Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite)
Jean-Pascal Vazart, technical director of L'Evangile, considered it an incursion as Charles Chevalier met with us at the Pomerol estate, bringing his Pauillac samples to pour in the cellar of a Right Bank estate.
"It was raining in Pauillac this morning," said Vazart with a wink. "It never rains here in Pomerol."
Vazart has been at this 40-acre estate since 2001. Tucked in the corner of the appellation between the clay of Pétrus and gravelly side bordering St.-Emilion and Cheval-Blanc, L'Evangile managed to bring in 2 tons per acre in 2013, not bad in a year marked by ridiculously low yields all around.
The Château L'Evangile Pomerol Blason de L'Evangile 2013 is generous and fleshy for the vintage, with lots of blackberry coulis and crushed plum fruit liberally laced with charcoal through the finish. The 92/8 Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend stays fresh too, with a twinge of iron. A big step up though is the Château L'Evangile Pomerol 2013, a blend of 87/13 Merlot and Cabernet Franc that displays a very solid core of plum and boysenberry fruit, with lots of dark smoldering charcoal, bay and roasted alder notes. It has impressive grip, along with the slightly angular acidity of the vintage. It should settle in nicely with the élevage, as the wine seems bolstered by the slightly higher than usual percentage of Cab Franc.
"We work the same way here as they do Lafite or Duhart, so the selection for the grand vin is theoretical at the time of harvest and then in effect after the malo," said Vazart. "Yes, we know certain parcels always make one or the other, but there are always some variability too, so we make the final selection in the cellar, prior to the blending."
Moving to the Left Bank wines, the Château Duhart-Milon Rothschild Pauillac Moulin de Duhart 2013 (67/33 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) shows a firm, cedary edge, along with pepper, tobacco leaf and taut red currant and black cherry fruit. A taut feel hangs on the finish. The Château Duhart-Milon Rothschild Pauillac 2013 basically reverses the blend (80/20 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) and it shows a commensurate shift to a denser, sappy core of kirsch and blackberry fruit, harnessed by a sanguine edge that holds the finish, while a light cedary note provides the backdrop. It's just a touch austere in the finish.
"The botrytis pressure was the most difficult aspect of the vintage," said Chevalier. "Flowering is out of our control so we don't worry about it. Besides, low crop set isn't necessarily bad. But when the rot arrived, it arrived all at once and spread very fast. Very fast."
The Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac Carruades de Lafite Rothschild 2013 contains 3 percent Petit Verdot, a grape that managed to perform well despite being a typically late-ripening variety.
"I agree, it's odd," said Chevalier. "At the start of the harvest I figured Petit Verdot would be a disaster. But it came in ripe and it gave the blend a lovely note of spice in the aromas."
In addition to the 64/29/4 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the resulting wine is perfumy, with black tea out front followed by racy, tightly focused red currant and black cherry fruit. The sleek, tobacco-fueled finish has a nice racy edge. It's not dense, but balanced and defined.
The grand vin Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac 2013 is a 98/2 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as Chevalier left out any other grapes.
"The Cabernet Franc was right at the limit and I hesitated a while before deciding. Cabernet Franc in the Médoc when it's 100 percent ripe is magnificent. One percent off and it's a big change down. There's more latitude for Cabernet Franc in Pomerol, but in the Médoc, it has to be perfect," said Chevalier. "And the Petit Verdot was good, but it wasn't for the grand vin."
Chevalier's face brightened as we moved to the Sauternes estate in the portfolio, Château Rieussec.
"In 2013, the rot arrived in Sauternes too. But we like it that way there," he said with a laugh. "And it developed at a normal pace, so we picked 3 to 5 tries depending on the parcel through the end of October. Sauternes is the opposite of red wine, where the style of the vintage can be guided by how you vinify. Instead, Sauternes' style is made only in the vineyard, by the selection of the individual grapes. And it's a very Sémillon vintage."
The Château Rieussec Sauternes Carmes de Rieussec 2013 is a blend of 83/9/8 Sémillon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc, a noticeable percentage of Muscadelle.
"Muscadelle is an interesting varietal. When the rot arrives it's very fast and you have to pick right away, unlike Sémillon, where you can wait while the botrytis develops slowly. But it gives a freshness to the wine in the final blend," said Chevalier.
The wine is very plump, friendly, round with almond, apricot and peach notes giving way to a bright guava edge on the finish.
The Château Rieussec Sauternes 2013 backs up Chevalier's claim that it's a Sémillon vintage, as the blend is dominated by the grape, 95/5 along with Sauvignon Blanc. It is still youthfully rambunctious, but there's a terrific core of peach, apricot, mango and toasted almond here, along with crystalized ginger, tangerine and quince notes. The long finish has both serious power and freshness.
