Plane, train, automobile. Got to Bordeaux on time, dropped my bags at the hotel and drove up to Château Margaux for the first of my 2013 Bordeaux barrel visits. Time is the world's most precious commodity, and I hate to waste it.
Things are a bit topsy turvy at Château Margaux these days. With the estate's major cellar expansion and renovation now fully underway, trucks, backhoes and bulldozers are moving up and down the normally placid, bucolic gravel pathways. It's noisy, and Paul Pontallier greeted me in a hard hat, having just come over from the construction site. Well, he is a man of many hats …
Check out my blog post from last year's en primeur visit for more background on Château Margaux.
"To make a long story short, it's the late flowering and bad flowering, which affected the Merlot mostly, that defines 2013," said Pontallier. "But a bad flowering isn't necessarily for the worse, qualitywise—it happened in '84 and '61, so it can go both ways. But the coulure and millerandage really hammered the yields."
Yields here are half what they are normally, down to 1.6 tons per acre, from a normal crop of about 3 tons per acre. That's Rhône- or Burgundy-like, but basically unheard of in Bordeaux.
"July was dry and hot. August was dry and reasonably warm and that even extending into early September," said Pontallier. "I was actually very optimistic at that time. But then the humidity arrived and the disease pressure, botrytis, was fast and furious. I'd never seen it like that, before harvest. Sometimes you get botrytis here and there near the end of a harvest, but to see it everywhere, a week before picking, was truly unique. And so we had no choice but to pick. If you waited, you wouldn't have anything to pick."
That "early" picking is what Pontallier feels was the most difficult aspect of the vintage. "We were forced to pick early because of the high botrytis pressure, and we didn't really have any experience to fall back on for that," said Pontallier.
But with a slightly earlier-ripening terroir versus those further up the Médoc, Pontallier remains pleased with what he got out of the vintage.
"Luckily Margaux is a bit more precocious than other parts of the Médoc. So the end result is I was reassured by the quality of the Cabernet, even though we harvested a little earlier than we wanted. I was disappointed by the Merlot. Even with the small yield they were thin and dry and went to the third and fourth wines primarily. For the first time in quite some there, there is zero Merlot in the grand vin. But the wine is much better than it would have been 30 years ago. This isn't the '60s and '70s anymore. The precision, the experience and the technology. It's all of that together. And that's all a human aspect," said Pontallier.
Pontallier chaptalized in 2013 (as well as in '12), a topic we touched on briefly during a visit in December, when Pontallier eloquently defended the decision to boost alcohol through the addition of sugar.
"Chaptalization is a wonderful tool, when used carefully. It's certainly not needed in the great years, but fundamentally there is nothing wrong with it," he said. "Why should we, by principle, refuse to use something that can help us make a better wine? As long as technology doesn't pervert the product or impede or twist its talent, why should it be refused? How do you define progress? It's defined by being better able to define and display the gift of our land. Wine is man-dreamt and manmade, all within the context of culture. And so we are allowed to collectively define that culture."
As for the rapid spread of bortytis in 2013, Pontallier did not feel it was exacerbated by the increasingly organic methods being used at Margaux and through much of Bordeaux.
"It was just the weather, period," he said. "It was the same in all our parcels, which range from some conventional farming to fully organic. This is why we are always experimenting, to see if there is a connection. In '13, there was no stopping the botrytis."
The selection remains as severe as usual here, with the grand vin representing just over one-third of the crop—a crop that was already reduced by half. As for the biggest surprise of the vintage, Pontallier felt it was the Petit Verdot. Not a variety that usually tolerates early picking, Pontallier basically considered it an afterthought during harvest as they scrambled to bring in the Cabernet.
"But it came in surprisingly ripe," he said. "And also the fact that Merlot did so poorly on either clay or gravel soils. This was a varietal year, not a terroir year for Merlot. That was a surprise too."
There was no major change in the vinification of the reds to accommodate for any fragility in the grapes, and the lighter-bodied fruit. However the élevage is using a touch less new oak than usual, only 80 percent for the grand vin as opposed to the more typical 100.
