It is not often that I heap praise on the Wine Advocate or its sometimes self-indulgent and fatuous team. But some do stand out. Witness this introduction to Neil Martin’s review to the blighted and maligned 2013 vintage.
It is harsh and just. It is only with despair that you realize that those accused will never wake up and smell the coffee. Enjoy, and weep.
It Is What It Is: Bordeaux 2013
“I’m going to make you an offer you cannot refuse,” – Don Corleone
A Dose of Reality
Observing en primeur can be like watching someone putting a gun to their head in slow motion. You want to reach out and stop them, just grab their wrist and empty the cartridges, talk them out of it. Having participated in seventeen en primeur campaigns I learned long ago that this would be futile. Even so, as I packed my suitcase bound for Merignac Airport against the annual prognostications of doom and gloom, there was a flicker of hope that in their finite wisdom, the Bordelais would have finally comprehended that Bordeaux-lovers have had enough of financing their gilded palaces by paying upfront for unfinished wines.
I was totally wrong.
The only morsel of common sense was uttered in Saint Emilion, when a notable winemaker suggested that to have any chance of stoking demand, primeur prices should be set at 2004 levels. I almost fell off my chair in disbelief but I soon realised that it was our shared fantasy. The remainder of my 2 weeks in Bordeaux, the same old arguments were trotted out, arguments long past their sell by date. What is astonishing and dispiriting is the acute solipsism that has become so entrenched in Bordeaux, to wit their misguided and self-injurious belief that all responsibility ends once the beleaguered négociants smile and accept their allocation through gritted teeth. I guess that if you lead an idyllic life unimaginable to most then it becomes the norm. The more salubrious black tie dinners you attend and the more fawning admirers that surround you; the more acquiescent the négoce; the more you feel confident that you can get away with; the less grip you have on reality…
I love Bordeaux.
It is the region in which I cut my teeth. I have walked around almost every Grand Cru vineyard, met almost every proprietor and winemaker; visited the region throughout the season every year since the late 1990s. Some of the greatest wines that I will ever drink hail from this region. I’ve tasted from over 1,000 châteaux, vintages from the early 19th century to the present, from unknown Cru Bourgeois to 20th century icons. I have written the seminal work on Pomerol not because a publisher offered a wedge of cash, but because I was so passionate about its wines. I know Bordeaux inside out, much of it un-publishable. Bordeaux runs deep inside.
Therefore, to witness this agonisingly slow car crash cuts deeply, the level of blissful ignorance in Bordeaux both bewildering and alarming. Who can talk sense into this region? I am reminded of that comical scene in the “Airplane” movie, where a hysterical woman is slapped by a queue of passengers trying to calm her down. Commentators slap Bordeaux one by one: critics like myself, rancorous members of the trade or disenfranchised consumers. The Bordelais interpret such protests as an unwarranted attack both upon their region and a system that has benefited both consumers and merchants in the past. They cannot see it for what is: a spurned lover beseeching their partner to put that gun back in its holster.
The media has been united in its proclamations that primeur doesn’t work.
They are wrong.
Primeur does work – but only at the right price.
This is the fundamental problem, the one that ensures the wheels fall off the whole charabanc. The elite of Bordeaux has reimagined itself as a luxurious brand rather than an agricultural region that just so happened to produce some of the best wines in the world. Bordeaux has always been an aristocratic region – that is part of its DNA and part of why we fall for its blue-blooded charms. However, their pretentions were always constrained by economic reality. As Charles Chevalier mentioned during my visit, after Château Lafite-Rothschild was acquired by the banking dynasty in 1868 it took no less than 80 years for them to break even. (Given the astronomical prices paid by today’s investors, you could argue that this state of affairs has been restored!) It is difficult to believe that Bordeaux was an impoverished region not so long ago, but you only have to take a short detour and visit the countless struggling Petit Château to see that for many, this remains the case.
