Following a week-long tasting en primeur in Bordeaux, please find Simon Larkin's first impressions on the 2012 Bordeaux vintage.
My colleague, Richard O’Mahony, and I have just arrived back from a week’s tasting in Bordeaux. We were fortunate enough to arrange early visits to the châteaux this year, thus avoiding the main tasting week when all of international trade descends on Bordeaux for the annual en primeur circus.
In another break with the norm, we have decided to update you with one longer report rather than via the daily blog posts we made last year. Please find my impressions on the vintage below. We will instead use the blog for commentary as the campaign unfolds.
Tasting en primeur is never straightforward and the 2012 vintage did not make life any easier; it is a very mixed vintage. As ever we aim to taste the wines over numerous occasions and to this end, our colleagues, Andrew Caslin and Vicki Stephens-Clarkson are braving the crowds in Bordeaux this week for a second assessment. We will share some of their comments as they arise.
I - Commercial Backdrop: Price reductions required to breathe life into En Primeur
Commercially, the 2012 vintage is precariously poised and failure to address this might render an assessment of quality academic. The market needs a compulsion to purchase and this can only derived from a substantial price reduction, particularly as this is a mixed vintage. However, if I consider the comments we heard last week, I would certainly be surprised if we witnessed reductions in price across the board.
Comments from Château owners varied. Some maintained that they had no need to sell at a lower price as they could afford to hold the stock. A select few producers dwelled upon the idea that their wine was now considered a luxury product and the value surrounded the brand. Others seemed ‘concerned’ about the inevitable comparison that would be drawn should 2012 be released at a price that was significantly lower than 2011. They are right to be sensitive as the general consensus suggests that 2011 was overpriced. I am reminded of a sound byte from Robert Parker the other week in which he said that only a ‘knucklehead’ would have bought 2011 heavily as a future (at Atlas we concurred and only offered 11 wines).
Those more aware of the zeitgeist understood the need to signal to the market that a reduction was in order, but such welcome comments did not emanate from those at the top of the qualitative tree. With such disparate views and some watchfulness I can’t help thinking this is going to be another protracted, turgid affair where the significant châteaux sit on their hands waiting to see who is first to jump. My prediction is that, as a consequence, the Bordelaise will diminish what market appetite exists for the en primeur campaign. If prices do not come down on 2011, I do not anticipate Atlas purchasing a broader range of wines than we offered last year.
II - Challenging Conditions: A Stop/Start Year
Leaving the commercial backdrop aside, 2012 will not be a particularly easy vintage for the private client to comprehend. Our bundle of obligatory PR from the individual châteaux on weather patterns stands testament to the difficult conditions. Although rainfall was under the fifty year average, its dispersal throughout the year was uneven. High levels in April (almost three times the norm) coupled with cool temperatures hindered vine development. Vegetative growth was uneven; flowering was late and took place in undesirable cool, damp conditions. Coulure (shot berries) and mildew were issues in May and June. Then Bordeaux witnessed dry and hot conditions from mid-July through to mid-September, where temperatures on a handful of specific days rose to levels last encountered in 2003. Even evening temperatures remained high allowing the vine little respite from the heat. Such drought conditions can stall the maturation cycle of the vine and this is what happened across these months in 2012. As rainfall returned in the third week of September, the ripening process was kick-started once more. As a consequence, harvest had to be carried out promptly and earlier than might have been ideal as sustained rainfall had led to an increased threat of rot.
III - Left Bank: Cabernet Sauvignon and Degrees of Ripeness
While a proportion of the wines of the Left Bank are disappointing and lean, revealing issues of under-ripe Cabernet (bell pepper aromas, leafy green notes and hard-edged tannins), there are notable successes which emphasise the merits of specific terroirs (soils which are able to drain excessive rain, yet hold onto moisture in more testing conditions). Meticulous vineyard management and winemaking clearly impacted resultant quality to greater extent than in a vintage with more regular weather patterns. If châteaux had it easy with the near ideal conditions of 2009, then they had to work like Trojans in 2012 to deliver good results.
Numerous châteaux recounted their efforts to manage excess vigour in the vineyard and deal with uneven bunch ripeness. A great many more man-hours were necessitated in the vineyard and in some instances additional labour was warranted. Producers lamented the stop/ start nature of the harvest; pickers were sent out multiple times a week to select only the ripe fruit, much akin to the various labour intensive tri in Sauternes. Deploying pickers to the correct parcels at the correct time clearly had the ability to shape the nature of the end result. Charles Chevalier at Château Lafite-Rothschild revealed they had employed 450 pickers for the harvest - twice the normal number than in previous vintages.
Given the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon was largely harvested slightly in advance of the optimum maturity, and that the skins were not uniformly healthy, it was necessary for winemakers to be extremely careful with extraction as there was a danger of extracting the bad with the good. At Château Palmer, Thomas Duroux recounted how they had adapted tanks to allow a greater surface area of skins exposed to the juice rather than to risk pumping the juice over the skins too frequently and risking over-extraction; far better a supple, mid-weight, more forward drinking wine than a hard-edged example with some underlying greenness. If the 2012 vintage had been encountered 15 years ago, it would have been far more problematic as so much of the success of the vintage is owed to advances in understanding and in technology.
One final point that is worth stressing concerns longevity. As admirably supple and forward as many of the wines might seem, there is often a lack of mid palate substance or rather a sense of hollowness which élèvage will simply not address sufficiently. I have concerns over how the Medoc 2012s will age once the vibrancy of youth dissipates. I am not sure if there will be much left to underpin nor do I think that time in barrel will fill out what is missing or see the wines ‘gain’ weight.
