Bordeaux 2013 Vintage En Primeur

Bordeaux 2013: Chateaux forced to chaptalise in toughest vintage for years

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  • Saturday 5 April 2014

Several top Bordeaux estates took the rare step of adding sugar to their grape must from the tough 2013 harvest in order to raise alcohol levels in their finished wines - a process known as chaptalisation.

En Primeur 2013

2013 wines on show at en primeur week: poor weather means yields are down significantly at many chateaux

A race between ripeness and rot in many Bordeaux vineyards during the 2013 harvest culminated in several producers turning to special measures to secure what has been called the most challenging vintage for decades.   

At Chateau Palmer, Thomas Duroux told Decanter.com that 2013 was the first time he had used chaptalisation since arriving at the property in 2004.

‘Our tanks came in at an average of 12.25«v, and we chaptalised up to 13%,' he said. 'The last time that happened was 1994.'

Chaptalisation of pre-fermented grape must came close to being banned by the European Union in 2008 as part of wine sector reform. In the end, it remained legal, with limits set for different geographic winemaking zones.

Official rules for the 2013 Bordeaux vintage state that chateaux cannot add more than 1.5% abv to their wines via chaptalisation.

At Chateau Montrose, Hervé Berland said he chaptalised two small lots of Merlot. ‘The first ones we brought in to the cellar,’ said Berland. ‘The rest reached 13% or 13.5% potential alcohol naturally, as we managed to wait to bring in our last grapes on 15 October.’

One alternative is to use technology to improve concentration, but this also divides opinion. 

'We don’t believe in using concentration machines, but just a touch of sugar addition is for me a softer and more natural way of rounding out flavours and maintaining a natural balance,’ said Duroux.

Charles Chevallier, of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, told Decanter,com that existing machines were a blunt tool for producers. 'When you use those machines it’s because you don't have the right balance at the beginning. If you use the machines you increase the difference, so if you have a bad balance at the beginning then you have a very bad balance at the end.'

Chevallier said chaptalisation of some vats at the first growth chateau was necessary for the 2013 vintage, 'to have a good balance' in the finished wine. 'We didn't reach the maximum [limit],' he added.

Olivier Bernard, of Domaine de Chevalier, whose red and white wines were widely praised during this week's en primeur tastings, said making careful use of vinification tools was essential. ‘The vintage was all about doing just enough, but not too much,’ he said.

'We added an average of 0.2% alcohol through chaptalisation across all tanks – so none in some, and a little higher in others, and used a very small amount of concentration machines to further adjust alcohol levels. It was like a tightrope; everything had to be done so carefully.’

Bernard said he couldn’t remember the last time he chaptalised. ‘Possibly in the 1980s.’

EU rules state that winemakers in southern France cannot take their wines above 13.5% abv, where chaptalisation has been used.  

Denis Dubourdieu, a wine consultant and professor at Bordeaux’s institute of oenology, the ISVV, said producers who chaptalise should try to limit the increase in alcohol to 1% abv, to avoid unbalancing other flavours. In theory, that means adding no more than 17g of sugar per litre, he said.

Chaptalisation is named after Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal, who first wrote about the technique in his 1801 book ‘The Art of Winemaking’.