Bordeaux 2013: confounding the critics


Photograph: Jason Lowe

Photograph: Jason Lowe

It’s fair to say that 2013 was a year to test the mettle of the Bordelaise winemakers but, says our Chairman Simon Berry, that makes the stars of the vintage shine all the brighter.

In some ways, a difficult vintage is more interesting to taste than an easy vintage. Especially this year, when every region had the same poor weather pattern, more or less. It rained when the vines were beginning to flower, which severely reduced the crop. After a hot July and August, when hopes rose with the temperatures, there was a tropical steamy September which encouraged rot, especially amongst the thin-skinned Merlot grapes. Finally, just as people were wondering how long they could wait before harvesting their Cabernets, the rain set in. Forty – even 30 – years ago the vintage would have been a disaster.

But nowadays many properties are much more scientific and – let’s not deny it – richer. This matters, because they can afford to buy the latest equipment (optical sorting tables to choose only the most perfect grapes), or hire the best wine makers or a larger work force in a hurry to harvest the vineyard between rain showers. Money buys you the luxury of drastically reducing the yield (in some cases by 60 or 70 percent) to make sure that the standard of your Grand Vin doesn’t slip, even in a challenging vintage. Money can even buy you the luxury of sitting out the vintage completely, not willing to risk the reputation of your brand by either producing an inferior product or pricing it incorrectly and leaving it to the vagaries of the market.

In the end, though, it all comes down to excellent terroir and superb winemaking. There are no lucky accidents in a difficult vintage. Take, for example, our old friend Alexandre Thienpont. His Vieux Château Certan has for years been one of the unsung heroes of Pomerol: overshadowed by flashier neighbours, his wines have been appreciated by real fans for their sheer style and elegance. Traditionally VCC has been a Cabernet Franc-based Pomerol: this year we all expected this to be its saviour, given the problems the Merlot grape has suffered during the growing season.

But Alexander, who two months ago was rumoured to be ducking out of the vintage altogether, surprised us all by producing, instead, one of my top wines of the year so far. And, against all the trends (Ch. Margaux has for the first time produced a wine with not a single drop of Merlot juice in the blend) he has done it with a wine that contains over 80 percent Merlot. How has he managed to do this? By knowing his vineyard and its capabilities perfectly, by not listening to popular wisdom, and by trusting his instincts as a winemaker. It’s a bit like seeing a jazz musician at work, producing a thing of beauty that surprises you by the way it break the rules but still comes up trumps.

Even in a difficult vintage, I predict that 2013 Vieux Chateau Certan will confound the critics for many years to come.