There's been a change in direct management, including the hiring of Michel Rolland as consultant, who helped blend the 2012 and oversaw the full season in 2013. In addition, Frédéric Faye, 33, who has been at the estate since 2002, has steadily moved up from trainee to technical director during that time, and has been in charge of production since 2011.
The changes seem to be having an effect as Figeac delivered a few surprises on this visit. First off, the estate brought in an overall crop yield of 2.6 tons per acre, bucking the low-yield trend of the vintage, and almost 3 tons per acre for the Cabernet Sauvignon specifically, noted Faye, beaming.
"The Cabernet flowering happens after Merlot, and so it missed the rains that hampered most of the region's flowering," explained Faye. "Plus the veraison of Cabernet is earlier, so we had a better ripening window. But we still did three green harvests. The first to control quantity. The second in the middle of veraison for consistency. The last about two weeks before harvest, as there were still some pink grapes on some bunches."
"That plus the leaf pulling was key in '13, because the sun we got in July and August burned off the pyrazines," said Faye. "Then the gravel soils warmed up nicely. Of the [99 acres] of vines,  are on gravel. And since we're on three hills, the drainage was excellent and we had a good sanitary state. We actually didn't start picking the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon until Oct. 8 and 9, respectively."
As for the vinification, Faye adjusted to the vintage. "There was no pigéage or délestage in 2013, because of the fragility of the grapes. And modest remontage during the latter stages of the alcoholic fermentation to avoid overextraction," said Faye.
The Château Figeac St.-Emilion Petit Figeac 2013 is a 40/40/20 Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, culled from 30 percent of crop and now being aged in just 35 percent new oak. It's very expressive, with juicy red berry and plum fruit, a nice bolt of cassis and a long, open, silky finish. It's purity and texture are a real surprise.
An even bigger and more pleasant surprise is the Château Figeac St.-Emilion 2013. The grand vin is a 50/30/20 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It's being aged in 100 percent new oak but not wearing it as obviously as in some previous vintages. Faye noted that the team is paying greater attention to barrel quality now too among its many changes, trimming from nine different coopers down to six. Previously, half the wine underwent malolactic in barrel; now, almost none of the wines goes through malo in barrel. The wine represents 70 percent of the crop (there is no third wine produced here) and it is very sleek, ripe and very pure, with a beautifully generous beam of cassis, cherry preserve and damson plum fruit. The wood seems fully integrated already, with a lightly singed vanilla hint that melds wonderfully on the detailed finish, where a very pretty violet note echoes. Bravo for this effort, which stands among the best wines of the vintage.
At Vieux Château Certan, yields were in line with the vintage, a scant 1.6 tons per acre. At Le Pin, they were even smaller. Le Pin, whose crop usually totals only about 25 barrels of production, managed to produce just 13 barrels of wine in 2013. Of these, Thienpont feels currently only three are up to scratch to make the wine, with "maybe" two more. Consequently, the wine isn't being shown during en primeur. As for how he'll accommodate his clients with just three barrels of wine, should that be it for 2013, Thienpont gave a small shrug, a light shake of his head and then said, "Let's talk about VCC."
"Work in the vineyard is always important. In 2013 it was even more so," said Thienpont. "It was all set up by the flowering, which was cold and wet. That led to spectacularly low yields. We have less than 2,000 cases at VCC, when normal is over 4,000 cases. We haven't seen that since 2003, a heat-wave year, and then in '91 when the frost removed everything."
Vieux Château Certan is situated on two-thirds clay, one-third a clay/gravel soil, which gives Thienpont a different aspect from which to enter the clay vs.gravel debate.
"Yes, clay absorbs water rather than drains, but only to a point," said Thienpont. "Once it is saturated, the water stays on top so there is water that will never get to the vine roots. And yes, the gravelly soils provided better aromas and freshness. The clay was strong in body, but that's the nature of vines on clay anyway," said Thienpont. "The gravel side had better purity though in 2013."
The Vieux Château Certan Pomerol 2013 represents only one-third of the crop, with the rest going to the second wine, a reverse of the normal selection level here. The 92/8 Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend shows lovely blue and purple fruit with a decidedly floral feel. Very expressive aromatically. Long and refined through the finish, with both polish and a lingering tobacco profile that echoes gently. But this is all about its aromas right now, and they are lovely.
"The fruit was fragile, so you had to be careful of overextraction and oxidation. We did less remontage than usual (pigéage is not used here in any event). And also there is only 50 percent new oak this year," said Thienpont, about how he adjusted to the lighter body of the vintage (70 percent new oak is typically used in a normal year here).
"It's very difficult to compare 2013 to another year, because the weather pattern was so unique," said Thienpont. He paused for a minute and glanced over to his son Guillaume to see if he had any thoughts. Guillaume paused before shrugging his shoulders in the same manner as his father. "Well, there wasn't botrytis pressure like that since 1963," Alexandre said, at which Guillaume gave a very slight look of relief, as if to say, "Before my time."
Or was he thinking, "and hopefully never again"?