Bordeaux 2012: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Every once in a while, a Bordeaux red wine vintage comes along that is neither a "vintage of the century" nor "surprisingly good."  For Bordeaux lovers such as myself, 2012 is unfortunately such a year.  It neatly follows 1967, 1977, 1987, 1997, and, to a lesser extent, 2007 (the wines of which will turn out better than most people, myself included, initially believed).  You might say, given that string of sorry vintages, that 2017 came five years early.

Simply put, the lousy weather of 2012 did not allow for great wines.  However, the vintage is not a complete washout, as some estates managed to create balanced, fruit-driven wines that will have plenty of early appeal.  Even better, 2012 will prove an outstanding year for Bordeaux's dry white wines, and a year for useful, food-friendly sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac (the latter being generally the superior of the two areas).

In my view, the keys to understanding the 2012 vintage and its red wines can be summarized as follows:

1.  Study the weather.  Horrible weather during flowering led to very uneven ripening between vines and even between bunches.  A very hot and extremely dry summer caused the ripening process to shut down completely at times, and the fall was marked by torrential downpours in late September and again in October.  The fall weather was so bad that many Sauternes producers failed to make a grand vin.

2.  Understand the grape varieties.  Understanding the grape varieties used to make Bordeaux puts you at an advantage in understanding the wines. The real loser in 2012 is not an appellation but a grape:  cabernet sauvignon.  Studying the harvest dates at each property also helps; in most cases, it just wasn't possible to pick optimally ripe cabernet sauvignon given the cool and very rainy October.  The result was many thin, green, high-acid, roughly tannic wines, especially in the Médoc where this variety predominates.  Even on the Right Bank, where cabernet franc suffered less than cabernet sauvignon, estates raised merlot and decreased cabernet franc percentages in their wines.

3.  Richer estates had an advantage.  The only way to get the cabernets to ripen properly in 2012 was to send teams through vineyards repeatedly, removing bunches (reducing crop loads) and all green or pink berries at véraison (the period when the berries change color) to avoid picking less-than-ripe grapes at harvest, when all grapes are generally dark in color and when recognizing the unripe ones is much harder.  Therefore, estates with the financial clout to increase their number of pickers to repeatedly eliminate less-ripe fruit and to harvest quickly before the rains--and estates with valuable modern technology like optical sorting systems--were at an advantage in 2012.

4.  It's an extremely variable vintage.  In terms of wine quality, 2012 is one of the most variable vintages ever.  There are relatively ripe wines next to green ones, those that will be fun to drink soon and others that will never give much pleasure.  Due to terroir and the human variable, successful wines can be found throughout Bordeaux in 2012, though the Right Bank and Pessac-Léognan wines are generally best, due to their larger presence of merlot; warmer, earlier-ripening microclimates; and more clay in the soils.  Even then, the best wines lack intensity compared to those of recent great vintages.

5.  Differences between first, second and third wines at the same estate are huge.  Vintage 2012 proves why quality-conscious estates need a second wine: rarely have I tasted such unimpressive second wines.  As is often the case, the best of the lot is Chapelle d'Ausone, actually an excellent wine.  Le Petit Mouton and Les Pensees de Lafleur are charmers, but I would avoid most of the rest.

6.  Choose carefully and avoid label-drinking.  The best wines of  2012, much like those of 2011, will offer early appeal.  The majority of the 2012s will probably be best during the decade following their release, with only a few of the top wines possessing the density, ripeness and structure for longer-term aging.  Even these latter wines will never be the keepers that the 2009s and 2010s will be.  Pick your wines on the basis of the advice of critics and wine merchants you trust.  The 2012 wines, more than any other vintage in recent memory, cannot be chosen based on the name value of their chateaux, because while some famous names performed admirably, many didn't.

What the producers say.  Herve Berland, general director at Montrose, summed things up nicely by saying that "this was a year of patience, at all stages of the growth cycle.  The flowering and veraison each occurred over three weeks and the harvest over four:  we had to wait for each parcel to ripen fully."  Over on the Right Bank, Stephane Derenoncourt took a similar approach.  "I worked on what I call an infusion protocol:  long cuvaisons, roughly three weeks, but with minimal pumping over and no delestages (rack and return), the goal being to extract carefully."  In fact, most of the successful estates reduced not just fermentation temperatures but the length of macerations too.  At Lafleur, Baptiste Guinaudeau shortened macerations on some cuves to as little as 17 days, lowering temperatures to 26°C, and many of his colleagues did likewise.

