The 2013 Bordeaux Barrels Diary: Clay or Gravel? Depends Who You Ask

Château Cheval-Blanc, La Fleur-Pétrus and Trotanoy express the Right Bank's diverse terroirs
Mar 31, 2014

As my 2013 Bordeaux barrel tasting visits continued on the Right Bank, two of the region's top producers illustrated that excellent wines can come from starkly different terroirs.

Château Cheval-Blanc

When not managing two first-growth estates, general director Pierre Lurton has his home estate in Entre-Deux-Mers, Château Marjosse. And so perhaps he's best-suited to see how both sides of Bordeaux live. While Château d'Yquem benefitted from the botrytis of 2013, Château Cheval-Blanc benefitted from its ample resources, and made an excellent red despite the vintage's difficulties. But back home at Marjosse, there will be no red wine in 2013, due to the catastrophic hailstorm that moved through the area in July. Luckily there will be some white.

"It's a great year for the whites in 2013," said Lurton, looking at the bright side. "It's like '11 but with a bit more freshness, because of the acidity."

There is also no production at Château Quinault L'Enclos due to same July hailstorm. In addition, Château La Tour du Pin was last produced in 2011. The Cheval-Blanc team took the estate's best 3.5 acres from it for Cheval-Blanc, leaving the remaining 14 acres of vines that now go to a generic St.-Emilion bottling. For additional background on this group of properties, you can start by referencing my blog notes from my 2012 en primeur visit.

"The coulure was just enormous on Merlot and Cabernet Franc. We also have an average vine age of 43 years, and so we have some very old plots. The coulure was most severe on the old vines," said technical director Pierre-Olivier Clouet. "But despite the low yields, we still did a green harvest just at the end of veraison. We normally wait for 90 percent veraison and then drop all the fruit that is still green. This was really key in '13, to get homogenous ripening."

The Château Cheval-Blanc St.-Emilion Le Petit Cheval 2013 is a 79/21 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc and represents just 15 percent of crop (about 800 cases). It is being aged in 50 percent new oak and currently shows a lightly dusty feel, with cocoa powder edges around bitter plum, dark cherry and singed alder notes.

Despite low yields of just 1.5 tons per acre across the estate, the grand vin represents 60 percent of the crop.

"We don't believe in severe selection. We believe complexity comes from the number of different parcels we use for the blend. We still do a selection on each parcel, but we want to use as many parcels as possible. We have a unique situation to have 96 acres on the Right Bank [where many domaines are much smaller], with 45 parcels," said Clouet.

Being aged in 100 percent new oak, the Château Cheval-Blanc St.-Emilion 2013 is its typical 52/48 blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It shows a lovely mix of red and black berry fruit, with focused red currant, bergamot and black cherry notes. There's a nice twinge of mesquite with a note of black tea hanging on the finish. Overall it has lovely perfume now with subtle persistence through a finish that opens steadily as it airs. The wine straddles both power and finesse, in essence marrying the depth of Haut-Brion with the elegance of Margaux, matching their respective efforts qualitatively.

"The botrytis pressure was very difficult, starting in mid-September," said Clouet. "And when it arrived, it arrived on the same day for the whole vineyard. But what is important is how it developed. Some people panicked at first sight of it. But the development is different from plot to plot. Sometimes, yes, you had to pick fast. But on a lot of plots it didn't develop quickly. By the 1st of October the night temperatures were quite cold and that inhibits the development of botrytis. In some spots you could wait and get better ripeness. So we picked from Sept. 29 through Oct. 16, which is a bit long for us."

"July and August were dry and hot. So despite the other difficulties, we had little berries and got good concentration. But yes, with a huge quantity of rain in September and October you will get some dilution. On the clay and gravel soils, because we plough regularly, there are no surface roots. So the vines did not take up the water quickly. Plus the gravel drained well, while the clay soil takes up the water and actually expands, and keeps the water away from the vines. The water stays linked to the clay, rather than free water for the vines. When the clay expands it actually kills the roots. Then each season the vines have to rebuild their root system, so it naturally devigors the vines," said Clouet.

"Gravel soils are exceptional in middle years—not too dry or too wet. Too dry and the vine stresses, too wet and the vine can be diluted. I feel clay does well in every year. Even very wet or very dry years, because it absorbs excess water in wet years, or stores water in dry years. The key is finding the right time to plough—too dry you rip the soil, too wet and the tractor gets stuck," said Clouet.

"In the end, it's a vintage with acidity, with red fruit instead of black fruit. The wines are long, but not large. We're not here to change the style of the vintage. We just want to preserve the balance of the vintage," said Clouet.

As for the marketplace, Lurton again sees both sides of the equation for Bordeaux. "En primeur will be early and fast. For the top 50 châteaus, this year will probably not be a problem. For everyone else though, yes, it's going to be difficult. Very difficult," said Lurton.

Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix

For background on this négociant and producer, start with my blog notes from my 2012 en primeur visit.

At the established address for top-flight Pomerol and St.-Emilion, the debate on clay and gravel soils in 2013 takes a slightly different turn.

