Vintages Through the Years: Bordeaux

 

2010
THE GROWING SEASON

Whilst 2010 was one of the driest years on record, it actually started at the end of May and the beginning of June with rain, which brought some coulure (the failure of grapes to develop after flowering) to the vineyards and ultimately resulted in reduced yields.

Between July and the end of August the weather was consistently warm without any excess heat but with a noticeable lack of water. It was, in fact, the driest year of the decade with near drought conditions and resulted in the most prolonged growing season on record. Temperatures remained relatively cool both during the day and the night and the grapes developed very slowly.

This also helped to maintain the aromas, especially with the Cabernet Sauvignon. When a much needed 35mm of rain fell at the beginning of September it was a relief to the thirsty vines.  By harvest time, acidities remained high giving a refreshing balance and also a good ageing potential to the wines along with the abnormally high tannin content. Jean Guillaume Prats of Château Cos d’Estournel remarked that for him it was a return to “Classic Bordeaux”, powerful yet restrained and aristocratic. He likened it to the great 2005 but with more acidity.

If the 2009 vintage had not been so great I have no doubt  that the 2010 vintage in the Medoc would be hailed as the greatest vintage for many a year. It is characterised by a great fruit intensity, solid structure and big (yet beautifully ripe) tannins.  In many ways it really is a Classic Bordeaux vintage for the true Claret drinker to immerse oneself in. Certainly the wines possess an inimitable style.

On a cautious note there is some marked variation between Châteaux, however that can be said of most vintages, and there is a danger that with the fruit being so ripe in some Merlot dominated wines, it may fall away in time. In this respect some of the 2010’s are not as well knit as those of the previous year. Maybe I am being over critical and over cautious, but that is my way. In a number of instances the Merlots are overripe and very high in alcohol. Certainly those wines that possess a higher proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon have produced some truly outstanding wines. In short this is a great Cabernet Sauvignon year.

Pomerol and St.Emilion have generally performed very well. The wines I tasted were classic and refreshingly balanced, with a delicious purity of fruit. There were however some notable exceptions in St. Emilion where a number of Grand Crus seemed overwhelmed with dryness and tannins and some worryingly high alcohol levels.

All-in all another memorable vintage. We had undoubtedly just witnessed the finest back to back vintages (2009-2010) since 1989-1990.

 

2011
After back to back vintages (2009 and 2010) that can arguably be lauded as being two of the finest on record, there was always the feeling that the 2011 vintage campaign would pass with barely a  whimper. 

The 2011 growing season was not an easy one and there was some trepidation as to what quality level could be achieved in this vintage.  Winemaking technology and massive investment in the Châteaux cellars had ensured that some excellent wines were produced which will provide fine midterm drinking. It should not be underrated.  The wines are classic, structured with a beautiful fruit elegance and offer a welcome alternative to the massive blockbusters. In terms of comparisons the wines are similar to 2001 and 2006 and a notch above 2008, so no shame there!  Robert Parker has already expressed his surprise at the quality of wines from the 2011 vintage and those Claret drinkers who like a balanced cellar will do well to pick a few wines that will surely repay handsomely in terms of enjoyment.

THE GROWING SEASON
The growing season started at a fast pace with a very dry and warm spring.  The flowering of the vines took place in good weather and all was set fair - until the summer.  By July the weather had cooled down and rain fell.  Whilst August was a little better, it was still somewhat mixed with days of high heat coupled with stormy days.  The ripening of the grapes was somewhat intermittent until September when the weather settled and warm, dry weather enabled the grapes to ripen.  The lack of continuous heat during the months of July and August has inevitably resulted in the wines not having the depth and intensity of the great vintages.  A lot of work was necessary in the vineyards and on the sorting tables to ensure that only the perfect grapes entered the wineries.  Nowadays the Châteaux produce a second and sometimes a third wine ensuring only the best fruit goes into the Grand Vin.  Along with modern technology we are in the fortunate position that even in the more difficult vintages, the resulting wines are way above the quality level produced in similar vintages of the latter part of the 20th century.

 

2014
THE GROWING SEASON

In the years to come 2014 will no doubt be classed as a good vintage in Bordeaux, and in some instances a very good one. As the wines mature and we start to enjoy them, it is unlikely that much thought will be given to what made this vintage so good. I doubt that many will appreciate how only a startling change in the weather pattern in the forty days before harvest prevented it from joining its predecessor in being one of the worst vintages in living memory.

