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Bordeaux 2013: PART 2-STRUCTURE AND COMPOSITION

Posted: Friday, 20 June 2014 11:27

Bordeaux 2013: PART 2-STRUCTURE AND COMPOSITION

June 20: Red Wines are the losers for the chaotic vintage of 2013 but there were some very fine dry wines and great sweet wines, thanks to the skill, insight and pragmatism etc displayed by winemakers, writes our writer and Bordeaux weather expert John Salvi MW who gives a detailed account of the Structure and Composition of wines in the 2013 harvest in this Part 2 and opines that the reds will be pleasant, charming and supple but rapid drinking wines

With such unbalanced, difficult and chaotic weather conditions throughout the growing season it is impossible to be dogmatic or precise about anything.  Whatever I say there is a grower somewhere who will have experienced exactly the opposite conditions, taken exactly the opposite actions and arrived at exactly the opposite results.  I can only generalise, having tasted widely and questioned many growers in the different appellations.  Château Cheval Blanc states, “It is in difficult and delicate years that the great terroirs truly show and distinguish themselves”.  Château Margaux says “it is in difficult vintages that, one way or another, great terroirs reveal their incredible supremacy”. 

BODY AND STRUCTURE

Overall the red wines are not as solidly structured and are lighter than the last 4 vintages.  In the majority of wines the grapes did not achieve perfect ripeness, therefore had less sugar in the musts. They made less alcoholic and lighter wines which will develop more quickly and will be ready for drinking earlier and not last as long. 

Château Kirwan sees the wine as being eminently drinkable for about 15 years – a short life compared to the great Bordeaux vintages!  A number of properties have taken the attitude and the opportunity of pointing this out as a point in their favour by saying that such wines will appeal to the Bordeaux lovers looking for wines for which they will not have to wait so long and which will be pleasant and easy drinking.  Whilst this is probably true to a large extent, it is nonetheless an admission that they are not GREAT wines.

ROT

There was pressure from mildew throughout the season and Bio producers had a particularly hard time of it.  Grey rot (botrytis) was the worst for many years.  It came rapidly, massively and without warning and influenced every one of the structural elements listed below.  It reappears regularly throughout this report.

CABERNET Vs. MERLOT

Whilst it is NOT a Merlot vintage, it is not a Cabernet vintage either.  In fact it is a no-variety vintage!  Palmer called it a ‘terroir’ vintage – the term that I have tried to avoid but which keeps coming back.  However, Merlot suffered the most.  It is a much more fragile grape variety than the Cabernet and suffered much more coulure and millerandage during the flowering due to the poor weather.  This was particularly so with old vines.  This of course led to a small crop.  Then it was attacked earlier by the grey rot in September and being more fragile suffered more disastrously.  This led to an even lower yield. 

The result was that in many properties there is less Merlot in the blend than ever before.  In fact, Château Margaux does not contain one drop of Merlot. CEO Paul Pontallier says “even our best parcel of Merlot that we harvested with a luxury of care and precaution proved deceptive”.  The highest percentage that I have found among the Classed Growths was Château Haut Brion which used 65% Merlot.  Château Palmer used 49% to preserve their femininity.  Rot also came to the Cabernet and even the Petit Verdot even as it came later and was less disastrous. Nonetheless, a lot of it had to be harvested before full maturity.

RIPENESS

This was a major factor of the 2013 vintage.  Normally one of the great skills of fine wine making is harvesting plot by plot; picking each at perfect maturity.  This year it was the onslaught of rot that decided the picking date rather than the maturity and for the most part this was at least a week earlier than growers would have liked.  They had none of the usual “window or margin of manoeuvre”. 

Château Cheval Blanc says its colour change was the latest during the last 25 years. Vegetation, instead of stopping before colour change, continued on gravel until begin September and on sand right until the end of that month.  Naturally, earlier picking lowered the alcoholic strength. 

Château Margaux expressed it succinctly: “finally the grapes lacked about a week of maturing time- sufficient to dash the hopes of a great vintage whilst not enough to rob it of all its promise”.  It would have been later still if it were not for the very low yields that helped us catch up a tad.  On the best terroirs, in well managed vineyards and with expert vinification, at least the presence of any vegetal notes in the wines was avoided.

YIELDS

These were very small-as low as 18hL/hA at Château Cheval Blanc.  The three main reasons for this were of course firstly the massive coulure (shatter), particularly on the Merlot.  Then there was millerandage (hen and chicken) giving heterogeneity on the same bunch.  At the end- August green and still pink bunches had to be green pruned however much this further reduced the crop!  The green pruning this year was absolutely vital both for maximum maturity and for trying to preserve some homogeneity. Finally the rot, the most for many years, that meant particularly draconian sorting and the discarding of a very high proportion of the already greatly reduced yield.  Château Kirwan is very proud of the fact that it managed to bring just one parcel to perfect fruition with a yield of 45hL/ha. 

The overall production of wine in the Gironde in 2013 is the lowest for many years and it is estimated that when the obligatory “declaration de récolte” or “declaration of yield” is completed it will be around 30% below the long-term average. 

COLOUR

This was one of the best features of 2013.  Most of the wines had good deep colours in spite of all the problems.  Naturally both tannins and colour are covered by the anthocyanins.  Chateau Angelus says “the architecture of the polyphenols in the skins and of the ripeness of the pips was able to develop under relatively good conditions”.  Most of the great properties do not use cold soaking, but this year a lot of lesser wine were made with pre-fermentation maceration, and sometimes even with warm soaking rather than cold soaking.  This of course dissolves a lot of colour before the fermentation even starts.  Grapes without rot had plenty of colour pigmentation in the skins even if those skins had been fragilised by the September weather.

