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It Takes A Vintage - Can You Judge A Bordeaux Ahead Of Its Time?

Testing, testing - Bordeaux Primeurs 2013
Testing, testing - Bordeaux Primeurs 2013
Laure Gasparotto

BORDEAUX - There are always a handful of professional wine-tasters who will question the legitimacy of the Bordeaux "primeurs" week. Still, the event not only endures, but actually gets bigger and better-attended every year.

The skeptics note that the entire process is built around rating a wine that is only just beginning to age in less than a minute. What a heresy! From this precocious and hasty judgment emerges a ranking that helps determine prices.

For instance, renown American wine critic Robert Parker gave the Château Pape Clément 2010 a 93-95+ mark: a vertiginous disappointment for Bernard Magrez, the vineyard’s owner, who thought he had done everything to produce an exceptional wine. However, a month ago, Robert Parker again rated the vintage 2010, bottled at the beginning of the year. This time, the Château Pape Clément obtained the supreme mark of 100 out of 100!

The investors who had the right inspiration to buy Château Pape Clément 2010 during the primeurs can now rejoice. Effectively, the main use of these primeurs is for making good deals: buying a wine cheaper now that one believes is bound to grow more expensive with time. Yet, the example above shows the limit of the judgment, however sharp it is, of a wine during these primeurs.

What about the 2012 cru? Was it worth running straight to these primeurs? The “first releases” from châteaux, in other words, the placing on the Bordeaux marketplace of grands crus and challengers like some reputed crus bourgeois, started on April 15 last. The Château Gazin Pomerol opened the ball with the announcement of a 7% discount, with a public price of 44.90 euros before tax. The vintage does not look speculative, even though some great châteaux, at the top of the pyramid, have no intention to lower their prices.

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Photo by Berndt Fernow

For instance, Château Angélus and Château Pavie, freshly admitted to the top Saint Emilion ranking, with the likes of Château Cheval-Blanc or Château Ausone, have made clear their prices would rise in consequence. The 2012 vintage prices therefore nearly hold more to the particular circumstances affecting châteaux than their qualities.

The châteaux d'Yquem, Rieussec and Suduirat, in terms of sauternes, announced that they would not sell a 2012 vintage, because of a lack of excellence.

"Honesty and coherence..."

A decision like this can have heavy economic consequences, but can also be understood as a "marketing" investment in the long run. This also means that, in spite of new technologies, human competence, wine-producing or oenological command, climate remains the capital element in terms of vintage. During the primeurs week last month, professionals kept repeating that 2012 would never have been so good 20 years ago, yet you can not push a vintage to produce something exceptional when natural conditions do not allow it to.

Let's remember 2012 then: a cold and dry winter, an enduring fresh and wet spring, a late summer, then the hottest month of August since 2003. In short, a hard year for the vine, leading to decreased yields (between 5 and 5.2 million hectoliters in 2012 in the Bordelais, compared to 5.5 million in 2011) and eventually a grape harvest at the traditional time, by the end of September.

Many harvested through the rain: "All of our 100 acres domain was harvested mechanically in eight days, under rough, rainy weather," recounts Stéphane Fort, head of production of Margaux at the Château Paveil de Luze. "And yet, the wine shows no sign of dilution or bitterness, which is good for médoc in 2012."

His wine, which currently includes hints of raspberry, remains typical of its appellation. This year, Margaux is the favorite of critics, just like Pauillac and some Haut-Médocs of the left bank (of the river Garonne). The right bank (of the river Dordogne) is doing rather good, as merlot benefited from perfect maturation. Fruitiness, freshness, and charm characterize the Saint-Émillions and Pomerols.

But 2012 has to be judged on a "case-by-case" basis. This leads Philippe Delfaut from Château Kirwan to describe it is a "stimulating vintage." In his domain, harvesting has been spread according to the maturity of each plot. No contest wine, but wines made not for aging, with lower prices. In short, although investors will not cherish it --especially as the Chinese market is not as present as it was for 2009 and 2010 vintages -- it will only bring smiles to amateurs who prefer drinking fleshy and fruity wines rather than more structured ones.

"Honest wines, coherent wines, living up to the potential of their terroir in the vintage," summarizes the oenologist Pascal Hénot.

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