Bordeaux throws up surprises for 2013 vintage after a patchy growing season

Winemakers in Bordeaux worked hard to salvage what they could from a patchy 2013 vintage. The result is plenty of mid-range offerings alongwith some oddities and a few hidden gems, writes Jane Anson

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 April, 2014, 12:20pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 April, 2014, 12:20pm

We can talk up, down and around the 2013 vintage in Bordeaux. The tasting week for the en primeur campaign has finished, and the thousands of wine buyers and journalists who have trooped from chateau to chateau have now packed up their toothbrushes and headed home.

Attendance figures were down 10 per cent, with overseas tasters accounting for one-fifth of the overall numbers compared to almost one-third just two years ago for the 2011 tastings. Perhaps that's because, as Kenneth Ren of Vintasia in Hong Kong pointed out, "There is none of the fun factor that there has been in recent campaigns when buyers come for the experience."

But those who made the trip were kept busy. It's a year where there was plenty to discuss and debate, as is always the case with vintages that are, to put it kindly, less than uniform.

So, if you're partial to a bit of wine chat, welcome to the world of Bordeaux 2013, where you have to be a detective and a gambler to unearth the treasures. There are some excellent wines hidden away, some failures, and many more that take time and patience to figure out. Not for nothing did Tolstoy say "all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".

Let's start with a few oddities. You'll find unusual blends aplenty, with merlot taking a hammering in the Médoc due to a rainy season during the flowering of the vines. This has translated into 100 per cent cabernet sauvignon at Chateau Pichon Comtesse in Pauillac and 98 per cent cabernet sauvignon at both Chateau Margaux and Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

As to whether this is a left bank or right bank vintage, there are no easy generalities. Wine consultant Alain Raynaud says: "Early-ripening terroirs have been key [in] allowing grapes to get high enough sugar levels before the rains during harvest. But there has been so much progress in vines and winemaking that many wines are surprisingly good. May and June were disastrous, but July and August were sunny and hot. The rain came back at the end of September. Winemaking skills really can be showcased in this vintage - and shame on those who couldn't salvage something".

I tasted around 600 en primeur samples and there are a few top-line takeaways. The number one rule in 2013 was to work with the vintage, and not to try to impose any blanket house style. There were all kinds of oenological tricks up people's sleeves (or, as Clare Tooley of Direct Wines puts it, "the vintage has proved a playground for the scientists"). There were concentration machines, shock absorbers for protecting the berries from the vineyard to the cellar and sugar addition to increase alcohol levels. But the best winemakers have without exception proceeded with great care and attention. If they didn't, you find either under-extracted juice that tastes like watery rosé or over-extracted oak blocks.

Denis Dubourdieu, consultant and professor at the Institute of Oenology, says: "We have measured vintages according to five quality criteria since 2005. This is the first time that not one of the five criteria was met [these are, if you're asking, quick and early flowering, water stress during fruit set, stopping of vegetative growth before colour change, completely ripe grapes due to photosynthesis up to picking and mild weather at harvest].

"Grape sorting has been so good that flavours associated with rot have been avoided, but a loss of colour is apparent because grape skins were thin and fragile and so estates had to be careful not to press too hard or macerate for too long. Over extraction is the most common fault, with people trying to get more out of the vintage than was naturally there."

When it was done right in 2013, the wines were a real pleasure to taste. And for me it's a vintage that confirms that nurture not nature is now the new world order when it comes to Bordeaux.

It's been fascinating to see how the best wines have been constructed from a variety of grapes and press wine to build up complexity and flesh out the mid palate. And there are plenty of classic wines with a fresh elegance that are appealing. But is it worth buying, particularly against the backdrop of several years of overstocking in Hong Kong and China?

Thibault Pontallier of Chateau Margaux, who has spent the past four years in Asia, confirms that the anti-corruption drive on the mainland has seen them lose around "50 per cent of our government clients, but instead we are picking up the CEOs, the lawyers, the real drinkers. It's a normalisation of the market and it's very welcome."

Read between those lines, and it's clear that the top wines of Bordeaux know that more consumer-friendly pricing is on the cards. Pontallier might, however, be pleased to hear that Peter Shakeshaft of wine investment fund Vin-X has said that, "Chateau Margaux may be the only buy for investors in 2013. I would cautiously suggest there is an investment reason because of the rarity value of no merlot for the first time, and because the yield was at 50 per cent of the usual crop. But the same reasoning doesn't apply to Pichon Comtesse, even though it's a great wine, because the brand is not as secure as that of a first growth".

John Watkins, CEO of ASC, says: "The wider drop in demand for Bordeaux is largely due to destocking for those who bought the 2009 and 2010 at high levels and have been unable to sell them on. Certainly, anyone who invested in those years has been burnt, but there is an argument that, at the right price, 2013 offers an opportunity for a new round of drinkers. Whether that means buying en primeur or waiting until they are bottled is less clear cut."

The following wines caught my attention: Sweet whites: this was a great year for the sweet whites of Bordeaux. My personal favourites included Chateau d'Yquem, Chateau Doisy Daene, Chateau Guiraud and, for me the best of the lot, Chateau de Fargues. Dry whites: again, some excellent dry whites, from across the region, so Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers as well as the stately whites of Pessac-Léognan. Among my picks are Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc, Smith Haut Lafitte, Domaine de Chevalier and, again, my favourite and one that should be excellent value, Chateau Olivier. Red wines: this is where you want to be a little more ready to take some advice. Speak to merchants who have been to Bordeaux and tasted because brand names do not assure success. The best this year have a floral quality, elegance and gentle levels of alcohol, think 12 per cent to 13 per cent rather than 14 per cent to 15 per cent as in 2009.

I found some great wines, although the vast majority are early to medium drinking wines and so are worth getting hold of to drink in the next few years. Among the best were Domaine de Chevalier (a good job in both colours), Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Cos d'Estournel, Chateau Calon-Ségur, Chateau Lynch Bages, Chateau Pichon Comtesse de Lalande, Chateau L'Evangile and Chateau Clinet.