The 1980s saw the rise of Bordeaux both in terms of the improving quality of wines and prices accordingly. Even though the wines were not priced exactly correct every year, equilibrium would prevail as the market shunned vintages deemed too expensive. What is different now is that the type of consumer has changed. I witnessed this first hand during the mid-1990s when I was charged with purchasing vast tranches of Grand Cru Classé for the insatiable Japanese market. Back then it was a two-way relationship. They had the wines – we had the customers. Like any fluid free market there was always negotiation and horse-trading. I still remember buying 100 ex-château cases of a 1978 First Growth and haggling the price DOWN because of the quantity. That was only about ten years ago. It seems almost comical now.
The primeur system worked. It was not perfect but neither is capitalism. But the primeur and the place were capable of distributing a vast quantity of wines efficiently to the right people: importers and distributors, top class restaurants, wine clubs, to those that genuinely adored the wines of Bordeaux. It was no different to buying an off-plan house. You took the risk in paying upfront for an unfinished wine, preferably guided by critics (so long as they were called Robert Parker) that had a proven track record of assessing en primeur. Buyers were comforted by the knowledge that a) it was cheaper than buying mature vintages b) you could guarantee provenance c) you could pre-order the desired format d) you had a sniff of a chance getting your mits on rare wines such as Le Pin or Petrus. Likewise, the château had an income that meant that they could invest in their château and improve the wines through stricter selection, limiting yields and technology, whilst down the chain, négoçiants and merchants had their fair cut of the cake. It was just reward for going long on their preferred wines and in return for financing deals with négoçiants that enabled their customers to get the best deals.
The change began with the 2000 vintage. On one side, escalating prices enticed investors and speculators to dabble in wine and a cycle of higher potential profits attracting more speculators and investment funds began to accelerate. Unlike established merchants, their own preference for each wine was irrelevant since there was no intention of drinking it. They just needed to guarantee that promised dividend. This skewed the market, creating a mirage of demand that made it look as if everybody was suddenly pouring Claret at the dinner table when in reality, precisely the opposite was happening because fewer could afford it. It is a trend that continues to this day – a cursory glance at a restaurant list is all you need, a sign of Bordeaux ebbing away over the horizon. Consumers on modest incomes began to turn to alternative wine regions and likewise, it was no longer mandatory for top restaurants to offer Claret unless they could afford to tie up capital in expensive bottles that sell once in a blue moon.
Another side effect for increasing prices is that their value became the solitary measure of quality. Your wine is no good if it is cheap. Your wine is no good if it is cheaper than your neighbour. Bordeaux is obsessed with the prices of their wines, to such an extent that some foolishly believe that the release value of their wine is equal to secondary market or auction prices. They completely ignore the fact this premium is just reward for the risk that the purchaser accepted when buying an unfinished wine and then waiting patiently when they could have invested elsewhere. On many occasions, I have tried reasoning with proprietors, tried to understand their fixation upon prices. What is the point of a high price when nobody can afford to appreciate the effort you put into it? Does anyone really care that your price is lower than your neighbour’s…except yourself? Don’t people know Bordeaux well enough to trust a name, to perceive a lower price not as an indication of lower quality, but as a gesture towards their customers? To be honest, it is like talking to a brick wall. There is no cure for this disease and certainly no contrition about the prices charged, especially when compared to other wine regions. There is no unease like you find in Burgundy.
At the same time, the higher prices began attracting outside investors into bricks and mortar. This is nothing new. Outsiders were the key to the region’s success since the beginning, whether it was the Dutch draining the marshes, Irish émigré buying estates or the English providing the trade. The motivation for acquiring châteaux switched from a genuine love of wine to opportunists seeking to gain a foothold on valuable real estate with an eye on resale value, reducing an enormous tax bill and simply flattering their ego. Sure there were and still are exceptions to that rule, but there is a reason why they invest in Pomerol and not Fronsac, Bordeaux and not Roussillon. And the French inheritance laws made them easy prey because the stratospheric prices mean that family members, burdened by unaffordable inheritance tax levies, have no option but to accept the cheques being wafted under their noses. The result is that there are now very few independent, family-run Grand Cru Classé. During my visit to Château Figeac, as I watched Marie-France Manoncourt root about in her kitchen, I racked my brain to remember when I had last set eyes upon such domesticity in a famous château.
