The Growing Season
First, some hard facts about the growing season on both sides of the Gironde – as ever, the sheer size of the Bordeaux region gives rise to sharply different weather experiences. All over, after an unusually mild winter, it was one of the wettest springs on record – ground water levels were replenished and more, leaving ground too soggy for tractors to work the vines. Budbreak was early, presaging an early harvest, and with a warm April the vines grew well. May was more mixed, cool, rainy and in some areas hail damaged the leaves and nascent flowers; June was essentially fine and flowering passed well in most cases under good conditions (although some in the Médoc saw coulure in their Merlot) with hot weather giving a good start to the phenolics so necessary for the eventual structure of the wines. That, however, was the end of the fine weather, bar a mini heatwave on 16th and 17th July, until the end of August. July was wet and cool, with some growers reporting rot on the green bunches, and the beginning of August was no better – holidaymakers in Aquitaine were washed out, lighting fires for warmth in the evenings, with the Right Bank wetter than the Left being further away from the coast.
An Indian Summer
Around the August 20th, things began to look up with the sun making a welcome reappearance along with a regular breeze keeping temperatures moderate and drying out any botrytis spores. This fine, sunny, cool weather remained in place almost until mid-November, giving the producers the luxury of harvesting each variety at its absolute peak, with the result that many Châteaux ended up with a significant gap between the end of the Merlot harvest and the start of their Cabernet harvests. For some, particularly those with early ripening Merlot, the fine weather was only just in time, with harvests beginning around 20th September.
Delighted as they were by this long spell of fine weather, the Châteaux were all aware that with shortening days in September and October each sunny day was the equivalent of just half a normal summer's day in terms of ripening; however all were united in saying that without this Indian Summer the vintage would have been a real struggle. Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux insisted that it was not a question of ‘saving’ the vintage, as the initial quality will be set by work in the vineyard, but of improving the quality of what was produced. By and large, quantities were up on the previous three short vintages, but not as high as initially hoped as the grapes lost up to 20% of their volume during the cool, drying autumn sunshine.
How good are the wines?
Next to consider is the all-important quality factor – just how good are the wines? The answer is that they are very varied, with some spectacularly good wines on both sides of the river, as well as howlers to be avoided at all costs. Taking the howlers first, these were properties who either believed that they had the ripe succulence of, say, 2009 or 2005, and tried to extract every last tannin until the pips squeaked, or who were not particularly selective about the grapes going into the vats. They were wrong, these wines were horrid, and in several cases we couldn’t even see their exit strategy, where they might come out on the flavour spectrum in years to come. Some wines also had exaggerated acidity levels, which made it hard to judge whether they would soften in the longer term. We won’t be offering any of these wines, needless to say, which did not come from any particular region and reflect the cellar management rather than an appellation or the quality of the vintage itself.
And the most successful wines?
These have astonishing purity of fruit, are succulent and juicy with lovely, supple tannins and racy balancing acidity. They came from across the region, but, as a sweeping generalisation, St Julien, Pauillac, St Estèphe and Pomerol were very good, with notable successes in Margaux, St Emilion and Pessac-Léognan. In terms of absolute quality, this is a good to very good vintage which will drink beautifully in the early to mid-plus term. Selection is the key – the role of the winemaker in making or breaking the fruit in 2014 cannot be underestimated, and we had some very pleasant surprises in our long tasting days at the beginning of April.
The Victor Ludorum
Without a shadow of a doubt the victor ludorum must go to the white wines of the region, both dry and sweet. These are absolutely stunning and are a must-buy. The two day heatwave in July scorched some Sauvignon Blanc grapes changing their flavour profile, but not the Sémillon and therefore many of the wines have more Sémillon in their blend than normal; all have exquisite freshness, with lovely lemony, grapefruity notes, rich with racy acidity, complex and pure. The sweet wines are also on the lemony scale – no marmalade or confit oranges this year – with delicious sweetness scarcely noticeable behind the balancing acidity. The dry whites appear drinkable now but will improve for many years to come; the sweet whites are equally, madly, approachable but will make serious old bones.
The final part of the equation, the one that seals the deal on what sort of vintage 2014 is, will come from the Châteaux themselves: pricing. We very much believe, and told the Châteaux as often as we could, that the market is soft for primeurs, given the previous few vintages, and in order to have success they should be keep their prices reasonable, if possible at or below those of the 2013s. With a better vintage in the bag, they are looking to increase their prices, citing the weakness of the euro as a mitigating factor, whilst buyers are working hard to convince them to retain the loyalty of their customers by keeping prices steady. We can only hope that the greater quantity produced in 2014 will offset the financial pressure of the small 2013 harvest and that prices will, in the main, be reasonable. As always, at Private Cellar we will only be recommending wines where we believe that the quality and value equation is in balance.
Please note that our Bordeaux 2014 offer is now closed, although it is still possible to obtain some of the wines. If we can help source wines for you, don't hesitate to call us on 01353 721 999.
Nicola Arcedeckne-Butler MW
Director of Buying