Some producers say 2013 was the most difficult year in Bordeaux for almost 20 years, and reminiscent of the difficult decades in the 1960s and ‘70s. A cold wet spring reduced the number of wine grapes throughout the region, which was then pelted by inconsistent and stormy weather for much of the season, with the coup de grace delivered at harvest time, when warm rains brought rot to the vineyards. Merlot, with its feet in the moist clay, was sacrificed for Cabernet Sauvignon, which favors well drained gravelly soils, leading to blends eschewing the usual percentage, with some 100% Cabernet Sauvignon produced. Overall, the reds are lighter bodied, and less fruit driven, and certainly need more time in bottle, to soften the tannins.
So if it was so bad, why did the whites do so well? July and August were warm and dry, and the early-ripening whites were picked before the fall rains, producing fruity and well balanced wines with a streak of refreshing minerality. The sweet wines of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon benefitted from an abundance of “noble rot”, the botrytis cinerea that shrivels the grape’s skins and concentrates its sugars, making many racy wines. Overall, production is way down, in some cases over 50% of normal, especially for the reds. Yet the best producers consistently prove themselves wizards in the cellar, taking a sub-par vintage and skillfully crafting something beautiful in the bottle.
At the recent Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux trade tasting in Los Angeles, producers gamely poured their 2013 wines, making the case for drinking lots of Bordeaux Blanc along with Barsac and Sauternes sweet wines this year. The dry whites of Pessac-Léognan were very good overall, with the best producers making beautiful white wines, yet not as intense as the 2012 vintage. Domaine de Chevalier poured a divine Blanc, while Château Larrivet Haut-Brion, Château Latour-Martillac, and Château Pape Clément offered superb wines of distinction and acidity, with Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte’s Blanc a spectacular standout. Graves’ one producer in attendance, Château de Chantegrive sampled a nice Blanc, fresh with a lingering finish. The sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes were very good, with Château Doisy Daene, Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey, and Château De Fargues leading the way. Yet, Château La Tour Blanche showed how outstanding these sweet wines were, pouring from a decanter that showcased the intense fruit and acidity, and quickly became the crowd favorite.
Not all was lost with the Bordeaux red wines, as the Crus of Saint-Julien demonstrated. Beautifully made wines from Château Langoa Barton, Château Beycheville, Château Talbot were poured, with Château Léoville Barton and Château Léoville-Poyferré standouts in a rough vintage. Pauillac proved worthy of consideration, with Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Château Lynch-Moussas, and Château Pichon Baron showing extremely well at this point in time, and Château Lynch-Bages and Château Grand-Puy Ducasse displaying promise. Pessac-Léognan producers Château Larrivet Haut-Brion, Château Latour-Martillac, Château Pape Clément, and Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte were the double threat, and succeeded making good red wines in addition to their beautiful whites. Overall, Margaux’s reds suffered, being heavily Merlot-based, with more astringent tannins and less ripe fruit, with Château Lascombes, Château Malescot Saint-Exupéry, Château Prieuré-Lichine, and Château Rauzan-Ségla exuding classic aromas and somewhat riper flavors. The Right Bank wines of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion were smoother, having more generous fruit and floral notes, with Château La Couspade, Château La Dominique, and Château La Cabanne decent buys.
One important disclaimer, with over 90 wines available for tasting, I was only able to sample close to 50 in the time allowed, and apologies to those wines who might have been left out. I just observed the overall trend of the vintage year, and as always, the most skillful winemakers make the best of what Mother Nature has given them.
The key to the best bottles of 2013 was an emphasis on acidity, which made for fresher wines, red and white, and less extraction of the fruit, avoiding green tannins in the reds. These lighter-bodied wines will be easy-drinking, with less fruit concentration, but more balance. The classic red Bordeaux aromas of blackberry and black currant fruit, cedar, and tobacco infuse the glass, giving the illusion of a savory wine. The citrus, herbal, and nut character of the whites make them perfect for sipping or with food, and are good value, surpassing the reds in this difficult vintage.
The good news for consumers are the upcoming vintages still in barrel and bottle, waiting for the magic of time. The 2014 harvest was much better than 2013, and the 2015 vintage is rumored to be superb. In the meantime, there are some 2013 red wine gems to be found, but if you concentrate on the delightful dry and sweet white wines of Bordeaux, you will be more than satisfied.