2012 Red Bordeaux

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Bordeaux 2012 Vintage Report

Summary

  • A late and small harvest.
  • Strict fruit selection of the cabernets.
  • Reds better than 2011, comparable with 2004, 2002 or 1999, but more structured than all those years.
  • A very good year in Pomerol and, selectively, St Emilion.
  • Variable in the Médoc but some very successful wines. The best are pure, fruity, finely shaped and will be delicious to drink.
  • A good year in the Graves, if merlot plays an important role.
  • Another very good year for the region’s dry white wines.
  • A difficult vintage for Sauternes.
If there was one thing everyone in Bordeaux was agreed about this year, it was 2012 was a challenging vintage. A wet spring, leading to a complicated flowering with ensuing coulure (poor flowering, no fruit)and millerandage (poor flowering, uneven fruit set) followed by a hot and very dry summer and capped by a damp, and ultimately soggy autumn with mildew and rot always a possibility, put one adjective on everyone’s lips: héterogène.

Given these vicissitudes, the evidence that many properties have made actually very good wine is remarkable, and testament not only to the dedication of the best estates, but also the resilience and unique elements that constitute Bordeaux’s best terroirs. Bordeaux in 2012 has produced some delicious, forward but not simple red wines, many outstanding dry white wines but, sadly, few Sauternes of note.

This is a vintage for which generalisations are inadvisable. Received opinion was that this is a “Merlot Year”, and it is true that all the merlots, left and right bank, were safely gathered before the persistent rain finally set in. Yet many chateaux have also made excellent wines predominantly from Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Cabernet Franc was hugely variable; Alexandre Thienpont at Vieux Chateau Certan felt his added little to the complexity of his merlot, yet a stone’s throw away Cheval Blanc has made an outstanding wine using 46% cabernet franc.

So, where does the key to success in this vintage lie? If we follow the year’s weather pattern, and the options open to the producers at each turn, we can see how taking the right options along at critical moments could lead to success way beyond expectation. The winter of 2011/12 was cold and dry, with an already low water table. February was the coldest since 1956 but March was mild, so budburst was just a little ahead of normal. So far, so good. But April was really wet, with about three times the normal levels of rain. The temperatures had also cooled and flowering was disturbed and protracted. This set the tone for the year, with the eventual bunches and, indeed, berries within the bunches, at different levels of development. The damp weather continued irregularly until June and the management of mildew and oidium was critical. Given that the top estates consider that chemical intervention should be at a minimum (if at all), the timing and volume of treatments was critical.

Summer began in earnest on 15th July with barely a drop of rain for two months. Temperatures were the hottest since 2003, but cool nights (a 13 degree diurnal fluctuation in August and September) provided balance and helped to retain freshness. Extended periods of dry weather(drier than 2010) put stress on the any vines without access to water reserves and those served best were on water retentive soils, such as Pomerol’s clays, or the best reputed terroirs of the Left Bank, especially those with old vines. Cabernets on lesser terroirs suffered and even the best sites were affected by bunches ripening at different speeds. To combat this, green harvests were necessary to try to bring a level of homogeneity to what was already looking like a small crop.

The dry summer left the vineyards in need of water to redress the balance and this duly arrived in mid-September. This refreshed the merlots, which were harvested throughout the region in good condition and sometimes with exceptional sugar levels. The game was then on to wait for the full maturity of the cabernets. The rain was ever present throughout early October but not sufficiently so to affect quality, but an exceptionally humid weekend over 6th and 7th October raised concerns of impending grey rot. Again, the best terroirs proved the most resistant and these chateaux were able to wait for phenolic maturity to match the sugars. The rain finally set in on 23rd October and, in the view of many, didn’t stop until March 2013! Anyone with unharvested vines by then was too late.

According to location, the wineries had to handle very ripe merlots and small berries of cabernet sauvignon with high levels of tannin.  Most important was an absolutely rigorous selection, both at harvest and in the winery to remove anything that even looked that it might be a bit unripe. Gentle extraction of colour, fruit and tannin was the response of the enlightened; those making wine by rote did not benefit.  With so many of the top estates now able to harvest and vinify on a parcel by parcel basis, according to the ripeness and characteristics of each micro-terroir within each vineyard, a great deal of adaptability was possible. There were many options, including longer cool, pre-fermentation macerations, a reduction in the regularity of pumping over, an almost universal abandonment of déléstage (draining the fermentation vat and vigorous spraying of the must over the cap), and a variety of temperature controls during fermentation, amongst many. Most have also looked to reduce the percentage of new oak to be used during the élévage.

The success of the merlots has certainly made this a success on the Right Bank. The best clays of Pomerol gave water when it was needed in the summer and drained it when the rains came, providing almost perfect hydric supply. St Emilion’s limestone was less well adapted for its cabernets and unless from great terroir, a lot of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon didn’t make it to the Grand Vins.  This is well exemplified by Ch. Ausone, whose cabernets at Moulin-St-George (at the bottom on the hill under Ausone) had to harvested in the rain, yet at Ausone itself, they reached full ripeness and in perfect health.

On the Left Bank, it is a tale of two cabernets; those from the great terroirs where some outstanding cabernet dominant wines have been made from fully ripe fruit, and those less privileged (usually further from the river).  No single commune impressed more than another; there are highs and lows in each, but to generalise, St Estephe’s wines are cool and mineral, Pauillac and St Julien are very direct and the best have a wonderful core of bright fruit. The best of Margaux is outstanding; Paul Pontallier at Ch. Margaux says ten years ago a wine like his 2012 would have been unreservedly hailed as a great vintage. It is only the intervening progress at the property that provides the context to amend that view.

South of Bordeaux, the warmer environment led to a greater risk of rot. At Haut-Brion, this accelerated after 25th September, so the cabernets had to be harvested quickly. Whilst ripe, they lacked intensity, so Haut Brion 2012 is the first predominantly merlot wine since 2005, and La Mission Haut Brion since 2004. But, yet again, great terroirs and old vines made the difference, as at Haut Bailly. The outstanding merlots have helped to produce many fruity and beguiling wines.

No-one was really able to agree on the best comparison from a previous vintage.  Some felt that the structure and analysis of their wines warranted comparison with 2010.  It should be said that such views were rare but it does raise the valid point that these wines, when brought to a successful conclusion, have a fine layer of precision and depth. Personally I found similarities with 2008, a year which took on much more weight during its time in barrel after a lean showing at the En Primeur tastings, and now a most enjoyable vintage. Many proprietors were pleased to show their 2004s as a point of similarity. They were, to a bottle, all drinking deliciously. The 2002s were also cited, because of the translucent expression of terroir in that year, and so important again in 2012.  Leoville-Las Cases offered 1999, by virtue of 2012’s intrinsic “drinkability”. 

And that is the key to 2012. As Charles Chevalier said as we left him, having just tasted his silky and effortlessly seductive Lafite, itself a reversion to classicism, offering only 12.5% alcohol (just like Latour this year): “I am very happy with this vintage. It will be a wine to enjoy drinking, and I enjoy drinking wine”.

Mark Pardoe MW, BBR Wine Director

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