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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The 2013 Bordeaux Barrels Diary: An Early Candidate for Wine of the Vintage

Château Haut-Brion might have one of the best red Bordeauxs of 2013, but the white is the real stunner
Photo by: James Molesworth
Château Haut-Brion may have the wine(s) of the vintage. They make red and white, don't forget …

Posted: Mar 25, 2014 4:00pm ET

Yesterday, on my first day back in Bordeaux to taste the 2013 barrel samples, I visited Château Margaux and Haut-Bailly. Today I headed to Domaine Clarence Dillon to taste the 2013s from first-growth Château Haut-Brion and its sister wine, La Mission Haut-Brion, as well as from Quintus. Later in the day I visited Châteaus Palmer and Beau-Séjour-Bécot. Notes on the latter two visits will come later this week.

Domaine Clarence Dillon

Jean-Philippe Delmas has a full plate these days, not only managing the famed sister estates of Château Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, but the growing property on the Right Bank named Quintus. With the recent addition of vineyards from l'Arrosée, Quintus now totals 69 acres. For more background on Delmas and these estates, you can reference my blog notes from last year's en primeur visit

"We had less rain and more sun than Margaux," said Jean-Philippe Delmas with a laugh, as he referenced my visit yesterday at Château Margaux. "But no, seriously, 2013 was difficult everywhere. July was warm and sunny except for the hailstorm on the 22nd, which was a really bad storm in Entre-Deux-Mers. We got a little hail here but no more than 10 percent of the crop was hit. August was nice and quiet and not as warm, and then September … rain through October. Not an easy year."

As is the norm in 2013, yields across the three estates of Domaine Clarence Dillon are very low—just 1.7 tons per acre at Quintus, 2 tons per acre at Haut-Brion and 2.4 tons per acre at La Mission.

"Tecnically the yields were the same, but the vine density is different," said Delmas. From 2,800 vines per acre at Quintus, to 3,200 at Haut-Brion and 4,000 at La Mission. We got the same amount of fruit per plant, but more crop on the estate with the most vines."

"You had to work the vines carefully of course because of the humidity and disease pressures, and uneven bunches," said Delmas. "But also as important was the extraction process. When you don't have perfect ripeness you have to be very careful. So there was less remontage and shorter macerations of no more than two weeks."

We tasted all three second wines first, rather than the first and second wines from each estate.

"There is a big difference between first and second wines in '13," said Delmas matter-of-factly. "So I think it will be easier to taste up through all the second wines first, then the grand vin. Then we can go back and forth of course." (Note: Wines are listed out of tasting order for clarity).

The Château Quintus St.-Emilion Le Dragon 2013 includes 13 percent Cabernet Sauvignon for the first time, as it includes vines from l'Arrosée now. The Le Dragon is pure and fresh with bitter cherry and damson plum notes and a bright floral finish that is open and accessible.

"We had to double the estate just to make the same amount of wine in '13," said Delmas with a light laugh. "Not exactly the way to run a business."

The Château Quintus St.-Emilion 2013 shows a similar profile to the '11 and '12 versions, with racy minerality and bright red fruit, but it has better length and finesse, as the first two vintages were a little squared off in the end and I feel Delmas is getting a handle on the property quickly. In addition, Delmas only used 40 percent new oak this vintage, compared with 75 percent in the previous two years, in deference to the lighter concentration of 2013.

The Château La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion 2013 shows a chalky frame, with good racy red currant fruit and a bright sanguine note through the finish, where an echo of pomegranate leaves a slightly tangy feel.

"The Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were really hit hard during the flowering, but Cabernet Franc was fine. And like most people, we lost a big part of the crop on the old-vine Merlot. Old vines flower later and are more fragile than young vines," said Delmas. "Without the old-vine fruit, the selection for the grand vin becomes harder, and then I think you see why there is a big gap in '13 between first and second wines."

"But we don't have any green notes in the wines, because there is ripeness. What we have is bitterness and tannins. And considering we missed two weeks of ripening, well, it could have been a lot worse," said Delmas.

The Château La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2013 is being aged in only two-thirds new oak, down from a usual minimum of 80 percent.

"It's just a feeling, but you have to be careful with the fruit. And the élevage could wind up being a little shorter too," said Delmas.

The wine is taut, with a tangy edge to the red currant, damson plum and blackberry notes, framed with plum skin and blood orange and backed by a solid roasted apple wood edge on the finish. It has a rather obvious tannic spine but isn't woody in feel.

"The challenge this year was to find the balance between concentration and softness. We wanted structure but not woodiness. We had to taste each vat, twice a day, every day, to watch for the level of tannins during the extraction," said Delmas. "But in the end, 2013 is probably the best example of where the best terroir is, because when it's raining all along, there's only so much you can do."

The Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan Le Clarence de Haut-Brion 2013 has a lovely plump feel, with plum Bing cherry and blackberry fruit lined with savory, tobacco and warm cedar notes. It's lightly firm through the finish but this has ample flesh for the vintage.

"2013 is a bit like 2004 and 2011 in style. It's showing tannins now, as '04 and '11 did right away. For some they seemed angular during the en primeur, but now, 10 years later, '04 is a beautiful-drinking vintage and '11 will probably be just like that too," said Delmas. "I can see '13 in the same way."

The Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2013 has weight and density, with dark plum, raspberry coulis and red currant fruit showing well already, all lined with obvious but racy and integrated tannins. The finish is long and tinged with violet, tobacco and star anise notes, with lovely energy. While the grand vin at Margaux seems to have coaxed the most elegance it could out of the vintage, this seems to have coaxed the most depth and power. Barring a surprise further up in the Médoc, where Cabernet Sauvignon struggled more so in '13, this is an early candidate for red wine of the vintage on the Left Bank. The real stars here in 2013 though are the whites.

The Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White La Clarté de Haut-Brion 2013 is deliciously expressive today, with vibrant tangerine, green almond and pear eau de vie aromas and flavors that bristle with energy. As good as the second wine is, the Château La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White 2013 is a dramatic step up. Made from three-fourths Sémillon, the rest Sauvignon Blanc, it has gorgeous white peach, jicama and verbena notes gliding along, with a racy edge that gains steam through the very bright, pure finish. There's a lovely stony backdrop and very brisk, energetic finish with serious length and mouthwatering minerality.

In contrast, the Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White 2013 is all seduction and mouthfeel, sporting a stunning, creamy texture. It's an unusual (for Haut-Brion) blend of 66 percent Sauvignon Blanc, the rest Sémillon, as Sémillon usually is the majority of the blend here. The pear peel, honeysuckle, chamomile and verbena aromas are all defined already, with a huge core of white peach, lemon chiffon and macadamia nut flavors. It shows remarkable depth and richness, with straw and brioche helping the finish glide along beautifully. It's an absolute stunner and a close rival to the sensational '11. It very well may be wine of the vintage.

"It was really perfect conditions for Sauvignon Blanc. And despite the higher Sauvignon percentage, the wine is so seductive this year. There is none of the green side of the cépage, only the richness. Haut-Brion and La Miss white are always different, but they are really different in '13, because the La Miss is so mineral in contrast. Even I was a little surprised at how different they are," said Delmas.

"It's funny though. White Bordeaux is such great wine. But of course, Bordeaux is only red wine to most people. Most people don't care about white Bordeaux …," said Delmas with a slight shrug of his shoulders.

Don't worry Jean-Philippe. I know a few folks who dig the whites.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

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