ACIDITY

This was one of the better factors of the vintage.  Naturally, in the vast majority of cases where rot dictated earlier picking than the grower would have liked, it meant somewhat higher acidity and under the circumstances this was good.  The great reduction in yield, with the resultant concentration, also helped keep those acidities at a good level and this gave the wine freshness, which is one of the most significant positive attributes of the vintage.  Nonetheless, there were limits. In white wines the acidities were superb – fresh, crisp, vibrant and lemony.

TANNINS

Usually, this is a major factor about which I write a great deal and of course it still was this year, but other factors predominated.  Naturally picking too early, as was necessary in many cases due to the rot, meant somewhat unripe tannins from green and unripe pips. Chateau Palmer very carefully says that they practiced very gentle extraction to avoid any rustic tannin.  Gentle extraction is the rule nowadays and if the tannins are somewhat unripe one is very careful not to leave the new wine in skin and pip contact for too long.  I have already quoted Château Angelus on polyphenols and anthocyanins.  Given the extremely unfavourable conditions of the vintage, the raw, unripe or rustic tannins were far less present than they might have been.  Château Palmer stated that they themselves were surprised by the phenolic ripeness.

ALCOHOLIC STRENGTH

This goes hand in hand with ripeness, and picking dates and these dates were controlled by the rot.  Earlier- than-desired picking meant less mature grapes, less sugar and thus less alcohol. Lower alcohol strengths were welcome to many growers as it seemed to take us back to former vintages.  Cos d’Estournel which has been making extremely powerful and concentrated wines in recent years declared just 12.7°.  Two wines that in the recent past had particularly high alcoholic content (15.1°) had much less this year- La Mission Haut Brion and Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux.

AROMATICS

These were good when not marked, masked or tainted by notes of rot.  Large variations of temperatures between day and night during August and September helped develop these considerably. This also helped retain freshness, which was equally assisted by the cool first 2 weeks of September and played a vital role in the fine quality of the dry white wines.

PRESS WINE

Unlike last year, when it was of superb quality, hardly any press wine was used this year in the First Wines.  This of course reduced the final production quantities even further.

DRY WHITE WINES

The earlier picking succeeded in getting in the grapes before the major attacks of grey rot, which really became difficult to control after the rains from 14th – 19th September and the subsequent heat and high humidity.  Even Haut Brion, which is always one of the very first to harvest started considerably later than usual, but the harvesting took place mostly between 10th and 25th September. 

La Mission Haut Brion Blanc had 76% of Semillon whilst Haut Brion Blanc had 66% of Sauvignon and they got the grapes healthy and it tasted superb.  Pavillon Blanc de Château Margaux was picked between 19th – 27th September, but Paul Pontallier claims that it was the magnificent terroir of Margaux that resisted the rot, allied to the senior age of the vines (35 years) and the very small crop.  From 18th onwards many grapes were beyond use in many regions.  Semillon is a more resistant grape than Sauvignon and could be picked a few days later, as usual.  Those who got the grapes in ripe and healthy condition have made some very fine wines bordering on GREAT-with purity of fruit, freshness on fleshiness, vigorous aromatic expression, crisp acidity and mouth filling flavours lingering long.  

SWEET WHITE WINES

Rot is an ultra-classical taste of uncleanliness and the use of crio-extraction on unclean grapes concentrates the uncleanliness and is catastrophic.  Therefore, it was used little this year.  Also with bad, grey or acid rot the shortest possible time before pressing and separating grapes from their juice is the best, whilst of course not so for noble rot.  Better not to pick those bad grapes at all and this is the case with all fine botrytised wine.

Château d’Yquem, always accurate and precise, says that this year aromatic freshness was helped by the cool first half of September and the mid-September rain (50mm) brought on splendid noble rot. Sugar in the grapes concentrated quickly and the 1st and 2nd TRIS took place on 25th September and 2nd October.  Picking then stopped due to rain (40mm), but this rain boosted the noble rot on the unpicked grapes.  Fine weather followed and the second Tri was finished on 11th and a 3rd one started.  Now came a hot dry period from 12th – 23rd and d’Yquem were able to finish the 3rd TRI between 21st and 24th and pick any remaining grapes on a short 4th TRI.  While each and every Château will be different, this gives an excellent general pattern of the vintage and the behaviour of the noble rot.

Château d’Yquem alcoholic strength was only 13.1° and residual sugar 140 grams.  The first is low and the latter quite high.  Total acidity was 4.0 and pH 3.70.  Like many other sweet, botrytised wines these are the great successes of 2013 and here we will see some GREAT wines with wonderful, concentrated, pure botrytis; rich, raisined and candied fruit flavours and Demerara sugar sweetness with magnificent fresh lemony acidity. I was struck by its phrase, “if a good vintage is a question of chance the 2013 is unquestionably a very good year”.
FINALE
I summed up briefly at the end of the “Weather” section in Part 1  but will repeat the conclusions of most of the experts with whom, for once, I agree. The GREAT wines of the 2013 vintage are the botrytised wines.  Some of them will be GREAT.  The botrytis is pure and concentrated.  The Dry White Wines are VERY GOOD indeed and a few are GREAT, particularly where picked before the onset of rot.  Acidities are perfect.  A few Red Wines are VERY GOOD indeed where the chateaux benefitted from skill, insight, deep knowledge of the vineyard and its vines, the very best equipment and plenty of money.  None are GREAT and indeed the GREAT properties have the honesty to admit this openly.  The majority that have been well made are deep coloured, pleasant, charming and supple wines with freshness and fruit and will make relatively rapid drinking. 

For red wines, 2013 is NOT A GREAT YEAR!

John Salvi, Master of Wine

For Part-1 reflecting on the Weather, kindly visit

Harvest Report: The 2013 Vintage in Bordeaux Part 1-Weather

       

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