Bordeaux at the Crossroads: 2023 En Primeur


Left Bank: Saint-Estèphe | Pauillac | Saint-Julien | Margaux | Moulis and Listrac | Pessac-Léognan and Graves | Left Bank Satellites | Sauternes

Right Bank: Pomerol | Saint-Émilion | Right Bank Satellites

Tasting Bordeaux en primeur is largely the art of shutting out extraneous noise and concentrating just on the wines. This year, the noise is especially loud as estate owners, winemakers, consultants, négociants and other professionals debate the merits of 2023 within the context of today’s global market. Many of these views are fueled by agendas, which is certainly understandable. For this taster, it’s only about what is in the glass. When all is said and done, 2023 has a lot to offer. It is not a great vintage across the board, yet plenty of wines merit serious attention.

Eric Kohler and Saskia de Rothschild at Duhart-Milon, where they and their team turned out an especially fine 2023.

The 2023 Growing Season & Wines

Two thousand twenty-three was the hottest year on record in France, although that was not the case in Bordeaux. The growing season got off to an early start. A dry winter and warm temperatures in March led to early bud break. Flowering took place under especially favorable weather as vines set a generous crop. June brought heavy rain and elevated temperatures, unfortunately, the very conditions that are ideal for mildew. Vineyard managers had to be especially vigilant and ready to intervene quickly, decisively and often with greater frequency than most years. Compared to other recent vintages with similar disease pressure, damage from mildew was relatively contained, at least at top estates.

“We had to treat frequently,” Technical Director Juliette Couderc told me at L’Évangile. “The key was really managing crop loads on different types of soils at the property. We had ten people focused just on this task. Ultimately our yields were higher for Merlot than Cabernet Franc.” Technical Director Guillaume Pouthier at Les Carmes Haut-Brion shared a similar view.  “The whole year came down to managing water in the vineyards, We had to make very specific decisions for each site pretty much in real-time as the season unfolded.”

The rest of summer was relatively cool and lacking in sunlight, to the point winemakers started to worry if fruit would ripen properly. "We were unsure of quality all the way through August because vegetative growth continued," CEO Thomas Duroux explained at Palmer, echoing the thoughts of many of his colleagues. From mid-August, two heat waves and well-timed rains caused the outlook to shift. “August storms were incredibly localized,” Technical Director José Sanfins explained at Cantenac Brown, just outside the château’s gleaming new winery. “For example, one parcel might have gotten some rain while the adjoining blocks saw none.” This further heightened irregularity in ripening. “It was hot and dry but also quite cloudy during the middle of August, Henri Lurton relayed at Brane-Cantenac. "We had some issues with mildew. That final blast of the year really changed the style of the year.”

Marielle Cazaux and her team turned out a brilliant 2023 at La Conseillante.

Green harvesting was critical, especially for the Merlots, to compensate for large berry sites and high yields. Forecasts called for heavy rain around September, as much as 100mm. Some estates picked ahead of the rains, others waited it out. As it turned out, the total amount of rainfall was a fraction of that. “We picked a few lots ahead of the rains,” Guillaume Thienpont told me at Vieux Château Certan. “Ultimately, none of those lots made it into the Grand Vin.”

With a few exceptions, yields are generous. This is especially true in the more prestigious appellations, as properties generally have the financial means to deal with challenging meteorological conditions. Production is quite a bit lower in satellite appellations, where estates typically work with much tighter budgets.

Yields are most often expressed as hectoliters per hectare, a measure of volume of wine per unit of surface area. On a single property basis, this measurement can be deceptive, as it does not consider several key factors, such as vine density and missing plants. A more accurate description of yields is production per vine, but that is not commonly used. Nevertheless, hectoliters per hectare is useful when looking at appellations, as the influence of outliers will be lessened in a group, and also for comparing production across vintages at either the estate or appellation level. In my view, the relatively high yields of 2023 are one of the reasons many wines exhibit very fine, almost classical, balance.

In the cellar, many winemakers opted to bleed the musts (saignée) to enhance concentration for their Merlots. Fermentations were cool and long in the style that has become the norm in Bordeaux. Winemakers reported that the wines extracted easily. “We had high solid-to-juice ratios, Technical Director Olivier Berrouet explained at Petrus. “Typically, we have 3 grams per liter of tannin. In 2023, we had 4. The goal was to control extractions through longer macerations and slower, more gradual pumpovers.”

“Berry size was normal, but there were a lot more berries, and more seeds within those berries, so we opted for longer macerations at lower temperatures.” Technical Director Dominique Arangoïts told me at Cos d’Estournel.

The view from the highest section in Petrus, with Cheval Blanc and L’Evangile, among the properties visible in the distance.

The best 2023s are intensely aromatic and perfumed. Many wines are marked by bright acids, red-toned fruit and linear, vibrant tannins. On the Left Bank, Cabernet features more heavily in blends than it does in most years because Merlot was more heavily impacted by mildew and dilution. There are plenty of stars on the Right Bank, too. It is a vintage with very clear markers of place. For example, within the Moueix portfolio, Hosanna and Trotanoy are archetypes – wines that are exactly what they are supposed to be. The same is true of a number of the top performers. Where the vintage is less successful, the 2023s can feel light and/or vegetal.