"I think gravelly soils had the advantage in 2013. But it depends on the gravel … there's gravel, and then there's gravel," said Christian Moueix with an emphasis on the latter. "The deeper gravels drain the best of course, because the water goes down further. And not only depth, but with just a little bit of slope and the larger stones, as in La Fleur-Pétrus and Trotanoy, they really drain well. And of course that was critical in 2013. Trotanoy is half-clay and half-gravel. The gravel side was riper, as we picked it a week before the clay side."

"Plus the gravel is a warmer soil, which gave an advantage for ripening in 2013. It was warm and dry in July and August but the clay was already saturated at that point, and clay is a cooler soil. We found the maturity was not quite the same in clay," said Edouard Moueix, Christian's son. "2013 was so wet, and the water tables were so full, we had springs bubbling up that we didn't know were there."

"As for 2013, there was so much extra work to do in the vineyards. We did two leaf pullings, on both sides of the canopy, for example," said Christian. "We also did light crop thinning three or four times through the year, even into August. You sometimes need to make a 10 percent change here and there as you go along, because in the more difficult years just 10 percent can be an exorbitant change for quality, as opposed to years like '09 and '10 where maybe you can get away with things. Dropping one cluster per vine might not seem like a lot, but when there are just six clusters, it's a lot."

When the grapes finally did arrive at the cellar, the Moueix team used an optical sorter.

"We eliminated 12 percent of the berries. A record for us. But a bad record," Christian rued. "The average since we started using it in 2008 has only been about 1 to 3 percent."

First up are the estates distributed exclusively by the Moueix négociant company. New to the portfolio this year is the Château Vieux Lartigue St.-Emilion 2013 which shows nice plump plum and red berry fruit with a tug of plum skin to hold the finish. It's open, juicy, with a lightly dusty echo on the finish. The Château La Serre St.-Emilion 2013 is light, slightly airy, with friendly Bing cherry and strawberry notes lined with a touch of bergamot through the gentle finish. Another newcomer to the portfolio is the Château Les Vieux Ormes Lalande-de-Pomerol 2013, which shows gentle red cherry, bergamot and sandalwood notes, with the sandalwood edge lingering through the finish and lending a lightly firm echo. The Château Plince Pomerol 2013 is fresh, with red cherry and floral notes, a light singed sandalwood note through the finish and a lingering rooibos tea hint. It's a pretty wine.

The Château Lafleur-Gazin Pomerol 2013 is nicely persistent from start to finish, with red currant, raspberry coulis and singed sandalwood notes mingling, and a gentle floral hint echoing on the finish. The Château Bourgneuf Pomerol 2013 is plump and open, with a nice mélange of strawberry, red cherry and raspberry fruit lined with subtle red licorice and toasted spice notes and backed by a juicy, rounded finish. The Château La Grave à Pomerol Pomerol 2013 is the first wine in the grouping to take a step forward. It has solid substance, with a mix of red cherry, plum and blackberry fruit driving along nicely, all lined with notes of charcoal and warm tobacco leaf while a lightly smoky edge hangs on the finish. In contrast, the Château Latour à Pomerol Pomerol 2013 is bright, with a floral note out front followed by high-pitched red currant and red cherry fruit. Nice finely-beaded acidity stretches out the finish, but the flesh has yet to fill in, leaving a slightly sinewy feel for now. The Château Certan de May Pomerol 2013 is round, open and rather easy in feel, with silky-edged bergamot, white cherry and raspberry notes liberally lined with balsam and tea on the finish.

From the Moueix-owned properties, the Château La Fleur-Pétrus Pomerol 2013 has very nice flesh, with layers of raspberry coulis, plum skin and cherry preserve backed by integrated apple wood and a black tea note. It has nice substance and depth through the finish, which has breadth of tannins to match the racy acidity. It's a very solid effort. The Château Trotanoy Pomerol 2013 seems quite fresh in style for Trot, with almost racy red and black currant fruit alternating with raspberry coulis and damson plum notes. There's a nice singed mesquite edge framing the finish, with a lingering echo of graphite as well. The Château Bélair-Monange St.-Emilion 2013 is a surprise as it seems longer and deeper than Trotanoy this year at this early stage. It has impressive density for the vintage, with very focused, pure red currant, plum and black cherry fruit that courses along nicely, lined with a vibrant chalky minerality and carrying through a long, floral-edged finish.

There's serious energy here for the vintage and it's among the top wines I've tasted so far from 2013. I asked Christian if the limestone soils of Bélair-Monange made a greater difference than clay or gravel. "Ah, yes, of course. In ranking them, I would always take limestone first, especially in a year like 2013 with so much water. Then gravel. And then clay," said Christian.

Note: There was no Château Hosanna produced in 2013 due to millerandage on the Merlot. There is no longer a Providence bottling either, as that vineyard has been incorporated into the production of La Fleur-Pétrus starting with this vintage.

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

More Bordeaux Barrel Tastings 2013

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2013 Bordeaux Futures Release Chart

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Bordeaux First-Growths Begin to Release 2013s, but Interest Still Low

Apr 18, 2014

Merchants Ask Bordeaux, Where Are the Low Prices?

Apr 9, 2014

The 2013 Bordeaux Barrels Diary: A Tough Vintage Passes the Test

Apr 8, 2014

France Bordeaux Bordeaux's Left Bank Bordeaux's Right Bank Red Wines White Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon 2013 Bordeaux Barrel Tastings 2013

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