The Château Margaux Margaux 2013 is a blend of 94/5/1 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. It's very perfumed, along with very supple, fine-grained structure that lets gentle bergamot, black tea and red currant notes glide through. If it picks up some more density through the élévage, that will certainly help, as it's all elegance now. It's a function of the vintage, and a very admirable effort. The Château Margaux Margaux Pavillon Rouge 2013 is clearly the little sibling in the vintage, offering a slightly more cedary hint in the aromas and textures, along with touches of savory and rooibos tea to go along with the gentle cherry fruit.
As for the Château Margaux Bordeaux Pavillon Blanc 2013, the wine in general has become one of the most scintillating Sauvignon Blancs in the region. Pontallier has moved toward a more reductive vinification in recent years, as well as stricter selection (only about one-third the crop makes the cut for the Pavillon Blanc). The result is a rapier of a white that crackles with sel gris, thyme, chive, verbena and white asparagus notes. It's energetic and bristling with pure, mouthwatering acidity—and while it might not quite reach the heights of the super 2011 and '12 duo, it is potentially a better wine than the red grand vin in 2013.
"Despite the difficulties with the reds, the white was picked on the normal scheduled date and without disease pressure, as that was before the September rains," said Pontallier. "It's another strong year for the whites, as in '11 and '12."
"It's been important to really fine-tune the white, and be more reductive early on, so we don't get the problem with premature oxidation that they've had in Burgundy and in some parts of Bordeaux. We know when made well, white Bordeaux can really age well, and that's what we want here," said Pontallier.
This jewel box château has quietly been setting the bar in Pessac, along with the big names of Haut-Brion (and La Mission) as well as Smith-Haut-Lafitte.
When I head in to taste a new vintage, I try to go in without preconceived notions. Yes, I know how the weather was and I've heard the buzz (or lack of it). But I try to block that all out once I start tasting the wines. In the end, the wines need to speak for themselves, and there's no substitute for just sitting and tasting. I want surprises to be just … and to that end, I was quite impressed with the 2013 I tasted at Haut-Bailly. So, too, was Sanders, as she has watched the wine evolve in its early stages.
"I've been pleasantly surprised so far, as there aren't any vegetal notes in the wine," said Sanders. "That's what I was expecting. But it seems July and August were warm enough that the pyrazines [chemical compounds responsible for vegetal aromas] were burned off."
Indeed, the Château Haut-Bailly Pessac-Léognan 2013 is remarkably plump, round and fleshy for the vintage. The dark plum and red currant fruit is married nicely with singed apple wood and blackberry paste notes. A nice anise-lined finish has good grip. The blend is a typical 64/34/2 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. While Merlot was affected during the flowering, it was primarily the old vines, according to Vialard, while the younger-vine Merlot set a relatively good crop, so the varietal makeup remains the same, albeit with less old-vine fruit.
The most difficult aspect of the vintage for Vialard was the green harvesting.
"We still had to green harvest even though it was a really small crop. Veraison was so long, things were uneven and we needed to go through and thin a small crop and make it even smaller. And normally we green harvest in July, but this year we had to wait until August and early September. July saved the vintage though. Without that warmth and dryness, the ripeness would not have caught up after the late flowering," said Vialard. "We went from two weeks behind to only about five days by the time we picked."
"The result of the bad flowering and then the late green harvesting is we only did half the normal yields," said Sanders (yields were 1.5 tons per acre across the estate, down from a normal of about 3). "And then from there, only 50 percent of the crop went to the grand vin."
"The vintage was like a triathlon," joked Sanders. "We were swimming in rain in June during the flowering. Then the summer was a bike tour, because of the warmth. And then during the harvest we were running to pick."
"We had to move really fast in the vineyard. We doubled the number of pickers during the course of one day when we saw things were stressed and needed to get picked. So we really accelerated that process," said Sanders. "Then in the cellar, we had to slow down. We couldn't extract too much and we had to be careful with the fruit. We had to apply the breaks. We think the length of the élevage will be key this year. Like watching milk on the stove, it will have to be watched very carefully, because 2013 is not a wine that can absorb too much oak.
Footnote: The owner of Château Haut-Bailly has purchased the neighboring 17-acre estate of Château Le Pape, and 2012 will be the first vintage vinified by Sanders and Vialard. The estate will see a large-scale renovation both in the cellar and winery, including replanting of nearly 5 acres. "We have a lot of work to do before we have meaningful production and can really show the wines," said Sanders.