The inclement weather of 2012 was another sore point, especially on the Left Bank, where the October rains forced people to harvest quickly before the cabernet sauvignon was fully ripe (something true of the right bank as well, where cabernet franc would have greatly benefited from another week's worth of sunshine).  "But waiting this year was dangerous for it began to pour and never let up," said Jean-Luc Thunevin.  Denis Durantou of L'Eglise-Clinet told me that "in Pomerol, about 50 to 60 millimeters of water fell around October 6th and that was a good time to harvest.  Waiting any more, as many did, meant making diluted wines."  Charles Chevallier, technical director of Lafite-Rothschild and its sister estates (such as Rieussec in Sauternes), told me that deciding when to start harvesting was a matter of evaluating the degree of ripeness versus the amount of grey rot you were willing to accept.  "So the question was how much ripeness were we going to gain by waiting a couple more days, and how much would we lose."

Lucien Guillemet of Chateau Boyd-Cantenac in Margaux told a familiar tale, common to many of his colleagues in 2012.  "Grey rot was a big problem in the fall when it was humid and rained all the time.  We were thinking of harvesting on October 1 but the grapes weren't fully ripe yet, and so we waited until the 8th. But on the 6th it began to pour, forcing us to harvest immediately, without stopping until the 23rd.  Normally, we would harvest in stops and starts, trying to capitalize on the good weather, but in 2012 it never came."  "In fact, it hasn't stopped pouring since the harvest," quipped Jean-Philippe Masclef, technical director at Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, referring to the abysmally wet Primeurs campaign this year. 

The 2012 weather pattern and vine growth cycle.  It is not unreasonable to summarize the 2012 growth cycle weather as wet early, extremely dry and very hot in the middle, and wet late.  So just how wet was 2012 early on?  Charles Chevalier answered by saying he could find porcini and girolles in the spring.  "When mushrooms like those can be found growing early in the season, you just know it's going to be a difficult vintage," he said.

After a wet, mild month of December 2011, early 2012 was dry and cold.  A very wet and cool spring delayed bud break (April featured 101 more millimeters of rain and 2.3 degrees C lower temperatures than the long-term averages for this month).  Variable weather during the first 20 days of May did not allow the vines to make up for the delay.  Thus the flowering also started later than usual, at the end of May (almost a month later than 2011, but only a few days later than 2010), and rain and cool temperatures during the second week made for very uneven flowering.  Coulure (shot berries) on old-vine merlot and cabernet franc (often virused, so less resistant) and millerandage (abnormal fruit set) of cabernet sauvignon led to significant crop reduction, which contributed to the low yields of 2012.  To complicate matters, July featured unseasonably low temperatures (3 to 5 degrees C lower than the norm); it was the fifth coolest July in the past 30 years.

Finally, August was remarkably dry, hot and sunny, especially in the latter half of the month.  Periods of extreme heat blocked the veraison (color change) of the most sun-exposed bunches in certain locations and even scorched some berries; the color change was also very drawn out, exacerbating the unevenness of the ripening.  Water stress increased to the point of deprivation, so that young vines, as well as those carrying heavy yields, suffered greatly and underwent extensive metabolic blockage virtually guaranteeing unripe polyphenols (this was a source of green, aggressive tannins in so many wines).  According to Laurence Geny and Denis Dubordieu of the enology faculty at the University of Bordeaux, the weight of the berries and their anthocyanin content were similar to 2009 but skins were thicker and tannins less extractable in 2012.

Weather was finally good during the first 20 days of September, with little rain, maximum temperatures were 1 to 2 degrees C above yearly averages, and noticeable diurnal temperature swings were ideal for the synthesis of aromatic precursors and anthocyanins.  Unfortunately, the rest of the fall season was marred by showers.  This was less of a problem on the Right Bank, where the earlier-ripening merlot had already been mostly picked (not so the cabernet franc) but a real disaster for the Left Bank's late-ripening cabernet sauvignon.

The 2012 grapes.  And the winner was . . . undoubtedly, merlot.  The dire weather conditions of 2012 were driven home by Jean-Philippe Masclef, who told me, "honestly, we had to be less selective with cabernet sauvignon than we would have liked, otherwise we would have had to throw it all out."  And while Haut-Brion is one of my top two Left Bank wines of the vintage, La Mission Haut-Brion fared less well.  "Listen, when it starts raining on unripe cabernet sauvignon, it's very difficult, and I don't see how anyone can say otherwise," added Masclef.

Olivier Decelle at Chateau Jean Faure sees things a little differently.  "They say it was not a cabernet franc year, but I don't see why not, provided the grapes were harvested before October 15 to 20, when the deluge hit.  I think the real problem is that people don't like cabernet franc, unless it smells and tastes like overripe merlot."  Petit verdot, another late-ripening variety, also generally fared poorly in 2012.  In fairness, at those estates with very old petit verdot vines, such as Pichon-Lalande and Calon-Segur, the variety fared better, no doubt thanks to the deep root systems that allowed the grapes to find some water during the dog days of late summer.

