich picking at the beginning of the harvest. I look forward to tasting the wines next year.

I should perhaps have popped in to see the affable Jean-Pierre Meslier at Raymond-Lafon, but the light was now fading fast, and instead I crossed the Garonne at Cadillac and made my way over to my hotel in Libourne. I needed to catch up on some sleep before my 9am appointment at Cheval Blanc tomorrow morning.

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: Thomas Duroux, Palmer

Having finished at Montrose, a visit which included a tasting of the 2011s which showed remarkably well considering the vintage, it was onwards to Château Palmer. I spent a few minutes chatting with several members of the Palmer team before Thomas Duroux arrived.

Thomas pulled the cork on the 2011 Château Palmer and 2011 Alter Ego de Palmer, while we got to grips with the growing season this year.

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

Thomas: Spring was very difficult; the flowering began in early June, but the weather was cooler than expected, with temperatures two degrees below the norm, and there was rain too. There was a lot of rain during the first half of the year, and so the vines were already several weeks behind schedule, and this poor weather in June further compounded the problem. The flowering was drawn-out as a result. There were difficulties with coulure as a result, leading to reduced yields in this vintage.

Thomas Duroux, Château Palmer, October 2013

This has been a vintage which required a lot of work in the vineyard to succeed. We carried out an extensive green harvest in July. When it came to harvesting, we began on September 27th with the Merlots, and we had finished everything by October 11th. The yields are very low again at Palmer, in the order of 25 hl/ha. Obviously this varies a little according to variety and age of vine, but this is the overall figure.

It seems to me that here at Palmer, as elsewhere, there will be a strict selection in this vintage, and a very small volume of grand vin produced, rather akin to what was done in 2011. If the wine of 2013 is comparable to that of 2011, one of the top wines of the vintage, then it will be worth it. More on this in my Bordeaux 2011 tasting report to be published next week.

I left Palmer in something of a flustered rush, with just 40 minutes to make my way round the Rocade before my appointment at Château Haut-Brion. Will I make it? Tune in next time…..

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: 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.