Bordeaux Vintage Report 2013

Bordeaux Vintage Report 2013
by Nicola Arcedeckne-Butler MW

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Bordeaux 2013 - the year of the artisan

2013 is one of those Bordeaux vintages when, more than ever, the opinion of the market should be the primary concern of those responsible for setting the prices for the en primeur campaign. Whilst the smaller properties are acutely aware of this, if the Bordeaux jungle drums are correct, the headline properties risk alienating their traditional supporters for all time by asking prices which frankly do not represent good value by any yardstick. We have tasted widely, and have tasted many wines more than once, and there is a relatively short list of wines which we are likely to offer - our emphasis is going to be on wines from the small artisan growers who have made some superb wines within the context of the vintage and whose wines will bring much drinking pleasure.

The Growing Season

2013 saw probably the most challenging growing season on record, starting with a late, cold spring which put the vines on the back foot right from the beginning. Budding and then flowering ran some three weeks behind schedule, with flowering occurring in the last half of June during very unsettled weather - a hot sunny day at 30oC would be followed by a stormy, wet one at just 14oC, the antithesis of perfect flowering weather. The result was substantial coulure and millerandage (fertilized flowers which then fail to develop or abort), particularly affecting old Merlot vines, and the vignerons knew already that they had a small harvest on the horizon, up to 30% smaller than average. July was very hot, around 3oC higher than the norm, and all seemed fine until the last weekend of July when the weather broke with a spectacular hail-infested storm which decimated the Entre Deux Mers and some outlying St Emilion properties like Château Puy Blanquet, in some cases destroying the entire crop.

Following the break in the weather, August proceeded cooler and slightly damper than usual, a few degrees below the norm, allowing grey rot, which had been hanging around the vineyards since flowering, to get a new foothold amongst the vines. Normally, the labour-intensive vineyard work starts to wind down in mid-August whereas in 2013 most producers stepped up their vineyard patrols at this time, excising rotten and under-ripe grapes as soon as they became apparent. This was clearly a vintage where the small producer had the edge over the larger estates as they could visit all their vines on a daily basis, keeping an eye on every small change and reacting accordingly. Aléxandre de Malet-Roquefort described La Connivence’s 0.9 of a hectare micro-vineyard as more like a kitchen garden which you could tweak as and when required, whilst a larger property commanded more man power. Every trick in the viticultural book was deployed - green harvesting, despite the small load on the vine, to ensure that the vines weren’t carrying more than they could ripen given the late season; leaf-thinning to increase air circulation and inhibit rot; the removal of later-ripening grapes which would have been hard to spot come harvest time - not to mention preventative spraying against the rot. It was an all-out battle between the farmers and the elements.

The Harvest

During the first decade of the 21st Century, Indian summers became the norm, with bright autumn sunshine and cool northerly winds, and in 2013 everyone hung expectantly onto the forecasts waiting for a high pressure system to settle over the area. This never happened and the cool, sporadically rainy weather of August went on into September, culminating in significant rainfall towards the end of the month. The decision about harvest timing was therefore a balancing act between leaving the fruit to ripen as fully as possible whilst keeping the rot at bay. However, the harvest date is not in itself an indication of ripeness or quality as the different soils across the Médoc region had a markedly different effect on the maturity dates as indeed did the work undertaken in the vineyard. Harvest dates therefore varied widely across the region, as ever, but the nature of the fruit in 2013 meant that there were no wines displaying the overcooked, jammy notes seen of late and indeed it was a real pleasure to come out of tastings with a distinct feeling of freshness on the palate.

2013 is a year where selection is key, starting in the vineyard mid-season with the elimination of unsuitable grapes in August, to harvest time when many producers did an initial trie literally as they picked (cutting bunches in the middle to remove any rotten or unripe grapes lurking in the centre). This was followed by the triage table, in many cases aided by two new machines which have been appearing more and more in Bordeaux: the Cube, which uses a density bath to identify unripe fruit low in sugars, and optical sorters, which use light analysis to asses sugar density and to identify unripe anthocyanins in the skins. All the producers using these machines have been astounded by just how much fruit they discarded, but the justification lies in the fact that when they analyse the discarded fruit, the machines have been absolutely correct. Previously, these visibly sound grapes would have been included in the fermentations and would therefore have had a major impact on the quality of the wines.

Winemaking

In terms of winemaking, maturity levels of the berries meant that many producers wanted to avoid too many of the skin tannins being extracted to avoid bitter or slightly green tannins coming out too and they used gentler, slightly cooler, shorter fermentations and macerations than usual. Edouard Moueix summed it up perfectly by saying that we should think of it as an “infusion” rather than an “extraction”, and we heard this repeated many times on both sides of the river. Inevitably, this means that the wines are lighter in colour than in recent years, and as it turned out most of the deeply coloured wines were hideously over-extracted and therefore automatically removed from our putative shopping list. Most producers have reduced the amount of new wood they are using this year so as not to drown out the bright, fresh fruit flavours and are keeping an open mind on the amount of time the wines will spend in wood.

Style and Pricing

As a sweeping generalisation, the style of the wines tends towards fresh and lighter, perfect in the mid- rather than the longer-term. With supple tannins and bright acidity, and an accent on red rather than black fruits, these are in many cases fresh, juicy, very drinkable wines which reminded us of Claret as it used to be before the recent hot vintages (most of these come in at between 12.5% and 13.5%, as opposed to the 13.5%-14.5% in 2009 and 2010). As to whether there is a market for the wines, this takes us back to the first paragraph - it is all to play for, and if the prices are right then there are some lovely wines out there which will give lots of pleasure with no pretensions of grandeur. If, on the other hand, prices remain as high as they have been, it is doubtful as to whether there will any sort of campaign at all. The smaller producers who have avoided the roller-coaster of recent price rises are all very aware of this and are doing their utmost to preserve prices - a really hard challenge for some like Eric Jeanneteau at Tertre de la Mouleyre who produced just five barrels instead of his normal fifteen.

Nicola Arcedeckne-Butler MW
April 2014

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