Arriving in Bordeaux at the end of March to taste the primeur wines I didn’t know quite what to expect. Enthusiasm for the wines had been increasing since the start of the year, but I wasn’t sure whether this was Bordelais hype or a real reflection of the calibre of the vintage. Five days tasting and almost 500 wines later, it is clear that the successful wines of this vintage have serious potential. 2014 looks set to be Bordeaux’s strongest vintage since 2000, notwithstanding the great flight of three: 2005, 2009 and 2010. The wines still, of course, require further time to develop in cask, but there is a real justification for the optimism about this fine vintage.
To say it is a Left Bank (Médoc) year would be an oversimplification and it would be a huge mistake to ignore some of the great estates of Pessac-Léognan, St Emilion and Pomerol. However it is true that the later ripening Cabernet varieties benefitted the most from the wonderful Indian summer of September and October. This transformed 2014 from being an indifferent year to one of genuine quality. It is also fair to say that 2014 is a year when terroir and vineyard location really come into play. Whilst not everybody made the right decisions during the more stressful parts of the growing season, quality did out and the top vineyards made very high quality wines.
How did this all come about? As always, great wines are heavily dependent on weather. Key decisions made in the vineyard and winery can define and maximise the opportunities that nature provides. However it is the climate and the seasons that really make or break any given year. The key factors for the 2014 vintage can be précied as follows.
Following a relatively mild winter, bud break was ahead of schedule in March as was flowering during the latter part of May. A cool snap at this time meant that flowering was a little uneven, particularly for the more advanced Merlot. From mid-June to mid-July warm weather conditions prevailed. Unfortunately this was followed by a cool, slightly damp July and noticeably cool conditions throughout August. As a holidaymaker in Cornwall I remember our glee that for once we were the ones basking in summer sunshine and it was our friends in the South of France who needed their jumpers! Vineyard management was crucial during this period: August is such a defining month for the quality of a vintage. It was during this period that many growers decided to cut back the canopy to expose the fruit in order to maximise sunlight and allow good air circulation to help protect against the risk of disease.
The key to the success of this vintage came in the last week of August with superb sunny and dry conditions which continued throughout September and early October. The vintage was not only saved but made as a result; perfect late ripening weather, particularly for the Cabernets, and idyllically dry harvest conditions. Whilst daylight hours are shorter and evening temperatures
cooler in September than in August, nobody was complaining about a warm September after a cooler than average August.
It is these conditions which made such an extraordinary imprint on these delicious wines in 2014 and helped craft wines more suited to the traditional Bordeaux palate than the hotter more ostentatious 2009s. Dare I say it, the wines can be slightly more interesting to boot…
Records show that it was the warmest September since 1961, but I think Paul Pontallier at Ch Margaux’s comparison to 1996 is particularly interesting. 1996 was a similarly difficult summer with the weather conditions turning for the better on 23rd August, followed by a superb September and October. In 2014 the change happened four days later on the 27th August but with an even better September resulting in lower yields and a more concentrated finished product. The very best wines have a touch of 1996 to them with their depth of Cabernet fruit combined with uplifting herbal freshness. This gives the wines huge personality, complexity and class.
In terms of style, the reds do have a cooler fruit feel and there is a natural freshness of acidity which one would expect, given the cool September nights, but there is no sense of greenness in the successful wines. This is where the great terroirs come into play. I certainly noticed that the celebrated estates of the Médoc, which run alongside the river and benefit from a degree or two more warmth and a more regular supply of underground moisture, appeared to have had an advantage.
On the right bank, the best vineyards also excelled and have made sensational wines, as is the case in Pessac-Léognan. All the wines have a good tannic count, but not to an excess which can be the case in more powerful years. Moderate alcohol levels, generally around 13%, provide a wonderful balance and drinkability to this vintage. The white wines reflect the cooler climatic conditions and highlight the brightness of the Sauvignon Blanc. Whilst less successful examples lack some volume and breadth, the great estates of Chevalier and Haut Brion have produced exemplary wines.
In Sauternes, the Chateaux owners have been hit by yet another tiny crop, in some instances as low as 7hl/ha. The wines are flamboyant, balancing sweet botrytised fruit with a lovely crisp acidity. While they may not have the complexity of a great year, they will give huge pleasure to lovers of late picked sweet wine.
As a conclusion, I have loved tasting the 2014s and look forward to revisiting them as they develop in cask. It is a vintage full of class and quality which fully justifies inclusion in any cellar for future drinking. We now await the final part of the jigsaw, which is price. For the last three vintages the Châteaux owners have ignored our cries for caution and hence the primeur campaigns have verged on the disastrous. This year we really do feel there is a quality to sink our teeth into, but it is imperative that the wines are priced correctly to allow the end consumer to engage in one of the great joys in life: buying young wine, watching it develop both in terms of quality and price over time… and then enjoying it…
David Roberts MW