The end result is, nevertheless, the best since 2010. After an early flowering in late March was followed by a warm and sunny April, the growing season had started well. However when the cool and wet weather arrived in May, no one could imagine what the following months would bring. The Merlot in particular suffered from both coulure and millerendage. July and August were cold and wet with lower than average temperatures and sunlight. In late July hailstorms arrived that reduced the potential yields dramatically. A programme of leaf thinning was carried out in order to expose the grapes to any available sunshine, but after an abnormally cool summer it was evidently clear by the end of August that only a radical change in fortunes could save the Bordelais from a second successive catastrophic vintage.

François Nony, owner of Château Caronne Ste Gemme, recalls saying in hope at the end of

August, “We now need forty days of sunshine to save us”. What happened next was nothing short of remarkable. Low pressure gave way to a five week period of high pressure and a classic ‘Indian summer’ arrived. Bordeaux basked in the hottest September for over fifty years.

A final leaf thinning was carried out, the grapes reduced in size and the fruit concentration increased dramatically. When all seemed lost, the weather Goods had intervened to save the vintage in quite spectacular fashion. The harvest was carried out over a long period of several weeks. The hot and sunny days were complimented by cool and windy evenings, ensuring that the grapes were clean and maintained a good freshness. The Château owners held their nerve, picking parcel by parcel only when optimum ripeness had been attained. It was nothing short of miraculous. Never in their wildest dreams did the Bordelais believe that such a good result was possible after such a dismal summer. As the grapes entered the wineries the winemakers set to work, gifted an unexpectedly high quality of fruit after a roller-coaster growing season.

THE WINES
We approached the tastings with a certain amount of sceptism, due in part to the snippets of often misleading information about the general state of the vintage that eminated from the British wine press.

The tastings, held in early April, showed what a good vintage this has been across many regions of Bordeaux. However, our arrival on late Tuesday 30th March to the same damp, dismal conditions that the Bordelaise had struggled with in the early part of the 2014 season, highlighted why this region can sometimes be described as marginal for making consistently great vintages.

In 2014, the Médoc on the Left Bank suffered less rain than the Right Bank, elevated as it is and thus catching the rain bearing clouds as they swept in from the West; the key to greatness was the position of the vineyards, drainage, grape variety and, as is often the case, sheer luck.

The best overall area was St Julien and to a lesser extent Margaux, though great wines were tasted in Pauillac and St Estèphe. François Nony of Château Caronne Ste Gemme, situated on the edge of St Julien appellation, commented that the rains in July seemed to pass around St Julien, rather than fall on it.
 

2015
THE GROWING SEASON

After a winter that was very mild but actually very wet, the soils were holding a lot of residual water as Spring approached in Bordeaux.

The season got off to a good start with a very fine and dry Spring. April was warmer than usual whilst May saw a mini heat wave which resulted in the flowering of the vine taking place under perfect conditions. All was set for a good vintage with healthy yields. How often have we said that! Fortunately this vintage was to be one of those that delivered.

The season was progressing very well with the very hot temperatures in June, reaching 41°C as we moved into July, and thickening the grape skins. The months of May, June and July had proved to be some of the hottest on record, the vines were now short of water and beginning to stress.

In August the temperatures remained warm but the rains finally arrived and a higher level of rain fell than usual. This rainfall was helpful, giving freshness to the grapes whilst also helping to reduce the potential alcohol levels. Whilst the rains did cause some concern with regards to rot, fortunately this did not happen. The veraison – the onset of ripening when the berries begin to change colour – passed off well whilst the cool nights maintained the acidity levels.

In Bordeaux the latter stages of the growing season are key. On the 11th/12th September the late season rain that fell in the Médoc did threaten the vintage, however this was mostly in the northern Médoc, in particular St Estèphe where the rains were more pronounced. Further south in St Julien and Margaux it was much drier. Whereas 150ml fell in St Estèphe, the communes of St Julien,

Margaux and Pessac largely escaped as the rains petered out. In St Emilion and Pomerol the conditions were near perfect resulting in small berries with deep colour, great concentration and a vivid acidity. When the grapes were harvested the châteaux owners were smiling. They had just produced the finest fruit since the 2010 vintage.

THE WINES
Now that Robert Parker has withdrawn from the Bordeaux arena, handing over the reins to Neal Martin, there is a sense of a return to the more classic style of Bordeaux being produced, particularly in the Médoc. Or is that just me? It would be good if it were to be the case.

In 2015, St.Emilion had performed splendidly, with some excellent wines produced although it has to be said that some wines were very high in alcohol and a little overblown. Pomerol equally offers some superb wines and in many ways has got the better of its neighbour this vintage, with a greater degree of balance to the wines.

