Bordeaux 2013: Definitely Not the Vintage of the Century

Asked for his take on the 2013 Bordeaux red wines, world-famous consulting winemaker Stephane Derenoncourt sighed wearily:  "A year of huge volume; easy to make, perfumed, smoothly tannic wines; perhaps the vintage of the century."  Clearly, in a memorably difficult vintage like 2013, laughter was the best remedy for anyone making red wines in Bordeaux.  Nicholas Thienpont, general manager of a number of internationally acclaimed Right Bank estates including Pavie-Macquin and Beausejour Duffau-Lagarrosse, recalled, "I've never seen so much botrytis [grey rot] in 30 years."  He then added, straight-faced:  "The good news is we have more second wine to sell this year."

Fabien Teitgen, technical director of Smith Haut Laffite and its sister properties, summarized things neatly:  "There really were two vintages in 2013, with vastly different outcomes:  a truly memorable and outstanding vintage for the white wines, and a vintage for the reds."  Tellingly, he didn't qualify the red wine vintage with any descriptors.

That 2013 is one of the worst years for Bordeaux's great red wines in decades is highlighted by the fact that, for the first time in my memory, some of the region's wines weren't even made.  Examples include J-P Moueix's famous Providence and Hosanna, but even affordable wines such as Chateau Puy-Blanquet were sold off in bulk (en vrac).  Edouard Moueix told me that "we simply couldn't bottle any of these wines in 2013, due to the unlucky combination of rain, cool early-season temperatures, floral abortion and uneven-sized berries at different ripeness levels."

Denis Durantou, owner of Pomerol's iconic Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet and other sought-after Right Bank properties, lamented "a small crop, often sunburned little berries with fragile, thin skins," and quipped that "a vintage in which those accustomed to harvesting almost when snow begins to fall [in other words, advocates of very late harvesting who are generally bent on making the ripest wines possible, characterized by high alcohol levels and pHs] were left, emperor-like, with no clothes on."  Dominique Arangoits, technical director of Cos d'Estournel, had a very practical take on the year.  "Listen, come June we already knew we'd make very little wine; even worse, that we risked making very bad red wine.  In the end, we must be happy with what we made, because it's better than we thought."

In that last remark lies the key to fully understanding the red wines of 2013.  Yes, it's safe to say that in 20 years of visiting Bordeaux's wine estates up to five times a year, I have rarely witnessed a vintage like 2013.  The weather really was difficult, and making great ageworthy red wines was next to impossible.  In fact, the vintage was written off by almost everyone in the press even before anyone had tasted the wines, which Bordeaux owners like Alfred Tesseron of Pontet-Canet were none too pleased about.  According to the press pundits, wines would be unfailingly marred by green, vegetal streaks, off odors, lack of fruit, and unripe tannins.

Clearly, many 2013 Bordeaux wines did confirm these fears (wines made by consultants who tend to overextract at all cost are an especially sorry lot), but the good news is that a surprisingly high number of 2013 reds are delicious, approachable, and even quite refined.  All the '13s are characterized by light to medium body and most lack density, but the best of them are food-friendly, charming wines with subtlety and nuance; again, you will have to like lighter-styled claret to appreciate them.  Bordeaux's 2013 reds lag behind most other 21st-century vintages, except perhaps the 2002s; they also largely avoid the leafy, bell peppery qualities of many 2004s, undoubtedly another selling point with many wine lovers.

Terroiristes will further like the fact that unlike in hot years in which grape ripeness tends to blur distinctions between appellations, differences resulting from diverse soils and microclimates are remarkably clear in 2013.  As is usual in difficult vintages, those estates with the best terroirs generally showed best.  In the words of Gonzague Lurton, owner of Chateau Durfort-Vivens (as well as other properties), and also president of the Syndicat Viticole de Margaux, "it is in difficult conditions like those of 2013 that great terroirs really hold a noteworthy advantage over lesser ones, and the wines are better than expected because Bordeaux is not exactly short on great terroirs."

The growing season of 2013.   "July and August saved us," was the succinct summation of Cos d'Estournel's Dominique Arangoits.  In fact, the beginning of the year was dismal.  After a rainy winter that recharged the water tables, spring remained very cool and wet, disrupting flowering (leading to flower abortion, or coulure, and uneven-sized berries of different ripeness levels, or millerandage) and delaying the growth cycle by two to three weeks.  Crop loads were greatly reduced (average yields across the Medoc and Right Bank were down by as much as 50% in many cases), and disease pressures were high throughout the year.  Late September and October's almost tropical conditions (warm days with high humidity) triggered explosive outbursts of grey rot.  So it was only thanks to hot, sunny spells in parts of July and August that grapes had a chance to ripen at all, though it was a case of too little, too late.

According to Laurence Geny and Denis Dubourdieu of the enology faculty of Bordeaux University, 2013 was "a throwback to many of the Bordeaux vintages of the 1960s and '70s."  Specifically, the first three months of the year were especially wet (January had 51 millimeters more rainfall than that month's previous yearly average).  In fact, the average amount of rainfall from October to March was 70 millimeters above the previous 30-year average.  There were 91 days with at least some rainfall during that time span (which means 9, 10 and 28 more days of rain than 2012, 2009 and 2008 respectively, though 14 less than in 2010; but that outstanding year experienced a much warmer April).

