The Chairman’s conclusions – Bordeaux 2013
Author: Simon Berry
Now that the craziness of en primeur week has finished, and my mouth, tongue and teeth are beginning to recover, it’s possible to look back on the last week and take stock.
Three things, above all, occur to me.
Firstly, we may never see a bad vintage again. The weather conditions in 2013 were truly dreadful: only a hot July and August bucked the trend. Ten months of the year, in other words, were not conducive to the growing of grapes – it would take some extreme form of divine vengeance to surpass that record.
Forty, 30 – perhaps even 20 years ago – the vintage would have been a write off. As recently as the 1980s, Berry Bros. & Rudd decided to by-pass an entire vintage, and nobody complained. But now times have certainly changed.
Some estates – anything between 20 and 50, depending on whose palates you trust – had the terroir, the technology, the money or the mastery to come up with wines which are truly worthy of their brands – and, with a bit of common sense prevailing, of their price bracket. They may require indulgent bank managers to perform this conjuring trick for a fourth year in a row, but I suspect that these estates squirreled away enough during the fat years to be able to survive the lean.
Paul Pontallier of Ch. Margaux is an honourable man, as well as (without doubt) the person responsible for the renaissance of the wines from that château since the early eighties. He writes in the estate’s introduction to the vintage: “Ch. Margaux 2013 cannot claim to be a great vintage… But we are immensely privileged to have produced it at the beginning of the 21st century when all the care and attention, all the sacrifices, are possible.” In many ways, he’s absolutely right.
We visited 40 different châteaux and three different négociants over four days, tasted 231 different wines – in many cases more than once. Among those 231 there are many I would not recommend, but only a handful I would actively dissuade anyone from buying. All of the rest, assuming the price is reasonable, will give people pleasure to drink over the next five or even 10 years. That’s a new paradigm. And certainly not the disaster some commentators predicted (and in some instants continue to preach). That’s lazy journalism: simplification for the sake of a good story.
Secondly, if this Brave New World is a reality, we are going to have to reassess the way we buy Bordeaux. There will be no more highs and lows, peaks and troughs, triumphs and disasters – now we will have great years, and perfectly decent years. Three of my favourite wines of the vintage, Ch. Margaux, Pichon-Lalande and Vieux Chateau Certan, have produced very atypical wines from their usual styles, although still bearing the hallmarks of their “brands”. Special editions, if you will. Certainly variations on a theme. So perhaps we should treat Bordeaux like we treat our music: looking out for the latest release from our favourite artist, and buying it expecting to be surprised at their development, or a new interpretation. We could use painting as an analogy, or a favourite actor if you prefer. But the concept of sticking to a group of your favourite châteaux, buying a case or so from each vintage and watching their development over the years is not such a strange one. These winemakers are, after all, artists in their own right, not just manufacturers of fermented grape-juice.
Thirdly: where had all the tasters gone? In a tricky vintage, it’s even more vital to go and taste the wines for yourself, and the seven of us last week and another seven next week will be there from Berry Bros. & Rudd. But Bordeaux seemed emptier this year than we had ever known it. It seemed that many of our competition decided to sit it out this year. No doubt they’ll be back “when budgets allow” – or when there’s another great vintage. But that’s not being a real wine merchant in my book. In the great years, it’s easy. In the challenging vintages you, the customer, need to be able to speak to someone who’s actually been to see (and taste) for themselves.
PS In case any of the above has elicited the Mandy Rice-Davies reaction (“He would say that, wouldn’t he…”) I would urge you to come along to our July tasting, of our favourite picks from the vintage, together with many of the winemakers involved. Talk to them, taste their 2013s, and judge for yourselves. I think you’ll be agreeably surprised.
We will be updating our website today as the châteaux begin to release their prices in earnest. Go to bbr.com for the most up-to-date information.