IV - Right Bank: ‘Priorité â droite’
In general, the Right Bank faired far better than the Left. The water-retentive, clay-based soils assisted in alleviating water stress and, as mentioned at Clos Fourtet in St.Emilion. Such soils are often better suited to vintages such as 2012, where vines may endure longer period of drought. The dominance of Merlot is also an important factor; Merlot ripens earlier that Cabernet and there was therefore little pressure to bring the harvest date forward. This allowed growers to choose more or less the optimum moment to harvest with less chance of encountering rot than was experienced on the Left Bank. Denis Durantou of Château L’Eglise-Clinet suggested that the lack of pressure to harvest resulted in some estate waiting too long and harvesting too late, resulting in headier, almost sur-mature styles.
We also tasted some impressive Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon across St. Emilion and Pomerol, which was clear at Château Figeac when we tasted the component parts before the assemblage. Alexandre Thienpont at Vieux Château Certan highlighted the impact of his old vine Cabernet Franc which he says brought vigour and direction to the Merlot dominant blend. The two Cabernets were more problematic than Merlot and their inclusion in final blends is down to obsessive vineyard practices and the strictest of selections. Across the appellations, there was a slightly higher Merlot content than the norm, highlighting the variety’s undoubted success in the vintage. This was evident at Figeac (breaking with it’s almost recipe-like approach of including a third of each variety) and at Vieux Château Certan amongst others.
IV - Choices in the Vineyard and Cellar: The Cost of Success
After a few days of tasting it became clear that, with so many obstacles, the pattern of the vintage was going to be difficult to read. Even those properties with higher percentages of Merlot were not safeguarded against the weather conditions. As one winemaker commented, blending racy, lean Cabernet with ripe, exuberant Merlot was akin to blending elements from two different vintages and would be sufficient to test the blending capabilities of even the most skilled consultant oenologists. As mentioned, many leading châteaux used costly optical sorting machines which sort the fruit by size and colour, which allied to a team checking by hand, ensured that only the best fruit was used for production. With technological assistance and far greater resources, it does appear that the better resourced châteaux will deliver finer wines in the trying conditions of the vintage. It is unfortunately not going to be a vintage for the petits châteaux, though smaller properties owned by larger Châteaux often benefitted from the same strategies employed at the main property.
I should add that such changeable weather, poor flowering, uneven ripeness, small berries and strict selection has meant that yields are down - as much as 20% at various left bank properties – a but on no level should this be deemed to be grounds for maintaining prices as has been the case in some previous vintages.
V. The Inevitable Comparisons
I don’t think it is possible to compare 2012 to any one vintage in a meaningful way. Some commentators have highlighted that the success of Merlot on the right bank and in the Graves (Pessac-Léognan) draws a direct comparison to 1998. There is some similarity in that 1998 was characterised by a drab July and a hot August with Merlot harvested in largely fine conditions while Cabernet struggled with late season rains. However the early season conditions are markedly different and the resultant styles differ greatly. There is no real mention of hydric stress in the list of climatic conditions for 1998 and yet that aspect is overriding in the nature of the wines of the northern Médoc this vintage. 1998 was also capable of delivering more sturdy wines than we encountered in 2012, suggesting that while late season conditions may have been similar, selection of fruit and vineyard management were not such an issue and fruit was by and large healthy.
I am sure you will also hear comments relating to the heat of 2003 (though this was only a short period in 2012), the weather pattern of 2000 (this is a serious stretch on the truth), and the harmony of 2001 (but the harvest conditions were cool and dry until late on).
So how do I describe it? Frankly, the character of the Médoc is beyond generalisation as there was such variation. The majority will be comparatively forward drinking styles – attractive and vibrant but seldom rich. In weight they remind me of the 2008s although the tannin profiles differ greatly, as the 2008s were harvested late and possess silkier, fine-grained tannins as a consequence of full phenolic (tannic) ripeness. The best show a suppleness that reminds of 2004, not a harsh edge in sight; crisp, fresh, balanced styles even if they are missing the concentration of a great year. However with such variation it is near impossible to generalise.
The Right Bank recalls 2008 which was an elegant vintage and remains underrated in both St. Emilion and Pomerol. I would even go so far as to say that in the best hands, the quality of 2012 is ahead of 2008 and shares some of the character traits of 2001, another vintage in which Merlot shone on account of its charm and balance rather than its power and concentration. These comments also apply to the Graves, although the wines are perhaps a touch more linear than I recall in the 2001 vintage.
VI - Concluding thoughts
All in all, there are some interesting wines to consider, but this verbiage could be an interesting irrelevance if the Bordelais do not address the need for a reduction in price. If prices seem too far ahead, my advice will be to hold off as there will be little room for price growth over coming years. Indeed, if the châteaux owners release at overambitious prices, this will be another vintage backing up in the supply chain and ripe for discount in a few years’ time. Remember there is a sizeable amount of high-priced 2010 inventory residing with négociants and châteaux. 2011 stalled almost as soon as it was out the blocks, and the 2013 vintage, which will be harvested in six months, is already causing concerns as to when temperatures will rise and rains will ease.
As ever, be wary of the claims that you hear in the market, as merchants will be desperate for a tag line to hang on this vintage. We saw this throughout the last en primeur campaign as well, when much of the commentary owed more to what facts were excluded than those that were included.
Simon Larkin MW