Frost hit parts of Graves, Sauternes, Blaye, the northern Médoc and the Right Bank in late April, and May was one of Bordeaux's coldest and wettest of the last 20 years.  This woeful trend continued in June, which was also very cold and wet (average temperatures were as much as 7 degrees C lower than the 30-year average--a disaster), and rainfall was twice as abundant (anyone who was at VinExpo that year remembers the rain all too well).

Heat finally arrived in July and August--in fact, daily July temperatures averaged 2.5 to 3 degrees C higher than usual--but by then the damage had been done.  Unfortunately, late July and early August thunderstorms only made matters worse, with hail hitting almost every Bordeaux area on the night of July 25/26; only Sauternes and Barsac were spared.  Reportedly, the nights of July 26 and especially August 2 were horrific, with hail destroying up to 80% of the harvest across the large Entre-deux-Mers region.  September 28 and 29 were also difficult, with more stormy weather and high temperatures and humidity making for a possible rot-fest.

The grapes, the viticulture and the winemaking.  It's difficult to speak or write about Bordeaux without having a good grasp of its various grape varieties--and even tougher without having a clear understanding of how each variety performed in the vintage.  Thomas Duroux of Chateau Palmer believes that there is no such thing as a cabernet or a merlot year, "just different degrees of difficulty for each variety each year."  In fact, much that one needs to know about 2013 can be gleaned by how each cultivar fared.  The flowering of the merlots (especially old-vine merlots) was noticeably hampered by the cool, wet season, so production volumes of this variety were greatly diminished.  However, one cannot make the blanket statement, as many have, that 2013 was not a merlot year, because later-ripening parcels of vines, such as those planted on colder argilo-calcaire (clay-limestone) soils, as well as the later-flowering members of the cabernet family, were less seriously affected.  In contrast to grapes grown on warmer, earlier-ripening soils, these parcels flowered roughly a week after most of the rain had hit.  "This year, we actually picked the cabernets before our merlots planted on clay-limestone," Fabien Teitgen of Smith Haut Lafitte told me.  However, the quality of Left Bank merlot was low in 2013, which explains why many estates used the lowest percentages ever of this variety.  Some, like Chateau Margaux, did not include any merlot at all in their final blends for the first time in history.

An important characteristic of the 2013 wines is their lack of the green bell pepper and vegetal notes that are typical of unripe cabernets (especially) and merlot.  This positive outcome most likely resulted because of intense, all-at-once heat in July and August, which caused a very rapid breakdown of the methoxypyrazines (those molecules responsible for green bell pepper aromas and flavors).  The relatively decent quality of the cabernet sauvignon (and the low crop loads of merlot) explain why many Medoc wines are characterized by very high percentages of cabernet sauvignon.

But cabernet franc represented a conundrum.  More than with any other variety, I heard completely opposing views about its merits in 2013.  While many believed cabernet franc to have had a diluting effect on the final blends (as a late ripener, cabernet franc couldn't escape the late-season rains), others adamantly felt that it turned out exceptionally well.  Not surprisingly, it was on the Right Bank where cabernet franc shone; with few exceptions (Haut-Brion and D'Armailhac spring to mind), cabernet franc clones planted on the Left Bank are generally poor.  But even Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Chateau Certan greatly reduced the percentage of cabernet franc in his grand vin (many others did too).

On the other hand, Jonathan Maltus, the man behind a number of Right Bank garage wines (including Le Dome, made with 80% cabernet franc), vehemently disagreed with the notion that the cabernet franc was dilute or unripe.  "I don't know what these people are smoking," he quipped.  "I really think it gave us grip and everything we needed."  Baptiste Guinaudeau of Chateau Lafleur also believes the cabernet franc was a big help to the merlot in 2013.  "But as it might have brought a little dilution to the wines, some people used less of it than they probably should have," he told me.  Clearly, in 2013 cabernet franc behaved very differently depending on clonal or massale selections, soil types and vineyard age.  It was not by chance that estates like Cheval Blanc, Lafleur and Jean Faure, who strongly believe in franc, maintain that it did remarkably well.

Last and probably least, petit verdot, the other player in many Medoc Bordeaux blends, fared reasonably well in Listrac (where many old petit verdot vines are found) and in Saint-Estephe, but generally sugar buildup in this late-ripening variety was not great.   "Ultimately, it boiled down to being forced to harvest too soon," said Bruno Borie of Ducru-Beaucaillou, a sentiment echoed by many other of Bordeaux's top wine people. "On August 15th, we were hoping we'd harvest the red grapes around mid-October," he said.  "Instead, we had to start much sooner, and go about it quickly, because of huge rot potential," said Eric Perrin of Chateau Carbonnieux.  And though Hubert de Bouard of Chateau Angelus, who also serves as a consultant to many other properties, believes that the warm July and August allowed for proper polyphenolic ripening of the skins and the pips, almost everyone else remains unconvinced.  Heterogeneous ripening of the berries also called for repeated passages through the vineyards to remove sick or unripe berries, and careful selection was needed in the winery too.  Estates equipped with expensive optical sorting machines were at an advantage, although the machines were not of much use if the berries were picked with damaged skins.  In the final analysis, 2013 brought the double whammy of wines with dubious reputations that were expensive to make.

