In November 2013, Alan Sichel, chairman of Bordeaux’s guild of wine merchants, told Bloomberg Business, “No one will be excited by the 2013 vintage [in Bordeaux].” That comment turned out to be high praise compared to how others in the trade described the vintage–“a catastrophe”–at the time. With that background, it was with trepidation that I approached the annual Union des Grands Crus tasting in New York, an event at which about 100 of the major Bordeaux properties present finished and bottled wines to the press and trade.
To my surprise, the 2013 vintage in Bordeaux is not a catastrophe. Far from it. But a great year for reds? No. A great year produces wines of substance and structure that, when they reach their potential, will be suave, complex, delivering both fruity and savory notes–truly exciting wines to drink. The key in that definition is the phrase, “when they reach their potential,” which usually means at least a decade or two of cellaring. Great wines become great as they evolve and develop with time, transforming youthful fruity notes into something altogether different. Most of the 2013 red Bordeaux lack the stuffing and structure to evolve over a decade or two, though perhaps a couple of them will. What many of these wines do have is an appealing charm that will make them perfect to drink starting in a couple of years–or even now for some.
Unlike great years in which there is consistent quality across appellations, there is an enormous variability in quality among the 2013 reds. This is definitely not a “choose-with-your-eyes-closed” vintage for red wines, as was 2010. Some producers tried to make the wines “more important” than what Mother Nature intended by over-extracting during fermentation and/or trying to beef the wines up by leaving them in new oak barrels too long. Other producers failed to make a severe selection and allowed diseased grapes to go into the fermenting vats along with the clean ones. Jean-René Matignon, the winemaker at Château Pichon-Baron, whose 2013 was one of the stars of the vintage, said their yields were down by 50 percent because they needed to discard so many bunches that were afflicted by rot. Consumers will need to select carefully, but they will have the luxury to taste for themselves before buying. There will, after all, be no rush to buy the wines thanks to the poor–though misplaced, in my opinion–reputation of the vintage.
Many wine drinkers will like many of 2013 red Bordeaux precisely because they lack the structure for aging. They are charming and accessible now and will not need a decade of cellaring to bring enjoyment. Matthieu Bordes, the general director and winemaker at Château Lagrange in St. Julien, who made a very successful 2013, described the vintage as, “Forward and easy-to-drink,” one that should be consumed, for the most part, over the next three to five years. Investors, collectors, speculators and wine geeks will generally avoid the vintage, which should also help keep prices down and supply up. Indeed, the vintage will only prove catastrophic if producers, wholesalers, and retailers fail to gauge the market and price the wines too high.
The dry white and the sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac–both terrific in 2013–run the risk of being overlooked since the reputation of the vintage in Bordeaux is, sadly, measured by the reds. Hence, consumers should look to these wines, which you could, in fact, select well with your eyes closed. There will be bargains among them, as the reputation of the vintage is almost sure to drag their prices down.
The weather during the growing season determines the quality of the vintage. Without going into a recitation of a month-by-month accounting, the weather in 2013 in Bordeaux can be summed up this way: Cool and rainy. Cool temperatures prevented maximum ripeness of both major red grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Even though those grapes have slightly different growing seasons, which should provide agricultural safety–and explains the origin of the Bordeaux blend–poor weather affected both. (An early frost will damage the early budding Merlot, but spare Cabernet Sauvignon; early ripening Merlot should escape fall rains that damage Cabernet Sauvignon.) The lack of density and variability of the red wines in 2013 extends to both the Cabernet-dominate Médoc and the Merlot-dominate Right Bank.
The reason the dry whites are so good in 2013 is that Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon were harvested under more favorable climatic conditions. Importantly, white wines are made without appreciable skin contact—the grapes are pressed and the juice is fermented without skins—so diseased grapes pose far less of a problem. The sweet wines are outstanding because the conditions for development of botrytis–the “noble rot”–were perfect.
I’ve divided the red wines I tasted into three categories: Outstanding, excellent, and those that delivered exceptional value. Prices are taken from wine-searcher.com and represent a national average. Consumers should shop around because the spread of price for any individual property is considerable.
Château Brane-Cantenac ($51), Domaine de Chevalier ($49), Château Giscours ($48), Château Léoville-Barton ($74), Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion ($54), Château Rauzan-Ségla ($59), Château Pichon-Baron ($97), Château Smith Haut-Lafitte ($68).
The 2013s from Domaine de Chevalier and Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion have more stuffing and structure than many of the others and would reward a decade of cellaring.
Château Angludet ($41), Château Branaire-Ducru ($44), Château Canon-la-Gaffelière ($64), Château Carbonnieux ($42), Château Clerc Milon ($55), Château Clinet ($71), Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste ($55), Château Gruaud-Larose ($62), Château Lafon-Rochet ($41), Château Lagrange ($44), Château La Lagune ($49), Château Latour-Martillac ($29), and Château Phélan-Ségur ($35).
Château Cantemerle ($32), Château Coufran ($26), Château Fourcas-Hosten ($22) along with the aforementioned Château Latour-Martillac ($29) and Château Phélan-Ségur ($35). And frankly, though it is a bit more expensive, Domaine de Chevalier, at $49, also belongs in this group.
The dry whites, usually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, showed very well. As a group, they were bright and zesty, a result of excellent acidity. A subtle, but seductive, creaminess added to their allure. These are balanced wines that are easy to recommend now for current consumption. I suspect the best ones, such as Domaine de Chevalier, will develop nicely in the cellar over the next five to ten years. Although the standouts for me were Château Carbonnieux ($39), Domaine de Chevalier ($96), Château de Fieuzal ($49), Château Latour Martillac ($38), Château La Louvière ($N/A), and Château Malartic-Lagravière ($71), I’d happily take my chances and pick a 2013 white Bordeaux at random from a restaurant’s wine list if priced right.
Pierre Montégut, technical director of Château Suduiraut, says, with a broad smile and a touch of Gallic understatement, “We are very happy with the harvest.” The wines have what he calls “freshness” (acidity) that balances their richness. He agrees that because it is a “fresh vintage, the acidity is clear,” which means that the vibrancy in the wines from Barsac is especially apparent. He reports that the beginning of the growing season was difficult because they lost some grapes to grey (not noble) rot like with the red grapes. But for them in Sauternes, the remainder of the growing season was perfect. The noble rot developed beautifully and the harvest took place under fine conditions.
As the group, the sweet wines had honeyed notes with great vibrancy that prevented them from being cloying. Château Coutet ($45), from Barsac, was particularly invigorating. The balance of richness and vibrancy in the wines from Sauternes, such as Château Suduiraut ($71), which had incredible length, Château La Tour Blanche ($75), Château Guiraud ($51), and Château de Fargues ($N/A), was marvelous. The stature of sweet wines is measured by their acidity, not their sweetness. By this measure, 2013 is a great vintage for Sauternes.
February 10, 2016
E-mail me your thoughts about Bordeaux in general and the 2013s in particular at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein