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A Bitter Pill for Bordeaux
By Robert Whitley
Apr 8, 2014
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BORDEAUX, France — Making wine in Bordeaux has always been a dicey proposition. Situated close to the Atlantic coast in the southwest corner of France, Bordeaux is too cool in most years to fully ripen cabernet sauvignon, the dominant grape variety planted on the left bank of the Gironde estuary. On the right bank, with its cool clay soils, cabernet sauvignon is a hopeless case; there, merlot and cabernet franc, earlier ripening varieties, hold sway.

If the average temperature through the growing season were not a challenge, Bordeaux would still be a risky bet for wine, for there are other factors that can stand in the way of a great, or even good, Bordeaux vintage. Frost in the spring, hail in summer and rain at harvest are just a few of the usual suspects.

What matters most in the long run is that when Bordeaux survives the elements and pulls off a remarkable vintage, the wines are majestic in a way that is unrivaled. They are polished and sophisticated, long-lived, literally the stuff of legend. You may think 1959 or 1982, but more recently the vintages of 2005, 2009 and 2010 enjoyed flattering comparisons to the greatest vintages of all time.

This year the Bordelais speak with almost wistful reverence of 2010. The 2013 vintage is no 2010. It is no 2009. It isn't even 2011 (which I liked) or 2012. In fact, the 2013 vintage was such a disaster on so many levels that not even the spin doctors had much enthusiasm for the impossible task of generating a positive vibe at the recent Union des Grands Crus primeurs barrel tastings of the vintage.

Interest in purchasing en primeurs, as it is called, will likely be limited to the Bordeaux brands that have worldwide appeal regardless of the quality of the wine. That would include the top growths of the left bank such as Chateau Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild and the right-bank icons such as Petrus, Cheval Blanc and Ausone. There will be a few others in demand as well, but the vast majority of chateaux are sitting on a vintage that will be difficult to sell at today's inflated price for Bordeaux.

What hit Bordeaux in 2013 was just about the perfect storm, and few, if any, saw it coming. Despite some difficulty during the spring flowering period, Bordeaux 2013 appeared to be on track for a good vintage as a sunny summer smiled upon the vineyards.

Even when the rains struck at harvest there was optimism. Cabernet Sauvignon is thick-skinned and can generally take a bit of rain as long as the rainy period is followed by dry, windy conditions. But waiting for the rains to end turned out not to be an option for most in 2013.

With the rains came warm, tropical conditions that encouraged the botrytis mold, which lives dormant on the skins of the grapes, to take off. Botrytis, also called "noble rot," is the mold that turns the grapes of Sauternes and Barsac into the sweet nectar that produces some of the world's most famous dessert wines. Botrytis is good for white grapes, for they can be salvaged to make wine. For red grapes, the noble rot is the Darth Vader of the harvest.

When the botrytis struck, most of the red grapes were not quite ripe. The choices were to pick then and add sugar (called chaptalization) to ensure legal alcohol levels or wait and hope the mold hadn't taken the entire vineyard by the time the rains ended and drier conditions prevailed. Because the noble rot spread so quickly, those who picked early and did a strict selection (sorting out the rotten grapes as they arrived at the chateaux) had the best chance at making a credible wine.

From my observations and tastings, many left-bank chateaux, particularly in Graves, Pessac-Leognan, Margaux and Pauillac managed to salvage decent wine despite working with slightly under-ripe grapes. The right bank was another story altogether. The poor conditions in the vineyard were frequently upstaged by poor decisions in the cellar. The wines of Saint-Emilion and Polmerol of 2013 are, for the most part, extracted monsters, with bitter, astringent wood tannins that overwhelm the fruit.

Cheval Blanc is one exception, and I'm sure there are others. The 2013 Cheval Blanc is a model of restraint. It is a good wine, maybe even a very good wine. It isn't a great wine. But at $1500 per bottle on average, it should be.

The bitterness and astringency of the wines of the right bank are what I will long remember from this misbegotten vintage. Not that there weren't some decent wines made. Chateau Prieure-Lichine, Chateau Lascombes and Chateau Siran in Margaux all were successful at making the most of what they had. With the exception of Lascombes, they should be reasonably priced, too.

Siran, a Margaux that was not ranked in the 1855 classification of the Medoc, is one of the great steals in Bordeaux today. The 2013 is typical of the Siran style, being well-balanced and within itself, without too much oak or extraction.

The outstanding Pauillac Lynch-Bages also found success in 2013, as did the several wines from Graves and Pessac-Leognan, such as Smith Haut-Lafitte, Pape Clement and Olivier.

This should not be news. There are good wines produced in every vintage of Bordeaux, regardless of the conditions. But truly outstanding wines are few and far between in 2013. The bigger question, however, is why anyone would take a chance on Bordeaux from 2013 when there is still plenty of very good wine in circulation from the outstanding to very good 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages.

The chateau owners of Bordeaux hold the answer to that question, and in the end it all comes down to price. If prices drop, Bordeaux 2013 can be attractive if a buyer sticks to the left bank. If prices remain the same, this is a vintage to avoid.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.