Not surprisingly, winemaking in 2013 was directed towards handling grapes as little as possible, avoiding overextraction at all costs.  Many estates drastically reduced pumping over and rack-and-return techniques (methods that increase extraction), and lowered maceration times and fermentation temperatures.  Chaptalization also returned in force in 2013, a technique named after Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal, who first wrote about it in his 1801 book, The Art of Winemaking.  It allows winemakers to add sugar to the pre-fermented grape must in order to bring up the overall alcohol content of the wines.  Legal in France (but not in Italy, for example), it's typical of countries where generally cooler weather does not always allow for proper ripening of grapes.  At Chateau Palmer, Thomas Duroux said that 2013 was the first time he had used chaptalization since arriving at the property in 2004, and that it hadn't been used there since 1994.  Charles Chevallier of Lafite-Rothschild also needed to chaptalize some vats at this first growth "for better balance in the final wine."

Hervé Berland of Chateau Montrose also said he chaptalized two small lots of merlot, but due to Montrose's windy microclimate, rot was not the concern it was elsewhere.  "Only the first lots we picked were chaptalized," said Berland.  "Otherwise, we had no trouble reaching 13% or 13.5% potential alcohol naturally; we brought in our last grapes on October 15.  Paul Pontallier and Corinne Mentzelopoulos of Chateau Margaux were over for lunch that day, and they couldn't believe we were still picking."

My view of the vintage.  There's much to like in 2013's relatively few really good wines.  They are light and lively, with racy red berry notes (not the more Bordeaux-typical darker blueberry and cassis aromas and flavors), characterized by a decidedly minty (not menthol) element.  They also have enough fruit to buffer their acidity and are devoid of green or astringent tannins.  Unfortunately, the latter plague even a number of Bordeaux's most famous names in 2013.  Most wines will offer early pleasure and are for short-term drinking, say over the next 5 to 15 years.

Less successful wines were usually overextracted, a huge mistake when grape ripeness is not optimal, since green tastes and astringent, gritty tannins deriving from unripe skin and pip polyphenols are inevitable.  Though no 2013 wine will be remembered as truly great or the best ever made at the property, more estates than expected succeeded in making likable wines.  Pavie Macquin may be the wine of the vintage given its price and availability, but Cheval Blanc, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville-Las Cases, Mouton-Rothschild, Palmer, La Mondotte and Petrus are also outstanding.  At more affordable price points, wines like Angludet, Boyd-Cantenac, Brane-Cantenac, Canon-La Gaffeliere, Cantenac-Brown, L'Evangile, La Conseillante, and Prieuré-Lichine are especially noteworthy.  Appellation-wise, Margaux did remarkably well on the Left Bank in 2013 thanks to earlier-ripening, warmer soils, while on the Right Bank, Pomerol, an early-ripening area, probably holds the edge over the much larger and more heterogeneous Saint-Emilion appellation.

To buy or not to buy.  Unfortunately, there's no good news when it comes to buying futures:  most 2013s simply aren't good enough to warrant buying in advance.  There are also many other recent--and older--vintages still available in the retail marketplace at very attractive prices.  Since buying is not expected to be brisk, most chateaux released their prices earlier than usual this year.  Some producers have dropped prices accordingly, but not all have done so.  While Chateau Lynch-Bages lowered its price by 17% versus 2012 (2013 is its cheapest vintage on the market), and Chateau Gazin's 2013 price is 25% down from 2012, Montrose and Pontet-Canet chose not to go this route, holding their price level with 2012.

At Pontet-Canet, Alfred Tesseron announced his 2013 price even before the Primeurs started.  "I imagine you were all surprised," he stated to the visiting wine writers at the end of March, "but I had gotten so tired of reading negative comments on the 2013 vintage when nobody had yet tasted a wine that I felt a message was necessary.  I stand by our 2013, which I think is excellent, and a testament to biodynamic viticulture.  We feel our wine is different than others thanks to our viticulture.  If it weren't so, then there would hardly be a need to go to all the trouble of biodynamic farming, correct?"  According to Tesseron, this is why Pontet-Canet was able to include 30% merlot in its final blend, whereas most other Left Bank estates had problems with the variety.

Other price reductions were slim: fourth-growth Chateau Beychevelle's release price was down 6% from 2012, fifth-growth Chateau Lynch Moussas was down 3% on its 2012 price, and Fleur de Bouard dropped its price 7% from last year.  In my opinion, these minor price reductions represent a missed opportunity for Bordeaux and wine lovers everywhere.  If there was ever a vintage to get people--especially the younger set--drinking Bordeaux again, this might have been it.  But sadly, it won't be.