This inexorable tide of outside investment and corporatisation does not imply the wines are any worse. On the contrary, the access to unlimited funds means that châteaux can now go to extreme measures to improve their wine (e.g. Château Pichon-Baron) or in the case of 2013, create enjoyable, easy-drinking wines that would once have been unpalatable. The problem is that shareholders have little understanding of the complexities of wine and the wine market. They glance at secondary prices and auction headlines, deduce that this is the correct price of their prix de sortie and estate managers are given ultimatums, not to create the best wine possible, but to reach a desired price level that gives credence to their luxury brand image. The result is that Bordeaux has become like the English football Premier League: absentee tycoons unable to accept the capriciousness of viticulture and commensurate prices, handing down unrealistic financial targets to beleaguered estate managers who are rotated with increasing regularity. Two or three managers privately confessed that they spent too much of their time trying to reason/quarrelling with proprietors unwilling to grasp the realities of winemaking.
Whereas prices once reflected the ups and downs of the quality of wine in a marginal maritime climate, prices have undergone what Chris Martin might call a “conscious uncoupling” with the intersection of supply and demand. Fostered by the clamour for Bordeaux in top vintages such as 2000, 2003, 2005, 2009 and 2010, prices rocketed skyward and the speculators flooded in. Enraptured by the seemingly insatiable demand and in the knowledge that under no circumstances can a luxury brand be discounted, proprietors were less inclined to see such vertiginous drop in prices in less benevolent vintages such as 2002, 2004 or 2007 – with the notable exception of 2008 when the global economy was on the cusp of implosion.
And those proprietors now had all the chips on their side. The result was a rapid ascent in prices with a couple of token downhill drops on the way up to the twin peaks of 2009 and 2010. Whereas once power was more or less evenly shared between châteaux and négociants, the blue chips quickly realised that they could coerce négociants into accepting even unrealistic prices under the threat of losing next year’s allocation, whether that was explicitly spoken or not. Firstly, they had to whittle down the number of negociants they dealt with in order to maximise the potential loss, then play the game that I like to call “teasing tranches” to make the process a little more opaque. Some of the more mercenary château began making offers that Don Corleone would have been proud of. However immoral that sounds, it works when prices are going up, but is self-defeating and potentially fatal when demand tapers away.
The thing is, the primeur system was still functioning even at these summits. Even though it has effectively disenfranchised a whole generation from the joys of Bordeaux, the 2009 vintage still had more winners than losers. People still made a percentage from their five-figure outlays on First Growths. Proprietors now had their luxury brands that satisfied shareholders. So what if demand had shifted to the Far East and in particular China. If they were willing to pay “X” then “X” is the correct price and if traditional markets could no longer afford it, then either trade down the 1855 Classification or look elsewhere. Not happy about it? Since when did goodwill or unswerving loyalty ever appear on a profit and loss sheet? Ironically, goodwill and unswerving loyalty are just what the 2013 releases desperately need and that certainly is not beckoning from the Far East, which is still feeling rather “fleeced”. Goodwill was thrown away in exchange for short-term advantage, a myopic vision whose consequences are only just beginning to be felt.
Rewind back to those peaks. After the 2010 vintage and back-to-back successes for the Bordelais, I quipped to several friends that God will redress the imbalance and there will be three difficult vintages ahead. I must be a closet clairvoyant because…
The 2013 vintage is the third in a trio of less enthralling vintages and it is also the worst, or “least excellent” to use Bordeaux speak.
