This spring, as they do every year, the most prestigious Bordeaux Grand Cru châteaux gave wine buyers and critics the chance to sample the new season’s wines en primeur, ahead of being finished. The wines — from famous areas such as Médoc, Saint-Émilion, Graves and Sauternes — are not yet bottled; many require at least one year of aging before they’ll be released. But in Bordeaux, top wines — from legendary châteaux like Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux and Cheval Blanc — are in a special category. They’re traded like futures, for their aging and investment potential.
The primeurs give experts a way to taste and pre-order the wines while still in the barrel, and to assess the vintage. All they have to do is turn up. But this spring many stayed away. The 2013 vintage was notoriously troublesome: heavy rainfall in spring and autumn, and an erratic summer caused the red grapes to ripen slowly and, in many areas, suffer from rot. Some of the most influential critics, whose scores are important for selling and pricing the wines, didn’t bother to make the trip to Bordeaux to sample the wines. They gave up on it without even a taste. (Dry white wines from Graves and Pessac-Léognan fared better than the region’s reds, while sweet Sauternes had a very good year.)
For those who did travel to southwest France for the week, there was a surprisingly upbeat atmosphere.
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“If you’re not expecting much, you can be pleasantly surprised,” said Fabian Cobb, editor of Fine Wine Magazine, an online publication focusing on wine investment. “The châteaux who had the means and the best terroirs, who were not hit by hail or too many downpours have produced some terrific wines. They may not be wines to keep for decades, but they’ll make for wonderful drinking in the next five to 10 years.”
Generally, the Left Bank of the Gironde Estuary (Médoc, Graves and Sauternes) fared better than the Right (Pomerol and Saint-Émilion), where the Merlot was hard hit and harder still to harvest in perfect condition. Botrytis (the “noble” rot that is generally undesirable in red grapes) struck many vineyards, and it was difficult to separate the good berries from the bad after the bunches had been picked.
The price of adapting in Bordeaux
Bordeaux châteaux have so much at stake, they spend fortunes each year selecting the best berries. In good vintages, discolored or unripe berries are manually eliminated on sorting tables. This year, even optical sorting machines developed for separating recycled waste and successfully adapted to berry selection were unable to spot the difference between heavy, ripe berries and light, under-mature or rotten berries. Those who could afford it used the Tribaie, a density-measuring machine that submerges the berries for a few seconds in a mixture of water and sugar, discarding any that float.
“The good berries are then quickly shaken dry before being turned into the vinification tanks,” explained Alain Vauthier of Château Ausone. “That’s what helped us make a decent wine this year.”
In 2013, vineyard location also made a crucial difference. Pomerol, the exclusive appellation next to Saint-Émilion, produced some outstanding wines from small but prestigious properties like Vieux Château Certan and Château Lafleur. At Lafleur, winemaker and owner Julie Grésiak talked of her confidence in the 70-year-old Cabernet Franc vines that make up part of her family’s 4.5-hectare (11-acre) estate.
“These individuals have found their balance in this terrain; we were confident they would ripen well, so we waited patiently for them,” she says. The wine, of 55% Cabernet Franc and the rest Merlot, is aged in second-year barriques (unlike almost every other top estate, Lafleur uses no new barrels for its premium wine). Lafleur 2013 was my favorite wine of the vintage: it has elegance, verve and emotion.
By comparison, many Saint-Émilion wines seemed unbalanced: New barrels couldn’t mask the lack of healthy, well-structured Merlot. Château Tertre Roteboeuf was an exception. Indeed, this year a number of small, organic estates that have long focused on helping their old vines maintain an equilibrium with the soil showed that even in difficult years these vines can produce fine fruit.
“We practice an ancient method of pruning that enables our vines to produce well-spaced, aerated bunches, and that helped defend them against the vagaries of this year’s weather,” says François Mitjavile, the estates’ owner. His 2013 was pure, long and elegant, with the characteristic “fraicheur” — or freshness — that makes Merlot in Bordeaux so attractive.
In the Médoc, the flat ear of land north of Bordeaux city, terroir also made a difference. Château Palmer is next door to Château Margaux, but whereas Margaux’s Merlots — grown on clay — were devastated by the wet weather, Palmer’s — planted on deep gravel — fared better.
“We run 60% of Palmer’s 55 hectares [135 acres] of vineyards biodynamically,” says Thomas Duroux, the estates’ winemaker. “This most challenging vintage has made us determined to convert the rest to biodynamic methods too. It has shown us how, when the soils are alive and the vines well-adapted, they can produce characterful fruit in all seasons.”
Further north, another of the vintage’s best wines was made at Château Montrose, in Saint-Estèphe. Like the other top Médoc wines this year — including Cos d’Estournel, Mouton-Rothschild, and Pontet-Canet — Château Montrose has not pushed for too much tannic extraction or depth of colour.
“What counts is finesse, with the purity of aromas and flavour that will guarantee the pleasure of those who will drink them,” says Hervé Berland, who recently joined Montrose as CEO after 35 years running Château Mouton-Rothschild. “We were spared the devastating downpour of Oct. 4 that hit so many châteaux during the harvest,” Berland says. “Vintages such as 2013 are always very interesting. Nature has thrown everything at us, but I’m convinced that with experience — but without panic — we can always make fine wines from these great terroirs.”
Main photo: Horses plough the vineyards at Château Lafleur in Pomerol. Credit: Carla Capalbo