The 2012 wines.  Clearly, in 2012 human intervention played a major role.  Those estates that practiced appropriate leaf-thinning, green pruning, removal of green or pink berries at veraison, and strict fruit selection fared best.  Due to the long, spread-out flowering and veraison, the blockage of ripening due to prolonged summer drought, crop loads that were often too heavy, late or poorly-performed leaf thinning, and insufficient green harvesting to eliminate unripe grapes prior to harvest, both cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc grapes displayed varying degrees of herbaceousness.  Only well-timed viticultural intervention held out the potential for reducing the concentration of methoxypyrazines (the molecule responsible for the typical green bell pepper aroma and flavor of unripe cabernets); the most successful estates were able to lower the concentration of these molecules toward, or even below, the detection threshold.

It was also the year of the optical sorting machine, which sorts based largely on the color of grapes.  According to Jean-Luc Thunevin, "this was the first vintage truly saved by the sorting tables and the optical trie machines.  Back when I started out we had to do all the berry selection by hand, and it's back-breaking work.  In the end, with so much rot present in the grapes, some bad grapes just sneak through; it's only human."

Actually, not everyone was unhappy with their 2012s.  Olivier Berrouet of Petrus said "our 2012 is more flattering than the 2011; it reminds me of our 1998, or of a more structured 1995."  Pauline Vauthier of Ausone nicely summed up 2012: "Everything is relative.  The vintage's hallmark is its easy drinkability and one shouldn't ask for what can't be there."

A word about scores.  Readers may wonder about the generally lower scores in this report, even for wines from the most famous estates.  I am aware that many well-known wine critics have peppered their coverage of 2012 with scores like 18 out of 20 or 94 or 95 out of 100--in most cases for the usual suspects--but I believe that this approach is, at the least, misleading.  Although some wine writers prefer to score wines in the context of their vintage (which can explain why some 2012 Bordeaux reds are able to achieve a 95 rating), we at the IWC feel that such a scoring system is of limited utility to collectors who are more likely to evaluate wines in the context of their history and in relation to their performance in other vintages.  Simply put, 2012 will go down as an average vintage at best.  Yes, the better wines are clean and fruity, and will offer early appeal, but relatively few wines will improve markedly over a long period of time.

When we look back at this vintage years from now, I have little doubt that it will be viewed in much the same way as, for example, 1994 or 1997 are looked upon nowadays when we consider the vintages of the 1990s.  It is other vintages from that decade that most collectors seek out and rate highly.  So even though many wines of 2012 have their merits, they are extremely unlikely to rate the higher scores that we have awarded to past outstanding vintages of the same wines.

To buy or not to buy.  There would not seem to be much reason to buy the 2012 reds for investment purposes, even at the attractively low initial release prices asked by some estates.  Unbelievably, some French wine experts have gone on record saying that the vintage yielded good wines that should command an increase in prices, and that higher scores were likely to push up prices.  With all due respect, I don't know what they're talking about.  Although some wines are charming and successful, most will never have the depth or complexity of the great vintages.

In keeping with the weaker vintage notion, Jean-Luc Thunevin told me he will lower prices for his top wines by 40%, and his less expensive wines 20%.  Mouton-Rothschild has also lowered its asking price considerably, and at 240 Euros a bottle (down 33% from its 2011 price, but still 100% higher than 2008), it's a steal for its quality.  That 240 Euro figure seems to have been a popular one:  Margaux and Haut-Brion have also come out at that price.  Rauzan-Segla, which has been criticized in recent years for high initial release prices, also dropped its opening price significantly:  it's 37% lower than last year's price.  Lynch-Bages released its 2012 at 60 Euros per bottle ex-negociant, making it 3% cheaper than the 2011 and 13.5% cheaper than the 2007.  Is that enough to spark consumer interest?  I wonder.  Pichon-Baron's 2012 was out of the blocks at 65 Euros per bottle ex-negociant, a 10% reduction from its 2011 release price but still 51% higher than the opening price for its 2008, and it does not appear to be drawing much interest from en primeur buyers. 

A few chateaux have bucked the trend to lower prices, such as Pavie, Palmer and Angelus.  At Angelus the price increase of more than 50% from last year reflects the estate's upgrade to the top level of the Saint-Emilion classification (Angelus is now a Grand Cru Classe 'A'.)

Early indications are that the first growths, the estates that lowered their prices most sharply, are also the wines mostly likely to be seeing some demand for their wines.  Otherwise, it appears that the Bordeaux 2012s have by and large failed to spark buying interest.  This is not at all surprising in my view, as the simple fact of the matter is that, save for the best Right Bank wines and very few Left Bank wines, there are many other, better vintages of Bordeaux worth buying right now.

In the end, 2012 might well be remembered as the vintage that put big-name bottles back on the dinner table.  And strange as that may seem to those who view Bordeaux mainly as an investment vehicle, that's ultimately where wine belongs.