I lost count of the number of vignerons who told me that it was the most difficult vintage since 1997 and many went even further back to comment that it was the most difficult in 30 years. It is true when they claim that this vintage would have been written off back in those days when good Bordeaux was like a declaration of Vintage Port i.e. thrice every decade give or take a bit of luck. And the Bordelais should be congratulated from clinching some kind of victory from the jaw of defeat. When the odds are against you, then the best properties persevere, spend countless hours toiling out in the vineyard, pray to the Gods and do anything and everything to make a wine worthy of their name because nowadays the consequences are higher than ever. In the same way that consumers rebuke sub-standard Gucci or Prada, they know that they cannot afford to tarnish their carefully managed reputation with a sub-standard fermented grape juice. Of course, the advantage that Gucci and Prada have is that they are not at the mercy of Mother Nature. She’s the boss.
I have no doubt that the first thing Bordeaux winemakers do will be to peruse my scores and hopefully a few will read the tasting note. Only a fraction will read this introduction and its home truths. Few will reach this point of my report, the bit where I write: “Well done”. The Bordelais have conducted a salvage operation second to none. Perhaps we have all forgotten the fact that any wine that scores in the mid-to-high-80s is a respectable wine. It might not be perfect. It might not set the world on fire. It might fail to provoke demand. However, given the context of the season it should be interpreted as a success. I have never scored wine to gain popularity or attract traffic to my blog or to demonstrate importance because ‘Hey look – here I am pictured at Petrus!’ Every wine must be reviewed by the quality in the glass and for en primeur, the critic must conjecture of how the wine will perform in bottle.
And the truth is that relative to 2011 and 2012, let alone 2009 and 2010, the growing season of 2013 severely limited the potential of even the most talented, dedicated vigneron.
It is a surprise that one or two wines reached scores in the mid-90s because I did not anticipate any. Many of the sagacious winemakers were sanguine about the 2013s. One proprietor of a significant Cru Classé simply shrugged his shoulders with a prosaic: “It is what it is.” It might favour the Right Bank slightly, but there is no pattern to this vintage, no appellation that really sticks out. Perhaps one would have expected it to lean to the Left given that Merlot is more susceptible to grey rot, but then again the Cabernet Sauvignon had to be picked before phenolic ripeness and I heard a few stories of troublesome ferments once it was in. It is a vintage of mainly light, aromatically generous, fresh and linear wines that are predominantly balanced but lack weight, flesh and persistency. Sure, they will fill out a little during their élevage, but tasting many against their 2011 counterparts only highlighted their shortcomings.
Now, this should be no problem if the primeur system worked efficiently. Many moons ago, I would gleefully rub my hands together, wait until they were physically available and then sweep them up in vast quantities at basement prices for Bordeaux-lovers who wanted to splash out on an off-vintage but familiar name. The wines fed through the system, if not quite in the fashion that negoçiants wanted i.e. they tended to be bought just after bottling rather than at primeur. But it ensured that when a better vintage arrived there was no backlog to distort the market and haemorrhage the distribution system.
As I have already said: that is no longer the case. Wines are brands. Brands cannot be discounted unless you seek the wrath of shareholders and being asked to pack up your desk by the proprietor. So there is little movement for many properties who gaze upon their multi-million euro gold leaf encrusted winery and wonder: “How the hell are we going to pay for that?” The best they can do is a series of token gestures, pleading to consumers that they cannot afford significant price decreases. That rings hollow when Bordeaux flaunts its success and wealth, all designed to enhance their image like a glossy magazine. What is their predicament compared to the growers in Volnay or Pommard, many of whom are facing bankruptcy or even the Petit Château suffering on their doorstep.
It is a topsy-turvy situation whereby, the elite châteaux feel compelled to invest a huge amount of money into a winery in the expectation that it will engender superior wines that will command higher prices and prestige, when in fact they should set out to improve the wine first, attract a larger market willing to pay high prices (and by that, I mean the voluntary purchase by end-consumers and not negociants) and with the revenues they can then exhume Sir Henry Moore to design the tasting room.
The region has reached a point where, excepting a select dozen estates and irrespective of intrinsic quality, the wines no longer support or justify such gaudy opulence.
