They say that bad things come in threes, and no one knows that better than the winemakers in Bordeaux. The region was hit with disappointing yields in 1971, 1972, and 1973, devastating frosts in 1991, 1992, and 1993, and now, with pundits predicting the 2013 vintage will shape up to be every bit as dour as 2011 and 2012, no one would blame a Chateau or two for feeling a little superstitious. Too often in the wine world predictions become fact far before the actual verdict is in, with speculation overshadowing the truth, and everybody suffers. Here’s some insight into why 2013 was so tough, what the winemakers have done to compensate, and what consumers can really expect to find once they start to uncork, swirl, and sip.
Spring 2013 was cold and wet, and despite a decent April, by the end of an exceptionally wet May the crop had already been dealt considerable damage. When the vines should have been flowering, the region was besieged by almost continuous bouts of rain, stunting both growth and spirits. Then came summer; early July was the sunniest in decades, but hail, wind, and torrential downpours followed, knocking loose many of the grapes that had managed to emerge. Rot soon set in, forcing many vineyards to rush harvest, picking immature grapes in an attempt to mitigate their losses.
Far from sitting back, surveying the situation and twiddling their anxious thumbs, producers made valiant attempts to stop the vintage’s march towards infamy, some even applying for permits to spray mildew-reducing treatments on the vines. Sorting was intense; yields were already down some 25% percent and still the lot had to meticulously picked through. The early harvest blunted tannin quality and the grape’s thin skins made extraction a tricky and very delicate process that may make or break what ended up in the bottle. There are other techniques at the disposal during the vinification process: chaptalization can boost the overall low alcohol levels; flash-heating helps to temper the tight, green, bitter characteristics common in undderripe grapes; and adding oak to the mix can round out wines that lack the complexity typically synonymous with great Bordeaux.
All of this translates not only into concerns about quality, but also concerns about money. Even as potential profits dropped and reality set in, producers hoping to make the best of the vintage poured capital into these expensive processes aimed at taking the grapes they had as far as they could go. It’s likely the market will see a huge gap between a small amount of high-end offerings at high-end prices and larger batches of second label wines from producers opting to not even release their first label Bordeaux. Whatever hits the shelves, sales are likely to be dependent on the not-so-subtle whispers already circulating around the industry.
Like movie critics who tank a film before the public can even snag a seat at a theater, wine experts worldwide have been quick to voice their vintage-related misgivings. Tim Atkin is a Master of Wine (MW), award-winning journalist and frequent fixture on the judging panels at numerous international wine competitions, so when he says that 2013 is one of the “very worst post-war vintages,” people are bound to sit up and take notice.
Even ratings guru Robert Parker, whose traditional late spring arrival for tastings and general evaluation of the vintage are a bit of a banner event, has postponed his trip until mid summer, a move most are viewing with some mixture of trepidation and resignation. Still, Gavin Quinney, who owns Chateau Bauduc, told Harpers, “You shouldn’t write off the wines before having tasted them,” but he also followed that up by adding “As for whether anyone will buy them, that’s a different matter.” Exactly. Once a well is rumored to have been poisoned, it often matters little whether the contents are actually tainted or not.
Chateau Malescasse usually sells the 130,000 bottles of Bordeaux it typically produces annually for about $14 each; they’re so disappointed with the 2013 bottling they’re labeling it as a generic Haut Medoc red and offering for about $4. Melascasse consultant Stephant Derenoncourt told The Independent that “rather than squeeze something out of a wine we don’t like, we prefer to cut off our own arm and move on. Derenoncourt’s words echo the thoughts of many producers who value quality over quantity and have several generation’s worth of reputation to maintain. Still, reputation may not mean much to the average consumer who has heard, and now expects, the worst.
It remains to be seen what the true taste of 2013 Bordeaux will bring, and quality will surely differ from chateau to chateau, but it is all but certain that these releases won’t be the ones talked about around the dinner table in 20-year’s time. Bottles readily available in stores will be cheaper, get uncorked faster once they’re bought, and while there are plenty of bottles that will wash down dinner with adequate finesse, it’s safe to say that producers and consumers alike are crossing their fingers for a kinder, gentler 2014.
Top Picks for Bordeaux Region
2010 Domaine de l’A Cotes de Bordeaux, $40 – The startling amount of complexity and pure range of this Bordeaux red scored it the 28th spot on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2013. That accolade and the tiny 2,000 case production alone would make this notable, but its the flavor profile that you’ll remember. Amidst the beautiful bursts of blackberry, blueberry, plum, and acai, there is a current of espresso and the kind of damp, earthy funk that reminds you of strolling through the orchard in the morning, when the sun has yet to burn off last night’s fog. Add to that a touch of fennel and espresso, and you have a lovely, smoky offering indicative of the region.
2012 Chateau de Cornemps Bordeaux Rose, $13 – There are many people who will simply read the basic profile of this wine and tilt their noses up in collective dismissal, but who says that every bottle of wine we drink has to be 90+ points and utterly mind blowing? Sometimes it’s nice to sit out back with your friends and watch the summer sun set with a glass of something worth buying simply for its quaffability. Sweet, the tiniest bit tart, and scented with strawberries and pomegranate, this wine is fits that bill perfectly.
2012 Domaine de Chevalier Pessac-Leognan White, $87 – This wine is everything you expect from a truly phenomenal Bordeaux white, hence the price tag. Save up your pennies, because experiencing the combination of grapefruit, lemon curd, apple butter, summer melon, thyme, spice, and vanilla, is worth the splurge. You could definitely get away with drinking this now, but if you can manage a bit of patience, it will taste even better next year and will store happily through 2020.