Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Matthew Hemming's Bordeaux 2013 Vintage

It’s a topsy-turvy world where an extensive tasting of the outstanding 2010 clarets leaves you physically exhausted yet a week tasting the fruits of the troubled 2013 vintage is fun, fascinating and rewarding in almost equal measure. Following a growing season featuring almost every challenge Mother Nature could throw at the vines, ‘13 is a rollercoaster of a vintage, peppered with exceptions and with hardly any rules.

I wish I could have tasted these wines with the late John Avery. He, like me, would have loved the fact that this is a year for wine merchants to roll up their sleeves, put in the hard graft to ferret out successful wines, and then offer straight-talking advice to guide customers to these chateaux. It’s not even true that you’re safe just buying the top wines this year - there are expensive flops as well as under- and over- performing wines from the lower echelons. That’s why tasting was so fascinating, because there are good wines from ‘13 and finding them was tremendously rewarding.

Why was 2013 difficult?
The weather. Poor conditions during the early part of the growing season led to problems with fruit set and the vine’s cycle was delayed from the start. There was finally some decent weather in the summer, which started to ripen the fruit but the late summer was awful. I was in St Emilion during a very soggy September and saw sorry-looking, water-logged vines with rampant vegetative growth in their canopies. Add in relatively mild temperatures and you can see that the conditions were perfect for the onset of rot.

Botrytis – great for Sauternes, a disaster for reds – became a massive threat so some people felt compelled to pick too early, harvesting barely grapes that give lean and skinny wines with green flavours; others waited, and risked the rot.

The more delicate Merlot grape is particularly susceptible to damage and rot, so extremely careful sorting became absolutely necessary. Cabernet may have benefitted from being more robust but it takes longer to ripen, so early picked Cabernets were more likely to be under ripe, green and herbaceous.

Grapes for dry whites are earlier-ripening and the first to be picked, there are some very interesting dry whites as these were harvested prior to the botrytis threat. Obviously botrytis – noble rot – is a good thing for Sauternes, and there are some tremendous sweet wines that will be long-lived, although I’m sure they will continue to be extremely difficult to sell...

The wines
The reputation of a Bordeaux vintage is always based on the quality of the red wines so, whilst I’ve already stated that this is a strong year for the dry and sweet whites, I’ll address these comments to the reds of ‘13.

For me, ‘13 is a Naked Selfie Vintage - an oblique reference to the internet phenomenon where women take photos of themselves without makeup in order to raise money for cancer research. How is this even relevant to wine? Well, I found the successful reds were those that were inherently ‘comfortable in their own skins’. Wines such as Chateaux Gloria and Talbot seemed to be content to be red-fruited, fragrant, light-on-their-feet clarets that will be delicious in not too many years time. They’re not over-burdened with ambition to be something that they’re not, trying to fit into a suit that doesn’t match their frames or wearing too much winemaking ‘makeup’. Just as a child pushed too hard at school rarely flourishes, I’m yet to find a wine that benefits from being forced or over-worked – it’s here that the French word elevage comes into its own; maturation described by a term that translates as upbringing.

In many ways this is Real Bordeaux – mid-weight, savoury wines meant for drinking at table – and that is why it was enjoyable to taste and find the successful ‘13s.

There are very few patterns in this vintage. Some people are claiming it’s a right bank year; almost as many are claiming it’s a vintage that favoured the Medoc; a few are even singing the praises of the Graves and Pessac wines. My opinion is that the Medoc may just have the edge, in terms of there being more consistently successful wines, but there are St Emilion and, particularly, Pomerol wines that I’d happily have in my own cellar. Gratifyingly, St Estephe is home to some of my favourite ‘13s. Unlike 2003, where it’s not entirely unfair to say the St Estephes are the least problematic wines in a largely troublesome vintage, there are some lovely ‘13s that are good in their own right, rather than despite their birth year. If push came to shove, I think I’d rather own a case of Montrose than one of the 1st growths from this year.

Overall, there’s a lot of disappointing red Bordeaux from ‘13, and a fair amount of just plain poor wine, but there are also good wines that will give a lot of pleasure. There also exists a handful of seriously exciting wines that are in no way constrained by the limitations of their growing season, if priced correctly these really do deserve your attention.

What next...?
Talk to us. Averys’ reputation in the early 20th century was built upon Ronald Avery’s ability to select good wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy and guide his customers towards them. Later, John Avery continued in his father’s footsteps. We’re keen that Averys continues to flourish into the future, so my aim is to give honest, straight-talking advice on which ‘13s might be worth buying.

This is a tricky vintage to navigate, which is why we spent time tasting as widely as possible in the region. Some familiar names will likely be absent from our list this year. We have always sold a lot of Lynch Bages, for example, but it would be disingenuous of us to list the ‘13 for tradition’s sake when we feel that Leoville Barton and Pontet Canet are significantly stronger.

If you’re in the Bristol area, please come to our tasting of ‘13 samples on 8th May. There’s so much conflicting information floating around about this vintage that it can only be a good thing to taste the wines yourself.

And finally, don’t forget to buy a case or two of Sauternes.

My 2013 Vintage Selection

A rather self indulgent exercise and far from exhaustive but good fun...

Money no object:
- Chateau Ausone
- Chateau d’Yquem

1st growths:
- Chateau Mouton Rothschild

Right bank:
- Chateau la Conseillante

Medoc Cru Classe:
- Chateau Montrose
- Chateau Pontet Canet

Value reds:
- Chateau Lafon Rochet
- Chateau Villemaurine
- Chateau Senejac

Dry white:
- Chateau Haut Brion Blanc (expensive)
- Chateau Lespault Martillac (less so!)

Sweet white
- Chateau Suduiraut (plus the d'Yquem above)

Matthew Hemming MW, May 2014

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