Over on the left bank, the Médoc had produced some wines that will rival those ‘great’ vintages that I have already mentioned although there is not the same homogeneity. The late rains in early September were problematic in the north of the Médoc with St Estèphe particularly affected. 150ml of rain fell in 48 hours, although the deluge was fairly localised and petered out as the storm moved south.

The communes of St Julien and Pauillac escaped relatively unscathed whilst Margaux fared best of all, with the little water that did fall giving some much needed freshness to the grapes. These three communes have produced some outstanding wines with Margaux in particular performing exceptionally well.

One should not overlook Pessac Léognan which has also enjoyed a very successful vintage. There is often a more even balance between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the wines of this commune and some super wines have been produced.

Overall this is an exceptionally good vintage, certainly the finest since 2010 and, in general, one that looks a lot more sensible in terms of En Primeur pricing.

 

2016
THE GROWING SEASON

2016 proved to be an exceptionally difficult year for winemaking in France, particularly in the northern areas with the Loire Valley, Chablis and Burgundy all suffering from extreme weather conditions. Somehow the area of Bordeaux was blessed by the Gods. Words such as ‘miraculous’ and ’crazy’ were often used by the Châteaux owners when discussing the 2016 vintage, not because of how good it was, but to emphasise how lucky they were. Many weather bullets had been dodged. Yann Laudeho, winemaker at Château Smith Haut Lafitte, described it a “catastrophe that never happened”.

The very wet winter proved to play a fundamental role in the success of this vintage. Between January and May it was particularly wet, with rainfall two to three times higher than the norm. Bud break took place in late March, but by late April and early May there were serious concerns as to how the poor weather would affect the flowering of the vine. Then a ten day period of beautiful weather allowed a very swift and homogenous flowering. Phew!

The central theme to the growing season was dryness. Remember, great vintages are made in dry years in Bordeaux, not hot ones. Light is far more important than heat. From the 20th June until September 13th there was no rain.

From late June the weather was perfect with long, warm and sunny days yet not too hot. The lack of rain during the summer period caused some concern, particularly for the younger vines that were suffering from hydric stress. Gentle stress is good for the vine, as it stops growing and the photosynthesis is focused on the ripening of the grapes. Maturation is then optimised. However, too much stress causes the vine to close down. The very wet winter had replenished the moisture in the soils, with those vineyards with a high element of clay benefiting more.

By early September it was getting serious but on the 13th September a brief storm arrived with perfect timing, refreshing the grapes. This limited rain was much needed, before a further period of fine weather allowed the grapes to continue ripening. The dry and sunny days were complemented by plummeting temperature in the evenings, sometimes as low as 3°C, which maintained the acidities at a high level.

Harvest took place in mid to late October. Some Merlot plots were showing early signs of rot and so were picked before they were phenolically ripe. Selection of the Merlot grape was very important in this respect. The Cabernet Sauvignon in particular performed spectacularly – very small berries, high in concentration with low PH readings. For this reason the wines of the Médoc are heavily dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon this vintage.

After a very testing growing season the winemakers set to work with the knowledge that the weather Gods had been on their side. All was set for something very special.

THE WINES
There is a real sense that Bordeaux is moving on from the Robert Parker inspired era of big, rich and alcoholic wines and reverting back to the more classic, traditional style of Claret. This is a subtle shift but a notable one nevertheless.

The weather conditions in 2016 had perhaps accentuated this return to ‘Classic Bordeaux’. Our tastings revealed a greater uniformity in quality as compared to its predecessor, the dry and warm summer being enjoyed by all communes in the Médoc. The real winner in 2016 was the Cabernet Sauvignon which benefitted from the long periods of warm sunshine and light with harvest not taking place until mid October. There was a high proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blends of the top Châteaux and this is always a good sign of a strong vintage.

The Médoc had produced wines that are powerful and intense with great definition. The tannin structures are quite superb and the wines were beautifully textured. This is enhanced by a fragrance and freshness that provides a streak of elegance and polish. An important characteristic of 2016 is the lower levels of alcohol which enables the red fruit characteristics to stand out, adding character to the more dominant black fruits.

Whereas in 2015 it was Margaux that stole the show, there is a strong case for Pauillac being the commune to follow in 2016. This commune has produced some outstanding wines. Those who love the aristocratic, decadent, complex and smouldering wines of this commune are in for a real treat. However, there are many great wines produced in the other major communes, St Julien in particular.

Pessac-Léognan is often overlooked, but this appellation often produces superb wines and this vintage has delivered some sensational wines – ignore it at your peril!

Over on the right bank there were concerns that the wines may be a little overblown, the dry weather causing the Merlot to suffer and rot setting in. The clay soils proved their worth as our tastings showed some outstanding wines from St Emilion, whilst Pomerol has performed particularly well. There are many wines with real substance and complexity. Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Château Certan simply described it as “Haut Cuisine!”