The Growing Season
I guess I should say about the growing season, although it has been faithfully reported elsewhere, so there is no need to pick apart the anatomy of a season when everything went, to quote the technical term, tits up. I commenced with a diatribe about prices and en primeur because they are what will determine the success of not only the 2013 vintage, but also those to come.
But we should examine the background to the wines themselves…
The omens were not good during last year’s primeur, which finished with the landscape stubbornly brown rather than being dappled green with the first buds – and this was in a year when primeur was a week later than usual. This was due to a cool and wet March. In particular, it was the precipitation in March (71mm compared to 31mm in 2012), May (88mm compared to 28mm) and June (132mm compared to 64mm) that delayed budbreak and retarded the vegetative cycle so the mid-flowering was 2 weeks later than in 2012. Coulure (shot berries) and millerandage (irregular fruit set) was endemic across the region, severely affecting the Merlot, in particular old vines.
Then came relief in the form of a tropical July. It was particularly sunny, recording 330 hours compared to 233 and 2010 and 262 in 2009, whilst temperatures were 3 degrees above average. Finally there was a sense of optimism as the vines began to catch up from the earlier season however a violent hailstorm affected the region in 25 July that picked on Pessac-Léognan especially. Entre-Deux-Mers was almost wiped out completely by hail damage on 2 August, destroying almost 80% of vineyards, but hey, when was the last time you drank a wine from that region?
Véraison, when the grapes change from green to red, was later than usual despite a clement August and it was during this period that the most exacting properties had to crop thin, snipping away the green bunches so that the vine could concentrate the remaining pink ones. This two- month spell of hot weather essentially saved the vintage by burning away the pyrazine notes that had been giving winemakers sleepless nights up until that point. This is borne out in the wines that are thankfully devoid of vegetal, under-ripe notes that would have written off the 2013 entirely. If that had happened, then I think you would have seen the mass declassification of entire crops last seen in 1991.
September saw the mercury rising, though not as high as the previous three years (23.9 degrees instead of 24.9 in 2012.) However, the rainclouds kept forming over the mass of furrowed brows and with 95mm of rainfall: that figure is more than recent vintages that were saved by dry conditions during harvest. As they say: “Septembre fait la moût”. After a comparatively benign period until the 20 September, which was the saviour of the dry whites, the weather became unstable and the threat of grey rot became stronger day by day. Vineyard managers who had been predicting a mid-October harvest had to readjust their plans…and quickly. That is not as easy as it sounds when you have to commandeer teams of harvesters; preferably the most experienced ones in a vintage like this. Pickers were sent out at the beginning of October even though many parcels of Cabernet Sauvignon had not achieved full ripeness. It called for precise management of the troops, directing pickers to plots at most risk of rot, the clay and limestone soils being more resistant than sandier soils. The one exception was Saint Estèphe that endured 25mm or rain between 1 and 25 October, one-third than other appellations.
The grapes came in with lower sugar levels and higher acidity, smaller in berry size than the previous two vintages but with similar anthocyanin levels.
Clearly, sorting was absolutely crucial in 2013 to avoid any pyrazine notes not burnt away in the summer or geosmin originating from the rot. Those optical sorting tables were wheeled out to varying degrees of success. Where one château would remark that the 2013 would have been impossible without them, the next would claim that they are useless and that less efficient than manual sorting tables. Some such as Jean-Philippe Delmas at Haut-Brion explained that the optical sorting machine was rendered redundant because the thin skins caused grapes to split so that the sensors could not analyse the berries. One or two commented that the machines were inefficient and discarded perfectly acceptable fruit, which then had to then be re-examined when time was of the essence.
