There has been a lot of doom and gloom from the press recently about the 2013 harvest in Bordeaux but here is a more measured view from the vineyards by Christian Seely of Châteaux Petit Village and Pichon Baron.
“I thought it might be time to give an account of the 2013 harvest as we experienced it in our various properties. There has been a fair amount of ill-informed comment on the millesime in the press (if you weren’t there in the vineyard during the harvest and if you haven’t tasted the wine, then how could the comment be anything else?) and so it could be useful to have a view from the properties.
The most sensitive issue is that of the red wine harvests in Bordeaux. It was certainly a difficult year from a viticultural point of view. It would be futile to try to pretend that 2013 is a great or outstandingly good vintage: any such attempt would just lack credibility. If I tried it you wouldn’t believe a word I said, either this time or next. On the other hand, to dismiss the year and its wines as “a bad year” would be equally, and completely, wrong. So I shall try to explain how we experienced the conditions that nature gave us, what we did to protect the quality of our grapes and resulting wines, and to give some idea of how I evaluate the quality of the red wines that we produced.
It was in fact a great harvest in Sauternes and also, as it happens, in Tokaj in Hungary. I shall talk about those two next week, and concentrate on the reds at Pichon Baron and Petit-Village here.
So first of all, the conditions were undoubtedly difficult. This happens in Bordeaux. We make wine in a fairly marginal climate, and every year, even a great one, presents a number of challenges to the teams of people who devote their lives to looking after the vineyards here. In 2013 nature threw the book at us. Professionally speaking the challenge of surmounting the kind of difficulties we had in 2013 is extremely interesting. In a year like this one you have to work a lot harder than in a great year, and the resulting wine is often dearer to our hearts than the product of easier conditions: we had to fight every step of the way to make it, and it is a profound satisfaction to see and to taste the end result.
Of course I am aware that to write a dismissive article about the overall quality of a vintage is an easy way of producing a sensational piece of journalism – especially easy if you haven’t actually tasted any of the wines. But I believe that to think about vintages in these black and white terms is to misunderstand the nature of wine in general and in particular the true nature of the wines of Bordeaux, especially at Grand Cru level, where so much effort and so many resources are deployed to ensure a quality result whatever the conditions nature gave us.
If you have the chance to do a vertical tasting of a well managed Grand Cru property over a period of ten years or so, it will become very obvious that every year in Bordeaux is different. This is part of the fascination of these wines. And it is not just a question of some years being “better” than others. A comparison of great years such as 05, 09 and 10 shows that even when conditions were very favourable, the infinite variability of weather conditions within a given year in Bordeaux produces very different results. The 2005, magnificent year at Pichon Baron, is still quite backward and reserved, with strong fine tannins and just needs to be left alone for some years yet before it begins to deliver its full potential for pleasure. The 2009 on the other hand, has been seductive and opulent right from the beginning, and shows no sign of “shutting down” as sometimes happens, and is in fact more approachable than the 05 today, even though it is a vintage of at least the same level of quality with many decades of ageability before it.
Every year is different, and evolves differently over time. That is an important part of the pleasure of collecting and drinking these wines. If one takes lighter years, the 2004, which was, by the way, as a vintage largely dismissed by many as not being worth buying en primeurs, is perfectly delicious today, velvety fresh full and balanced, one of the best to drink right now. 2007, a cooler and more difficult year, shows more evolution than the 04, and is drinking very well already, while 2008, also a relatively cool year, and another wine that was largely dismissed during the primeurs campaign, is for me one of the outstanding wines of the decade and beginning to be recognised as such.
So I think it is worth remembering that every year has its own personality. To limit oneself to buying and drinking only blockbuster years such as 2005, however good they are, would be to miss out on a fuller understanding of what the property you are following is about, and indeed what wine itself is all about, and would also be to miss out on an enormous amount of pleasure. Above all I think it is prudent to take any kind of hysteria with a pinch of salt, whether it is hyperbole about the wine being the greatest ever and that ever will be, or Schadenfreude at the idea that it is the worst. With a well managed great vineyard, the situation is rarely so black and white. Subtlety and nuance are at the heart of the wines we make, and I think should also be employed in the way that they are judged and appreciated.
So what actually did happen in the vineyards in Bordeaux in 2013? I can give an account only of how we experienced things at Pichon Baron in Pauillac and Petit-Village in Pomerol. There is no doubt that the list of problems is a long one. But growing grapes and making wine is not easy, nor is it supposed to be. I think it would be fair to judge us on the results of our work, and not on the basis of the problems we faced and surmounted.
It rained during the flowering. It was also unseasonably cold in May and June This meant that we had a lot of coulure and millerandage. This reduces the potential yield, and also makes it very important to be rigorous with the selection later in the year in order to make sure that any unripe grapes that might be on the vines as a result of millerandage are eliminated before they get to the vats.
It continued to be cold and to rain at the end of June beginning of July. This retarded the development of the fruit.
As a result of the humidity there was a strong Mildew pressure. This meant that we had to treat the vines often to protect against Mildew.
Although July and August were sunny and warm, the vines did not catch up on the time lost in the early part of summer. So everything was late. But the yields being naturally low, there was little need for green harvesting, and the grapes were able to ripen much better than they would have been able to, had yields been naturally higher.
At the beginning of September it rained. This we did not need. We decided to remove leaves on the second side (having already removed on one side before) in order to reduce humidity and enable maximum maturity.
Finally we had some warmer weather in the latter part of September, though it was still humid and uncomfortably tropical. This, acting on low yields, enabled the maturity to advance rapidly.
However, pressure of Botrytis, particularly in the Merlots, meant that we had to harvest the grapes earlier than we perhaps would have liked.
All these things are true. So we cannot pretend that it was an easy year, nor that it was a year propitious for a vintage of the century.
And yet. My first tastings of the wines, both at Pichon Baron and at Petit-Village have been moments of intense relief. Though it is true that there was rot in the vineyards, particularly on the Merlots in the Medoc at the time of harvest, a rigorous system of triage has eliminated any trace of this. The result is a very low yield, but wines of a great purity of fruit and freshness. I also was worried about the possibility of green or unripe tannins, but this is not evident at all on tasting, with the exceptions of one or two lots which will not find their way into the Grand Vin. Acidities are higher than usual, and I think this will be a characteristic of this vintage, at least at Pichon Baron and Petit-Village, but I am confident that the 2013s from both properties are good wines, a joyous triumph over adversity, and the best expressions possible of their vineyards in the circumstances of the millesime. That is after all what we aim at every year. But don’t just take my word for it. Come and taste them. I think you will be agreeably surprised.
As for the sensational commentators who have expressed doubt as to whether the wine should be presented en primeurs, or whether it is worth coming if it is, I can answer that of course the wine will be presented en primeurs, and of course it is worth coming. Do you like wine? Then come and see what we managed to make in a year like 2013. We shall be proud and happy to show it to you.”
Christian in action at the Goedhuis Bordeaux Tasting in 2012