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Why Bordeaux 2013 matters: Jeannie Cho Lee MW

Don't be too hard on the Bordeaux 2013 vintage, says Jeannie Cho Lee MW, who argues winemakers have rediscovered a long forgotten balance between light tannins and acidity that offers refreshingly clear examples of terroir.

Even before I arrived in Bordeaux, the vintage was already being written off. Writers devoted pages to the awful weather conditions and the prevalence of rot. We arrived pre-conditioned to assume the worst – potentially green, unripe tannins, off odours from rot or thin, barely perceptible fruit.

What I found was something very different; wines that were not just pleasant, but balanced and elegant. I would happily drink many wines over a meal. Very few wines had green tannins and I seldom came across faulty wines. Human intervention, despite the all-powerful force of nature, has come a long way in winemaking.

Looking at 2013 from a macro perspective, I am convinced this vintage is an important and meaningful one for the industry.

The constant battle with rot forced producers to harvest before reaching what they have come to believe as ‘ideal physiological ripeness’, a term that has evolved over the decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, ripeness was simply sugar levels, which was between 10-12%, and having sufficient fruit. The obsession with tannin ripeness occurred in the 1990s, leading people towards bigger, bolder and more alcoholic wines. Ideal ripeness came to be defined as a combination of tannin ripeness, flavour concentration and sugar levels.

Rather than providing a refreshing, medium-bodied red that can be consumed with food, the highly rated wines from much of the past few decades were created for body building competitions where density, power and size reigned supreme over drinking pleasure and finesse. These powerful wines are wonderful and no doubt of exceptional quality. They are perfect, not for immediate drinking, but for laying down in your cellar for decades.

With the 2013 vintage, it is heartening to see that producers who worked with nature, rather than against it, found another kind of balance; the long forgotten one where acidity bounces off light tannins and also adds clarity to flavours that could have been masked by density and a thick wall of tannins.

It is vintages like 2013 that allow you to see and taste the terroir more clearly, which partly explains why chateaux with great site conditions did so well. Ausone, Margaux, Ducru-Beaucaillou and Leoville Las Cases made brilliant, elegant wines at barely 13% alcohol.

The experience of the past three vintages, where conditions prevented producers from making powerful, full bodied wines will hopefully help them redefine their concept of balance, ideal maturity, the importance of acidity and the best ripeness levels to express their unique site expression.

Consumers will benefit, because I believe many will be genuinely surprised at how wonderful these slim, focused and refreshing wines can be. We need to give more credence to a wine’s drinking pleasure than its power or longevity. For most consumers, a wine’s drinking window is as important as its size and ability to age.

Given the slim price reductions of the 2013s thus far, and the general oversupply of young Bordeaux on the market, there will likely be little interest in buying en primeur this year.

It’s unfortunate, not least because all the brilliant white wines and excellent sweet wines may also be overlooked.

But, savvy buyers can still find bargains. Those looking should seek wineries that did not succumb to the crazy pricing strategy of the past decade and also made delicious 2013s, such as Brane Cantenac, Clerc Milon, Canon la Gaffeliere and Domaine de Chevalier to name just a few. Or opt for affordable, juicy, well-crafted wines like Marjosse Blanc, Mont Perat Blanc or Clos les Lunelles.

Read the full Bordeaux 2013 reports by Steven Spurrier, Jeannie Cho Lee MW & James Lawther MW exclusively in the June edition of Decanter magazine, on sale 7 May.

Bordeaux 2013 ratings by commune:

Written by Jeannie Cho Lee MW

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