Vinifications had to be prudent. Any excess remontage or pigeage risked leaching out unattractive green elements. (You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but you can still make a purse…hypothetically.) Practically every property I asked said that they chaptalized by around half a degree, though final alcohol levels still come in modestly between 12.5 and 13.2 degrees – much lower than recent vintages. That pleased some winemakers such as Denis Durantou, who said he had forgotten how nice it was to make a wine at such alcohol levels, although he has the comfort of having made one of the wines of the vintage. Most bolstered their blends with vin de presse, usually around 3% or 4%, although a much higher percentage was used at Château Calon-Ségur. Levels of new oak seem to vary: some growers reducing the percentage in accordance with the lower level of fruit, others maintaining it to compensate. I wager than the former is the correct way to go about it and occasionally I worry that the wines with 100% new oak will be dominated by wood tannins on the already attenuated and dry finishes. We will see.
Are You Experienced?
This was perhaps the most complicated en primeur that I have ever tasted and I had to call on my own experience in order to make judgments. (As an aside, the primeur circus has reached a ludicrous situation where overnight Bordeaux “experts” who can count their experience on one hand and in some cases one finger, graciously gift their pearls of wisdom to members of the trade with over 20 year’s of experience.) How many visit Bordeaux outside primeur, outside the limelight? How many will rigorously re-taste the wines in bottle? As I have said before, this is just the first blurred snapshot that unfortunately coincides with the time when the wines are released and therefore, the point in time when consumers are looking for guidance. Here in the UK, there is a clamour for critics not to release scores until prices are released. However this is a vintage where not releasing scores is a disservice to consumers if only to advise what to avoid. Readers are intelligent to make their own decisions on whether they represent good value and it is not as if these are going to sell out overnight or even by this time next year.
As usual, I tasted the samples two or three, occasionally four times to “join the gaps”. I inadvertently omitted one or two names on the Right Bank, notably Larcis-Ducasse and the wines of Nicolas Thienpont (e.g. Pavie-Macquin) due to a “time reconfiguration”. Apologies to them and I will come back and taste those later. One or two quite prestigious tastings insisted on 5 or 6-day old samples and I refused to taste any of these. Fortunately, most of the assemblage was down early in January or February so nearly every grower told me that it represented the final blend. When I indirectly heard one person claim that some had pepped up their “primeur barrel” with a bit of cassis liqueur, I hope and prayed that they were joking. And as usual, I avoided the folly of blind tasting that some journalists conduct. I’m all for blind tasting finished wines, but not incomplete wines undergoing various methods of élevage.
There was a welcome sense of acceptance conveyed at some properties, and at others the euphemisms were carefully deployed and judging by some Tweets I read, ruthlessly effective. It is never enjoyable popping the hopes and expectations of a wine that many growers are emotionally attached to given all that they endured. But a healthy dose of reality is what I am paid for and what Bordeaux desperately needs in order to make people fall in love with it again.
That is not going to be achieved by adding another layer of gold leaf onto the winery
That is not going to be achieved by adding another layer of gold leaf onto the winery.
It is not going to be achieved with an artistic label redesign.
It is not going to be achieved with yet another luxurious dinner in Hong Kong.
It is not going to be achieved by introducing a third wine or fourth.
It is not going to be achieved when shareholders are satisfied.
It is not going to be achieved by quelling the grumbling merchants with platitudes.
It is not going to be achieved by holding a gun to the heads of négoçiants.
It is not going to be achieved by high scores.
It can only be achieved when Bordeaux accepts the fact that the price of their wine is what the end consumer is willing to pay to drink and enjoy it, not the price foisted upon négociants. Initial release prices strongly suggest that the château have not got that message. The longer they ignore the fact that their wines are stockpiling in Bordeaux warehouses, the more painful that ineluctable readjustment will be. For sure, I agree with one négociant who asked me: “What if 2014 is a great vintage? Don’t you think that merchants will come rushing back in?” True – they probably will. But those 2011, 2012 and 2013s have not disappeared because fewer and fewer people, especially the under-40s are drinking and enjoying Bordeaux wine. It is no longer their ritual, no longer the oenophile’s rite of passage. Just ask merchants precisely how many en primeur cases they sell to consumers – it is often a pathetic number. Their wines deserve better than that as so I will repeat what I said before…
En primeur can work but only at the right prices.