Bordeaux Report 2012
Bordeaux 2012 Vintage Report
by Nicola Arcedeckne-Butler MW
2012 Bordeaux Vintage Report
Between a rock and a hard place …
Having seen the weather forecasts throughout last summer and autumn, we were more than a little nervous about what we would find on our primeur tasting visit in early April. However, as it turned out it was a timely reminder that these days, with all the technology and knowledge available, it is pretty hard to have a truly disastrous vintage in Bordeaux. We found many wines which were juicy, succulent in many cases, fresh, with ripe tannins and a fine backbone; not necessarily blockbusters but wines which will drink relatively early and give immense pleasure to lovers of elegant Bordeaux. And this is the key to the 2012s – these are wines for drinking not investment: this is, after all, their main purpose. Whilst we will, of course, offer the top crus, we believe that the real value will be in the smaller producers who have made delicious, approachable wines which we can justify opening on a regular basis, not just on special occasions.
So why the rock and the hard place? The rock is the market and its expectations, the hard place the châteaux’s need to sell their wines – and the real devil is the price. Too high, and the market votes by keeping its wallet closed, too low and the châteaux risk devaluing not only their reputations but also those of their previous vintages. Unsurprisingly we believe that the risk of a devalued reputation from too low a price is significantly less of a danger than the damage that could be caused by over-pricing the vintage in difficult market conditions, such as happened in both 2007 and, to a lesser extent, in 2011. Along with most of the négociants and other wine merchants, we have lobbied châteaux for meaningful reductions which would both bring down the prices in real terms and also show that the Bordelais understand the position of the vintage in the market place. It remains to be seen how they will respond and there is no doubt that the tone will be set by the first headline releases. Guillaume de Tastes, négociant and proprietor of Châteaux Beaulieu and Haut Gay feels that prices should be reduced by at least a fifth and to underline this he has already released Beaulieu at 20% less than last year.
The 2012 growing season was one of the more difficult in recent vintages, challenging the growers at every turn, with surplus water, disease, drought and then yet more water at harvest. As ever, timing was the key to success. A cool, wet spring meant that the vines were slow to bud, whilst cold, wet and windy weather during flowering led to very uneven fruit set, with many flowers aborting or not fertilising properly heralding a smaller harvest than normal. Flowering was spread over a couple of weeks, so there was the somewhat surreal sight in September of vines with black and green grapes on the same stem, requiring in many cases an additional green (or pink) harvest during September to ensure the late maturing grapes did not get into the blend.
After a cool May and June, it was hot from 15th July until 10th September, with no rain, causing vines to stop photosynthesizing to preserve their limited water supplies. Rain in mid-September unblocked the vines, allowing them to carry on ripening their fruit, and from 25th September the temperatures dropped and showers increased meaning that rot became a real threat. Having had a late start to the growing season, harvest was already guaranteed to be later than normal and most Merlot growers did not begin to pick until the last week of September. The rain (and rot) mostly held off then until 15th October, when the weather finally broke with very heavy rain for a further three days. The challenge therefore was for the growers to judge the maximum possible maturity in the limited window presented between late September and 15th October, and indeed some properties drafted in extra pickers in order to be able to move quickly and efficiently through the vineyard. At Tertre Roteboeuf and Roc de Cambes the picking was done in just three days in early October between both properties, with François Mitjavile explaining how a very careful juggling game allows the vigneron to actually profit from rain at the time of harvest – ever the optimist, his wines definitely prove that the rain was not detrimental to the quality.
Much has been made of the early maturing Merlot having the edge over the Cabernets, and that therefore this is a Right Bank vintage. Although the Merlots are, in general, very good there are also some very lush, ripe Cabernets to be had on both sides of the river, and equally some Merlots and Cabernets which show unripe, lean characteristics from both Right and Left banks. Indeed, some châteaux have a greater proportion of Cabernet in the blend than normal because their Merlots tended to be too fat whilst their Cabernets exhibited some beautifully restrained, classic and classy fruit. Pomerol is, without doubt, a star, as would be expected in a Merlot-positive year, but there are some delicious wines from Margaux, St Julien and Pauillac too – all Cabernet-rich zones. All appellations have their stars and their corresponding under-performers.
2012 is a year where selection is key, from choices made in the vineyard right through to the final choice of what to buy. At the production end, many growers spent much of September going through their vines to eliminate uneven fruit, thereby reducing their yield still further, and eliminating any rotten or suspect berries. At harvest time, a similar trie was carried out, again removing the unsuitable bunches and leaving them on the ground, with the remaining fruit then scrutinised on the triage table. This year many more properties, both grand and humble, have invested in the new technology of optical sorting using a combination of light and infra-red rays to identify unsuitable fruit (unripe, rotten), which is then ejected from the sorting table by means of puffs of air. Very high tech and very efficient, with châteaux using it for the first time reporting up to 20% more grapes rejected than when the triage is done by human hand alone. At Haut Brion, following triage in the vines and then on a conventional sorting table, a subsequent sort by this optical means removed a further 5% of unsuitable grapes.
When tasting such infantile wines the quality of the nose, palate and finish are all vital – in top vintages, each part of the tasting should, and usually does, shine. In 2012 whilst there were many wines which ticked all the right boxes, there were a great many where a fabulous nose was followed by an insubstantial mid-palate, or, worse, a great nose and palate were succeeded by a totally non-existent finish – all signs that the wine was not destined to make old bones and therefore discarded from our putative shopping list.
Another point of interest is the position of second wines in the 2012 vintage. Over the past few vintages, really from 2005 onwards, second wines from the top properties have become something of a good deal – whilst their prices had moved up to what their grands vins had formerly been, their quality was very much of the level of those self-same grands vins in the previous decade. In 2012 all that has changed and the second wines have returned to what they used to be – a shadow of the grands vins, using the same ingredients but with just a bit less depth and structure. Whilst the wines are very tasty, they lack the gravitas and authority to match the prices which they have been commanding in recent vintages and, unless there is a massive reduction in price, we will reluctantly be recommending that customers give the majority of the second wines a wide berth. Inevitably, there are exceptions such as Alter Ego from Palmer and Pavillon Rouge from Margaux but by and large we will not be offering as many second wines as in recent years.
And so, finally, to our top picks for 2012: as we believe that this is a vintage for drinkers and drinking, we feel that the wise buyer should be looking out for the small, quality producers who have this year made some really delicious, attractive wines which they will enjoy in the mid term whilst waiting for the 2009s and 2010s to soften out: Beaulieu and Haut Gay (Bordeaux Supérieur); Cap de Haut (Haut Médoc); Mauvesin Barton (Listrac); Lacoste Borie (Pauillac); Capbern Gasqueton (St Estèphe); Clos Puy Arnaud and Carignan (Côtes de Bordeaux); Tertre Mouleyre, Juguet, Puy Blanquet, Moulin du Cadet (St Emilion); Domaine de Cambes (Côtes de Bourg); Guillot Clauzel (Pomerol). For Sauternes, the dry summer followed by the torrential rains gave such a small window for botrytis to form that many of the top properties have decided not to declare, amongst them Yquem, Rieussec and Suduiraut, although they will release some second wines and dry whites to help balance the books.
Nicola Arcedeckne-Butler MW
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