Initial tastings of the new wines ahead of primeur week shed light on what the 2013 vintage has to offer.
The release of a new Bordeaux vintage always generates high levels of interest.
Even when there is some doubt over the quality of the wines, and even amongst those professionals and consumers who are unlikely to trade in or buy the wines when they are offered for sale, the wine world still sits up and takes interest as the tasting season approaches.
The 2013 vintage has provided little inspiration so far. Some have commented that the difficult growing season, plagued by damp, cold, rot and occasional extreme storms, and the resulting reduced yields, simply could not produce good wine. Some have even reacted to this by postponing or even cancelling their trip to taste the wines, but it may turn out that this negative tendency – while not entirely incomprehensible – is an unnecessary overreaction.
The tastings that take place in Bordeaux each spring are the opportunity for buyers and the press to assess the wines before they write their reviews and make their buying decisions. But for the winemakers, courtiers and négociants who welcome these visitors, those of us who will be busy driving them from château to château or pouring their samples, we need to know what the wines are like beforehand. So a round of quick-fire, advance tastings are organised for the Bordeaux network and these allow us an overview of the vintage a week or two ahead of the game.
I have now tasted a fair cross section of the wines at Cru Classé and Cru Bourgeois level or equivalent, with some notable gaps. (In the three hours that we négociants are allowed to work around the single tasting of some 130 wines in the Union tasting, there are inevitably some gaps.) So far I have looked at the northern Médoc, Pessac-Léognan, St Emilion and Pomerol. In a year that is likely to provide some very good dry and sweet whites, I haven’t had the chance to cover these yet, but of course I will do in due course.
The first vintage I tasted en primeur was 1997, another troubled year. I remember being pleasantly surprised across the board at how approachable and forward the wines were, at the same time being low in acidity and apparently not built for the long haul. They’ve been in the bottle for fifteen years now and many of them are still going strong: have you tasted lowly Potensac 1997 recently, for example?
Compared to the 1997s, the 2013s I have tasted are looking good. This is not a powerful, structured vintage but there are many pleasant, and some very good, wines. In general they retain their typicity and balance, and many speak clearly of their terroir, which is a large part of what we expect from a good claret. Colour doesn’t appear to have been too much of an issue, most likely due to extraction techniques becoming more delicate and efficient, and most wines have decent depth of colour although none I have seen so far exhibit an extreme inky colour. In terms of fruit, there is a definite shift down in gear, both in the character and the concentration of fruit on offer. For example in St Emilion where we have come to expect dark, black fruit with a blend of black coffee, we see a shift towards a pallet of mixed black and red fruit aromas and flavours, less complex and less intense than in a ‘good’ vintage. This makes the appellation easier to taste en masse, the wines being less aggressively oaky, but are they built for the long term? A few do offer more power and structure, but they are the exceptions in 2013.
This is not surprising in the context, and it doesn’t mean that the wines are not of interest either. The fruit remains pure, if reined in; only in a handful of wines did I detect any suggestion of stewed fruit flavours, although a fair number in the southern Médoc seemed a bit forced, even laboured in their fruit expression. In the Graves, the wines show good ripeness but are lighter-bodied than normal, with fruit aromas that are less forthcoming. The best offerings appear to be from the northern Médoc, with a handful of complex, sophisticated results in Pauillac and St Julien.
Any wine deserves to be tasted before it is judged. The skills (and tools) of Bordeaux’s winemakers are really under the spotlight this spring, perhaps more than ever before, and leaving aside the economic context and questions of pricing and saleability, the 2013 vintage will offer us some undeniably well-made clarets which should logically find their place among the great – and the less great – vintages of the modern era.