“2016 is unequivocally a great vintage in Bordeaux.....we are looking at a vintage that can send tingles down the spine and back up again.” Neal Martin, The Wine Advocate

 

2017
THE GROWING SEASON

The winter of 2016/2017 was rather mild with the natural consequence being an early start to the growing season, with bud-burst taking place towards the end of March.

The advanced state of the vines, due to warm weather earlier in the year, meant that the vines were in an advanced state when a catastrophic frost hit hard on the 27th April. We received an e-mail from François Nony of Château Caronne St Gemme on Friday 28th April advising that “Last night we have had severe frosts (the worst since 1991) with 85% of the vineyard damaged.” He normally produces 23,000 cases. In 2017 he only produced 3,000! There isn’t much to go around but what there is, is rather good!

As a side note, the big difference between the frost of 1991 and the frost of 2017 was that the former had not experienced an early start to the growing season. As the vines weren’t in advance, the damage was not so severe.

Château Angludet was also very badly hit, the damage exacerbated it is believed, by the felling of trees by a neighbour that created a cool corridor of air into the vineyards. The vintage was wiped out in just a few hours. No wine was produced at Angludet in 2017. Interestingly, their near neighbour Château Kirwan, only lost a fraction of their crop. How cruel and random Mother Nature can be.

Those properties that are situated close to the Gironde estuary were spared the frost, the warmer air circulating and providing a welcome shield. Further inland the frost bit hard with the likes of Moulis and areas of Margaux hit particularly hard.

Over on the right bank, the great terroirs of Pomerol and St Emilion were largely spared, which is why, I guess, they are great terroirs. Damage by the frosts was very localised. One vineyard owner would look at his damaged vines and then glance across to his immediate neighbour who had not suffered at all.

After the frosts the weather was very dry, although the temperatures were not too high. The lack of rain was becoming a real problem with some vines beginning to stress. The much needed rain arrived in early September; however by now it was too late for the Merlot, many of which were fully ripe. They were picked ten days after the rains and many were dilute which explains the lower proportion of Merlot in many of the top Châteaux this year.

For the Cabernet Sauvignon, it was a godsend. The ripening process was still in full swing and the thirsty vines were rejuvenated. When picked later in the month, the grapes were in perfect condition.

At harvest time, there were winners and losers. Some Châteaux lost a large part, if not all, of their crop. It had been a disastrous vintage. Others were more fortunate, enjoying a near normal harvest. The grapes were in excellent condition, ripe with good acidity levels. The wines produced were

balanced and polished, with relatively low alcohol levels compared to previous years.

THE WINES
Following an exceptionally dry summer, the early September rains were very welcome, especially for the Cabernet Sauvignon. If they had not arrived it is likely that 2017 could have resembled 1975, which yielded harsh and dry tannins and wines that never seemed to come around.

There was still time for the Cabernet Sauvignon variety to ripen. However the Merlots were pretty close to picking time. With no option but to pick, the Merlots entered the wineries in a rather dilute state.

Following our tastings in early April, it was clear to see that in the Médoc, 2017 was very much a Cabernet Sauvignon vintage. The wines were well structured, expressive, polished and, dare I say, classic.

A particular characteristic of this vintage is the lower level of alcohol in the wines. 13 degrees was quite common. The wines were laden with beautifully fresh and ripe black fruits and supported by well integrated tannins.

For Merlot dominated wines, there was a greater variability. Some were excellent, some not so good with dry tannins and lacking in underbelly. However whilst there were some dry tannins, there was no trace of green, unripe flavours.

The right bank Merlots (St Emilion and Pomerol) seemed to fair a little better, particularly Pomerol which showed has plenty of ripe fruit and chocolate richness. The wines are quite enchanting. Every vintage is difficult. It is often forgotten that wine is, after all, an agricultural product, at the hands of Mother Nature and the rapidly changing climate that we now face.

Each vintage provides wines with its own individual character.

So where does 2017 sit? Well it is certainly the “King of the 7’s”. Although 1977, 1987, 1997 and 2007 are hardly the greatest competition! It is a vintage that will be enjoyed in the years to come for its individuality. It will not have the superstar status of its immediate predecessors, 2015 and 2016. It may not have the tight, defined structure of 2014, but 2017 will stand its corner when compared to the likes of 2012 and 2001. In recent months we have enjoyed several wines from the 2001 vintage, which have been stonkingly good!

Vintages like 2017 really must not be ignored.