In tasting, the 2023s are also lower in alcohol than what has become the norm in recent years. This is especially true on the Left Bank, where many wines are in the 13%-ish range. Alcohols are also lower on the Right Bank, but the difference vis-à-vis the last decade or so (2021 excepted) is less marked.

Tasting wines from barrel at Le Pin provides a fascinating opportunity to taste the 2023 in barrels made by Seguin-Moreau, the historical cooper of choice here, and Taransaud, a more recent addition.

The 2023s: A Quick Rundown

Traditional discussions of a vintage in Bordeaux used to entail an analysis of weather, followed by conclusions as to how those conditions were manifested in wine quality. For example, in 2014, I thought the northern Médoc was favored because it received less rain than other sectors, and that the inverse was true in 2015. That sort of analysis is no longer adequate because today Bordeaux is increasingly defined by haves and have-nots. The ‘haves’ being financial resources and the willingness to put in the extra effort when tough, challenging conditions present themselves. I give a slight edge to the Left Bank this year. Merlot was more sensitive to both mildew and higher yields, while Cabernets benefitted from late-season heat.

Over the last 15 or so years, many chateaux have inaugurated new cellars. These include Mouton-Rothschild, Montrose, Pontet-Canet, Pichon Comtesse, Figeac, Beau-Séjour Bécot Bélair-Monange, Léoville-Barton, Brane-Cantenac and a bevy of others. As I have written before, one of the most significant evolutions in Bordeaux is the move towards smaller fermentation tanks. As a rule of thumb, today’s largest tanks correspond in size to the smallest from the previous generation. Vats need to be full in order to function properly. In the past, harvests were often driven by the practical need to bring in sufficient fruit to fill tanks. That meant that some parcels were harvested because wineries needed the volume of fruit and not because that fruit was ripe. Today, smaller tanks allow vineyard managers to pick with greater precision, bringing in only fruit that is fully ripe. This one change can make a meaningful difference from one year to the next.

The gleaming new cellar at Léoville-Barton.

Larger groups that have made investments to improve their Grand Vin are now giving increased focus to their next level of châteaux. That means wines like Tronquoy (Montrose), Pez (Pichon Comtesse), Duhart-Milon (Lafite-Rothschild), Armailhac and Clerc Milon (Mouton-Rothschild) and many others continue to improve markedly.

That said, a few appellations stand out because of their high level of quality and consistency. I was deeply impressed with the wines of Saint-Estèphe. Perhaps that has something to do with proximity to the Gironde and, therefore, better circulation of air. It’s hard to say with certainty. What does seem pretty evident is that the wines are superb, pretty much at all levels. The big guns Montrose, Cos d’Estournel and Calon-Ségur deliver the goods, but there is so much to get excited about among less prestigious wines. Phélan-Ségur, Haut-Marbuzet, Lafitte-Carcasset and Le Crock are among the more moderately-priced wines that impress.

Château Palmer Managing Director Thomas Duroux, half French half Italian, discussing the challenges of the 2023 growing season.

Margaux is another highlight. A magnificent Palmer leads the way. Château Margaux and Rauzan-Ségla are superb. The 2023 Giscours is the best wine made at the property during Estate Manager Alexander Van Beek’s tenure. Lascombes appears reborn under the direction of new Estate Manager Axel Heinz, who gives the impression of being a changed person at his new home. Brane-Cantenac, Cantenac-Brown, Marquis d’Alesme and Marquis de Terne are all notable.

Readers will find plenty of terrific wines in Pauillac and Saint-Julien. Quality is very good, with some notable peaks, but overall, not as many wines overachieve, their considerable beauty notwithstanding. Duhart-Milon is especially fine, however, Pontet Canet shows much better balance than it often does at this stage. There are plenty of gorgeous wines in Saint-Julien, although not quite at the viscerally thrilling level. In Pessac-Léognan, which really should be two appellations, quality is somewhat variable. Here, too, the conversation of what drives quality is really more about each winery’s approach. A fine case in point is Pape-Clément, where a recent move towards greater energy and freshness in the wines supersedes the individual qualities of specific vintages.

The dry whites are a mixed bag. Many are on the richer side and appear to be lacking some verve. A rare exception is found in Sauternes, where the new category of dry whites continues to impress. Many dry whites from Sauternes this year are truly exceptional. Speaking of Sauternes (in the conventional sense), the 2023s are the most exceptional group of young wines I have ever tasted here. This is an epic vintage for Sauternes and Barsac in which many wines overachieve. The 2023 Sauternes are dynamic, mesmerizing wines. It’s a shame modern tastes seem to leave little for Sauternes given that the best examples are so compelling.

