Updated April 9, 2013. New notes will be posted regularly throughout the tastings.
Spring is in the air, sort of. Despite a slush storm rolling through the New York City area earlier this week, my flight was still on time and I was still able to get to Paris and then on to Bordeaux for the start of my annual ritual here: tasting the barrel samples from the most recently completed Bordeaux vintage. To top it off, the forsythia is in bloom in Bordeaux and I was greeted with a warm, bright, spring day.
"Thanks for coming," quipped Véronique Sanders of Château Haut-Bailly. "You brought the nice weather. Basically, it was cold and rainy from Oct. 15 until yesterday. Quite a winter in Bordeaux."
If you're just tuning in, France's largest and arguably most prominent wine region, Bordeaux, unveils its newest wines every spring in a period called en primeur. It's the first time the wines are officially unveiled to the public—négociants, press, retail buyers, consumers and more all come through the region en masse to taste the wines.
These unfinished barrel samples are often just approximate blends of the final wines, which won't be bottled for another six to eight months or more, depending on the estate. So why taste now?
Well, the wines are being offered for sale to the trade and then to you, the consumer, as futures, for delivery once they are bottled. So if the Bordelais want to show the wines and sell them, it's my job to report on their prospects, keeping in mind that it's very early in the game.
But why buy now? Because as a consumer, the initial price offered by the château (with subsequent markups through the négociant system and eventually to retail) will likely represent the best price you'll see if the vintage proves to be good. Additional releases, or tranches, of wine, typically increase in price down the road. Should the vintage turn out to be stellar, such as say 2009 or 2010, those interested in purchasing wine for investment might win in the long run by securing quantities of wine at the earlier pricing. But, if it doesn't turn out to be a stellar vintage, then prices likely won't appreciate. Ultimately, you should exercise caution when buying Bordeaux futures.
For background on how I move around Bordeaux during the en primeur season, you can reference my 2011 and 2010 en primeur blogs. But as usual, I'll be visiting a range of top estates to get a read on the prominent wines you'll likely find offered by retailers this summer when prices are finalized. I'll also be visiting some less familiar names in order to show you the range of what Bordeaux has to offer outside of just the big names. After a week's worth of visits, I'll then be finishing up my trip with several days of intensive tasting of barrel samples, blind, by appellation. All told, I hope to list around 400 reviews for you to use as a guide to 2012 Bordeaux. (My en primeur tastings are an introduction to the vintage, not a comprehensive overview like the bottled wine tastings, such as the coverage of the 2010 vintage in the March 31 issue of the magazine). Bordeaux is a big, big place—there's lots to choose from at all price points.
So, how is 2012 for Bordeaux? Well, the spring started out cold and wet, with twice the normal rainfall, leading to a poor flowering and low crop set. Then it was rainy and gray through mid-July, leading to a lot of disease pressure and uneven ripening. It suddenly turned hot and dry, hotter even than 2000 and 2009, from mid-July through August and into September; that blocked ripening in parcels where the dry period resulted in vine stress, primarily for sandier soils. An ample rain fell on Sept. 15 and kick-started ripening again, but by mid-October the weather degraded quickly. Those grapes that hadn't reached full ripeness and been picked were in trouble, namely Cabernet Sauvignon. Other than that, it was fine …
On the surface, 2012 is less than stellar. It's likely on a level with 2011, but in a much different style from that lighter-bodied, charming, fruit-friendly vintage. 2012 looks to be marked by wines of bright aroma, deep color and taut, sinewy structure, but with many wines not having the depth of fruit or length to offset the grip. But as I said, Bordeaux is a huge region and while broad generalizations help, there is more to the picture. Whites look to be quite good, and the earlier-ripening Merlot which was picked between mid-September and mid-October also did well. This would seem to favor spots in Pessac, Pomerol and St.-Emilion, while the Cabernet-dominated Médoc looks to have its work cut out for it. Prime spots on limestone soils were affected by the drought and may have suffered a bit as well.
You can expect a lot of variability from producer to producer, even within the favored appellations. It's a vintage where the right terroir certainly helped, but vigilance in the vineyard was ultimately the key, to ward off disease and get a crop as evenly ripe as possible.
"You had to be on top of things. This was not a vintage where you could take August vacation. Everything had to be done twice and done at just the right time," said Gabriel Vialard, maitre de chai at Château Haut-Bailly. "It was ultimately a very late harvest and a cool harvest, so the downside is you can find wines that are green or have harsh tannins. But there are some good wines. In '12, you'll see who did the work and who didn't."
Speaking of work, it's time to start. My first day back in Bordeaux and I have a few stops in Pessac to make. Stay tuned.