“In banal terms, I like this vintage. I am not saying it is the best, but they were mostly a pleasure to taste and fascinating to learn about” - Neal Martin, The Wine Advocate.

 

2018
THE GROWING SEASON

The season started with rain, then cold, then more rain… then it rained, and then it rained some more. The Borderlais’ heads were down. The vineyards were so wet it rejected the liquid advances and started to flood. 125mm of rain fell in March alone - the 30 year average is 64mm. In April 87mm of rain – again, the 30 year average is 75mm. Not so bad, but compared to the 21mm of rain in 2017 Bordeaux was awash.

The flowering in May/June was settled for the small period it needed to be, then hail arrived in late May causing severe losses in Bourg, Blaye and Macau. As temperatures rose in the vineyards in June, rot was a problem, as was mildew. The mildew was, to almost all a­ffected, like a tsunami of hurt that no one could prepare for. If you farmed organically you were like a turkey seeing the first Xmas card. ‘Merde’ was a word used frequently.

This was perhaps a vintage to write o­ff, to shun, to gather in and sell off­ to négociants? Then, in between the 10th and 12th July, the sun came out!

As Charles Sichel at Château Palmer said “It was if a light switch had been turned on”. The sun came out, a blazing orange orb of welcoming warmth and respite, and stayed out. The 3 months leading up to the vintage were calm, hot and dry, with just enough rain (23-25mm) at sporadic times in August and September, to feed the vines and prevent stress. Temperatures rose, aiding the colour changes in July and August.

Of the last 45 days before vintage started in late September, 22 days were above 30°C. July 2018 was the warmest on record, after 1983 and 2006. From the wettest first half of a year ever, this became a warm, ripe vintage, close to 2003 in average temperatures and heat summation, with potential alcohols that climbed and attained over 15% in some appellations. Although an average volume overall, yields from one vineyard to another varied enormously. Some had plentiful crops, others produced very small quantities.

The harvest took place in almost ideal conditions, with no risk of rot. It stretched from around 21st August for the first of the dry whites, well into October for Sauternes and the later ripening Cabernets. The busiest period for harvesting the reds was during the second half of September and the first week of October. The continued drought had an impact on the volume, as the berries were thick-skinned and in no way diluted by any harvest rain.

However the quality was sensational and that’s what makes great wine Each and every vintage has its own story. Each has its challenges and the resulting wines have their own di­fferent personalities.

There is no doubt that in early July the Bordelais were fearing the worst and had no reason to believe that by September they would be about to produce one of the very finest Bordeaux vintages.

THE WINES
The difficult months up until July were vintage defining for some châteaux, especially those who had chosen the delicate path of biodynamics and organic farming.

The wet and humid weather created the ideal conditions for the onslaught of aggressive powdery mildew that ravaged the vineyards, particularly at the likes of châteaux Angludet and Palmer in Margaux. The region also experienced some serious hail damage in both May and July which also contributed to the reduction on yields.

However, after the 10th July, the weather could not have been better and the resulting wines were big, rich and powerful. The tannin levels are particularly high and many struggled to keep the alcohol levels in check, but on tasting this was not evident, such is the powerful fruit intensity and beautiful refreshing acidities.

Nicolas Glumineau, Directeur Général of Château Pichon Longeuville, Comtesse de Lalande told me, “John, you know, it was easy to make an ‘over everything’ wine, due to the incredible weather conditions in the summer of 2018."

So who has fared well? Certainly St Estèphe and the northern Pauillac have produced sensational wines. The clay rich soils in St Estèphe were particularly helpful. St Julien showed fantastic homogeneity, but it has to be recognised that it is the smallest of the major Médoc communes. Margaux, the largest of the communes in the Médoc, showed more variation with some very high alcohols in places, especially with the Merlot.

Over on the right bank, the winemakers are more used to the higher alcohols of the Merlot grape, and were better prepared in dealing with them. Some fantastic Pomerols have been produced and we also tasted some superb St Emilion Grand Cru. Indeed, in many, many cases, St.Emilion reached the heights of 2016, which is quite something.

2018 is a vintage that will be remembered with dismay by some châteaux but as one of the greatest by others. It is similar to 2015, yet with more acidity, providing superb balance. Bruno Borie of Château Ducru Beaucaillou sees similarities with 2010 and 2016. Very small and concentrated berries, with skin to juice ratio very low. It also has a better freshness than 2009.

As you can see, we are using great vintages to draw comparisons. “The year 2018 didn’t give Bordeaux winemakers much time to breathe due to the weather conditions, which were extraordinary at times. This new vintage will be unquestionably marked by all the energy exerted in caring for the vineyards.” – Allan Sichel



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