‘The worst vintage of our career’26th September, 2013 by Ben Kennedy
What one First Growth director may have said over lunch this week.
I hope I won’t have to eat my hat too often writing these pieces from Bordeaux. Last week the barometer was set to ‘grim’ and we couldn’t see any improvement, but this week has been quite the opposite with glorious blue skies and proper summer temperatures all the way. In spite of what you may think about life down here though, I haven’t been to the beach in more than a week!
You might expect the vignerons to be pretty chipper then, looking forward to getting a few extra degrees into the grapes before the harvest, but sadly most of them seem to be anything but: there’s too much moisture in the ground and the rot is setting in. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily apply everywhere and there should be some good news out there somewhere, but anecdotally the director of one of the First Growths was heard to say to colleagues at lunch this week that 2013 would be ‘the worst vintage of our career’.
We’ll soon know for sure what the harvest gives, as picking has started for the dry whites. My friend Stephen Carrier at up-and-coming Graves property de Fieuzal got stuck in on Monday and Paulin Calvet at Picque Caillou, one of the few châteaux within the city limits, has finished this first part of his vendanges and is waiting for the first Merlots to be ready.
So who is going to buy such a vintage? Traditionally the ‘light’ years in Bordeaux are sold off to the supermarkets, which then turn them around at next-to-no margin as soon as they are bottled, in the bi-annual spring and autumn foire aux vins promotions. These can be fascinating events, with some top wines on offer – I spoke to somebody today who managed to pick up five cases of Carruades de Lafite, worth a mint in China. They hold bizarre invitation-only opening parties to launch the offer and give a sneak preview to the shops’ best customers. I went to the launch soirée at a local store and felt decidedly underdressed – in a supermarket! Elsewhere, a friend from Pomerol went to promote his wine in a well-known store deep in the southwest towards the Pyrenees and then posted on Facebook a film of the doors opening at 6.30 am, with grown adults squeezing under the rising shutters on their hands and knees and tearing past staff to get their hands on the best bargains. C’est la folie!
A slightly more sober event this week was the tasting of the official selection of the crus bourgeois from the 2011 vintage, at the elegant Palais de la Bourse on the riverfront. Bit of a bun fight really, 256 wines crammed into a big hall and about 10 times as many wine pros milling and chewing. Reminded me very much of the Union des Grands Crus tastings in Covent Garden, only in French. And slightly less, how shall I put this, interesting? The organisation held their 2010 vintage “cup contest” back in June, the day before VINEXPO began, at the equally impressive Château Taillan in the Medoc, so personally I find having two vintages presented in such close succession a bit confusing.
And this is the problem with the crus bourgeois: it’s just too much to get your head round. There are five times as many of them as there are crus classés, and they have an annual selection process which admits some new names and boots out some lesser performing wines so the list is ever-changing. And then there are those members who just chuck in the towel because they find the process too cumbersome and the rewards intangible. I remember looking through the membership document with my old boss in Margaux a few years ago, he was himself a winner of the famous cup many years earlier and was interested in joining again. This cahier des charges, as it’s called, was about as thick as the A-E section of the old London telephone directory and we just couldn’t see the point of it for a new member. It’s a great shame because there are a decent number of seriously good producers within that lengthy list, but also far too many samey, slightly green wines that dilute the value of the title cru bourgeois. And they’re missing a trick, because with the more famous crus classés beyond the reach of most of us, these guys should be picking up the business from the traditional claret drinkers left, right and centre.
And so to the crus artisans. The what? Yes, they do exist, although they are smaller in number (and in size at an average 6ha) than the aforementioned bourgeois and classés, but they’ve been around just as long. There are 44 crus artisans in the Medoc, selling most of their production in France (where the title is revered) and I was very pleased recently to taste one I didn’t know very well. A surprise 2005 popped up in a tasting with a courtier, Château Vieux Sérestin, and wines from this great vintage that are still good to drink and affordable are like hen’s teeth, so I prepared myself for a disappointment. But not at all, the wine has fruit, maturity and complexity, terroir character even. I’ve seen the name plenty of times in shops here but never a mature vintage like this. It’s crying out to be listed as a club claret in St James’s.
By way of an explanation, the idea of the artisan worker is very strong in France, so being an ‘artisan baker’ or an ‘artisan roofer’ is a very respectable role in society. And there is a national competition they take very seriously to find the MOF – meilleur ouvrier de France, or best worker in France – in pretty much every trade you can imagine: plasterer, hairdresser, even park keeper! I kid you not.
Rive Gauche Wines is a Bordeaux négociant which offers a range of wines for everyday drinking as well as Crus Classés and other Fine Wines. The company was established in 2011 by Ben Kennedy, formerly Bordeaux buyer for a leading St James’s merchant. The wines on our list are hand-picked on the key criteria of quality and value-for-money, and include numerous undiscovered gems that are exclusive to Rive Gauche.