Anne Krebiehl: A first impression of 2012 Bordeaux

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Another year, another en primeur campaign. No longer are these the heady days of feverish speculation – both the market and a comedown from the hailed 2009 and 2010 vintages have steered the situation back into the real world, where this strange and intricate market mechanism of courtiers, négociants and “la place” insists on existing for another year.


Reading the harvest report on the way over, the expectations for the 2012 vintage were not great and I may not have been alone in bracing myself for lean, green wines, but what was presented in the tasting rooms was far better than expected. A packed week of pre-UCG-week visits, arranged by négociant Yvon Mau, to Pessac-Leognan, the Médoc and the Right Bank was eye opening.


Numerous Médoc properties have lower alcohol levels: Château Lafite 2012 had 12.6% abv, so had Château Duhart Milon. One of the most serene and complete wines tasted, Pichon-Longueville (Baron) came it at a tender 13.1% abv; Boyd-Cantenac just touches 13% abv; Haut Bailly and Montrose were at 13.2% abv; Haut-Batailley at 13.4% abv; Calon-Segur, Potensac, Léoville Las Cases and Sociando-Mallet were at 13.5% abv and while Cos d’Estournel clocked up 13.79% abv it seems to have paddled back from its bombastic style. While it is simplistic to just look at alcohol levels, it nonetheless sets the stage for the vintage: rather elegant, surprisingly approachable and probably full of real drinking pleasure in the mid-term.


But 2012 was by no means easy: flowering was delayed and meant uneven fruit-set, millerandage and smaller yields. Damp and warm weather in June and July spelled big disease pressure, dry and warm conditions in August meant ripening but also some drought stress which was relieved by some September rain in parts – the challenge then was to harvest before the rains set in in October. Jean-René Matignan, technical director at Pichon-Longueville (Baron) in Pauillac put it thus in his vintage report: “This will go down in Château lore as the vintage where we had to fight on all fronts.”


Careful vineyard work and rigorous sorting were essential in 2012 and those who had the means to do this came out well. Honesty, rather than hype set the tone. Veronique Sanders, general manager at Haut-Bailly in Graves, said: “The top parcels of Cabernet Sauvignon handled everything extremely well: the mildew, the drought, they were healthy until the end.” Younger vines suffered and struggled more, so at Haut-Bailly there were two rather than one green harvest for the Cabernet Sauvignon.


At Domaine de Chevalier, maitre de chai Rémi Edange said: “We are very happy with our 2012, because we must be – we did incredible work.”


At Château Lafite, technical director Charles Chevallier joked about the difficult weather: “There was lots of humidity in July, it was great for fungus: you found ceps and chanterelles.”


“We had to manage every single block,” said Chevallier and reports that 450 people picked Châteaux Lafite and Duhart Milon in nine days. Such expense – for manpower and optical sorters – is what saved the vintage and explains why there is not a hint of green to be found in most wines. Chevallier’s verdict is that “Lafite will give a lot of satisfaction between five to eight years.”


At Malescot St-Exupéry in Margaux, technical director Jean Zuger admitted to some reverse osmosis to concentrate the must in some tanks by 2%-6% and we can thus assume that this is not an insulated practice, even though some felt that with very small yields and rigorous green harvests this was not necessary.


Marie-Hélène Dussech at Château d’Issan in Magraux said: “It certainly isn‘t 2005, 2009 or 2010, it just hasn’t got the concentration, but it reminds us of 2006: it’s very pure, and it’s certainly better than the 2008.”


On the Left Bank, the inherent structure and nobility of Cabernet Sauvignon shone through, with elegant and ripe rather than powerful tannins and a welcome slenderness.


On the Right Bank, Jacques Thienpont of Le Pin in Pomerol said: “We were lucky in Pomerol, we always are the first to pick.” He meant that the earlier-ripening Merlot had a much bigger chance of missing the October rain.


At La Conseillante, also in Pomerol, director Jean-Michel Laporte said: “This vintage is much better than 2011 in Pomerol. We were the first to pick so we were not concerned by the weather.” His incredibly silky and perfumed grand vin pays witness to the statement.


At Château Figeac in St Emilion director Frédéric Faye confirmed that “it was a difficult year in the vineyard, we did three green harvests”, and reports that the fruit was brought in before the cold and rain.


Pauline Vauthier of Château Ausone, stated that 2012 is “a light vintage, there is not a big structure, so we want to keep the fruit and avoid extraction”. Those who let their fruit speak for itself, without too much make up – sans maquillage so to speak – showed best. At Cheval Blanc, technical director Pierre-Olivier Clouet admitted: “In Cheval Blanc we believe a lot in freshness but we had to work hard in the vineyard to have no greenness.” Yet, like all masterpieces in most disciplines that are the result of very hard work, the wine itself came across as effortlessly poised and a complete class act.


Sweet wines struggled this year: Châteaux d’Yquem, Rieussec and Suduiraut have already confirmed they are not releasing grand vins this year. Châteaux Guiraud in Sauternes only made 700 cases this year and director Xavier Planty has not yet decided whether to sell these en primeur: he only had three suitable days for picking (29-31 October) and an incredibly small yield of 3.5hl/ha – of which 2.5hl/ha went into the second wine, Petit Guiraud. “The decision to make wine was not easy,” Planty sighed.


At Château Climens in Barsac, however, Bérénice Lurton triumphed with her biodynamic regime: she lost fruit due to mildew but managed to harvest and make delicious wine id her barrel samples are anything to go by.


The articulate and always apposite Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux again brought it all down to a neat point: “The 2012 vintage is the result of extraordinary selection. There is only one problem,” he says, “and that is to find the right price for the market.”

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