The new cellar at Beau-Séjour Bécot is typical of what readers will find in Bordeaux today. Casks, amphoras and other ‘alternative’ aging vessels are used alongside traditional French oak barriques.

The Changing of the Guard

Vintage 2023 coincides with a significant development at two of the most important consulting practices in Bordeaux. I can’t help feeling that we are at a major inflection point. Over the last year or so, both Michel Rolland and Stéphane Derenoncourt have sold their businesses to their junior partners while dramatically scaling back their personal involvement to just a few properties each. Julien Viaud, Mikaël Laizet and Jean-Philippe Fort now run Laboratoire Rolland & Associés while Julien Lavenu, Simon Blanchard and Frédéric Massie are leading the charge at Derenoncourt Consultants. They join Thomas Duclos and Julien Belle at Oeno-Team and Philippe Nunes, Maxime Tach and Bryan Dessaint at Hubert de Boüard’s Oeno-lab as the new wave of consultants who are increasingly responsible for many of the top wines in Bordeaux.

Indeed, over the last decade, a large number of properties have transitioned to younger consultants who bring their own set of experiences to the mix. These changes can be quite dramatic, for example, at Troplong-Mondot with the 2017, or more subtle, as they are this year at Léoville-Poyferré, where Julien Viaud has given the wine an added kick of freshness without losing the textural richness favored when Michel Rolland was more actively involved. Not everything has changed. Eric Boissenot remains the reference point for many top châteaux on the Left Bank. Even so, the air of change in Bordeaux is palpable. It is an incredibly exciting time.

The tiny Clos Saint-Julien, one of Saint-Émilion’s hidden gems.

The State of the Market

By the time you read this, the Bordeaux campaign will have just kicked off. It’s a record early start, especially for many châteaux that are in the habit of releasing much later in the campaign. Geopolitical concerns, the general state of the world, changing consumption patterns and the cost of money all weigh heavily at the moment. Clearly, the top names understand the available capital for the 2023s is on the smaller side and they want to capture as big a slice as they can, not just for their top wine, but for the associated properties buyers are encouraged to support.

Négociants are asking châteaux to roll back prices to 2019 levels. Châteaux owners reply that costs have increased markedly. Of course, there are several Bordeaux markets. An estate that sells at €5 a bottle simply can’t lower prices by 30%. Estates positioned higher face another dilemma. If prices are too high, sales might be disappointing. On the other hand, a significant reduction will kill 2021 and possibly other vintages in the market. If previous vintages are marked down, that could lead to tighter lending and, in the most severe cases, possibly a liquidity crunch for some players. Consumers are likely to think they have overpaid for several recent vintages. It’s not an easy situation, to say the least.

The team at Brane Cantenac, from left to right: Madeleine Lurton, Henri Lurton, Christophe Capdeville and Marie-Hélène Faurie.

Wine of the Year

Palmer – It’s early, and we will only know when the wines are all in bottle. Palmer is the single most viscerally thrilling wine I tasted en primeur.

Honorable Mentions

Figeac – Unforgettable.

Giscours – The 2023 is the finest wine in recent memory. That’s all there is to it.

Troplong Mondot – Power and breadth have never been an issue. The 2023 adds a measure of finesse that is quite rare.

Dry White of the Year

Domaine de Chevalier Blanc – It’s a classic, and classics never go out of style.

Sauternes of the Year

Suduiraut – A riveting, deep, Sauternes.

Doisy-Daëne L'Extravagant de Doisy-Daëne – The elegance of Barsac personified.

Honorable Mentions

Suduiraut Grand Vin Blanc Pur Sémillon – Tiny production, but worth the search.

Doisy Daëne Blanc Sec – A superb, moderately priced wine that will give readers a very good idea of what Blanc Sec can be in Sauternes.

Most Improved

Lascombes – New Estate Manager Axel Heinz has breathed new life into one of the Médoc’s previously most underachieving estates.

Beau-Sejour Bécot – Juliette Bécot and Julien Barthe have raised the bar here meaningfully over the last handful of years.

Under the Radar Gems

Clos Saint-Julien – If you have been to Saint-Émilion, you have driven by this tiny vineyard many times. The wine is truly special in 2023.

Grand-Puy Ducasse – Not exactly under the radar, but exceptionally fine in 2023.

Guillot-Clauzel – The most elegant wine here since Guillaume Thienpont took over in 2018.

Haut-Bergey – One of the most distinctive wines of the year.

Laroque – David Suire has done a phenomenal job since taking over here a few years ago

Pressac – Consistently one of Saint-Émilion’s hidden jewels

Value of the Year (Red)

Reynon – How a wine can be this good and cost this little is beyond me.

Value of the Year (White)

Marjosse – Bright, crisp and refreshing. Bring on summer.

Joséphine Duffau in the vineyards at Chateau Beausejour, which her family has run for nine generations.

I tasted all of the wines in this article during the two weeks I spent in Bordeaux. My tastings were a combination of estate visits and larger comparative tastings. I tasted many wines several times as is my usual practice.

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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