So here we are again. Another 'challenging vintage' in Bordeaux - the third in as many years - and we are here to find out what the results look, smell and taste like. The story of the vintage is quite well known: after one of the wettest winters on record, the bud break came late and though the vines enjoyed good growth at this early stage, temperatures remained well below average. Flowering was then subsequently late, was hit by rain (which affected the fruit set) and then, just when it seemed all would be well thanks to the arrival of some great summer weather, the region was hit by shocking storms. The saving grace was July and August which saw warm weather and lower than average rainfall - but the threat of botrytis and fears over the lack of potential for an Indian summer meant the harvest would have to be early, fast and the eventual yields would be very low indeed (Ducru employed 190 pickers - Margaux 300, all specially trained to pick and sort in the vineyard). This all combined to create a lack of homogeneity on every level. However, those who worked hard early on to minimise the effects of botrytis saw the quality improvements further down the line.
Whilst Bordeaux has always had vintages like this - indeed, any of those who believed that 09/10 were 'the way it's meant to be' need a serious reality check - there have been significant changes in both vineyard and winery practices over the last 5-10 years. Therefore even the most comparable vintages of recent memory will not produce comparable wines. The 2013s clearly need to be tasted and explored and given a life of their own.
As per usual, we started on the left bank beginning in St Julien before making our way through the First Growths. The story so far is not an easy one to tell as there really is very limited capacity for drawing comparisons between the estates. The best have very pretty aromatics, elegance, freshness and attractive, linear palates which carry decent fruit through the middle and hold up nicely on the finish with a citrusy acidity. The worst have rough, unwieldy tannins, hollow middles and a surplus of awkward acidity. Aside from good fortune, being blessed by Mother Nature, the key to promoting the welcome characteristics was a lightness of touch and a willingness to allow the wines to express themselves naturally within the scope of the vintage; those who tried too hard to force their wines into a particular style not appropriate to the character of the vintage have often fallen into the latter camp. Our task, of course, is to steer you away from the wrong wines but more than ever this year we will focus on which wines are actually worth buying at this stage.
Even the wineries expressed their desire to see 'another normal vintage like 04' rather than the extremes of recent times. This is not only because of ease but because of the yields... The people we have talked to today are genuinely hacked off at the paltry size of their harvest (Gruaud Larose was 9hl/ha... Yes, 9). But back to the quality, a tasting of the 2004 Latour (their current ex-EP chateau release) towards the end of today certainly proves what a fine, classically styled vintage this was... The best of 2013 will come close to this but selections - reflecting the situation in the vineyard and winery - will be critical. Make no mistake - these are wines which will make very enjoyable drinking in the coming years. They won't take long to show their colours; many will be ready to drink in 5 years or so. The best will go a reasonable distance but approachability in 10 years+ seems more than realistic.
There are always upsides to a trip like this. Aside from it being a true privilege to get to know a vintage at its very nascence, the scenery has its moments and the architecture is of course magnificent. So after a long day we are making our way to Chateau Margaux for a well-earned dinner. More to come tomorrow...