A Year in Wine – What Happened in Bordeaux During 2013?

I enjoy taking a look back at what has gone before at this time of year and I thought I would highlight some of the miles we have travelled whilst ‘Bordeaux watching’ over 2013 and share my thoughts with you. Running both Bordeaux-Undiscovered and Interest In Wine I cover Bordeaux’s wines in all their glory from the petit chateaux to the great Classed Growths.

As I write Britain is being buffeted by gales and heavy rain so the weather seems an appropriate place to start. Looking back on 2013 you can see that it has been an ‘annus horribilis’ perhaps for some wine makers. Severe weather caused havoc amongst the vineyards with Bordeaux’s Entre Deux Mers, Bergerac and south of Cognac being the worst affected.

Violent storms packing golf ball sized hail smashed down on the vines destroying crops. Bordeaux’s harvest was late this year and was a bit of a bumpy ride with a cold, rainy and windy Spring delaying the flowering of the vines for nearly 3 weeks.

Coulure (the dropping of flowers resulting in less grapes on a cluster), Millerandage (poor fertilisation resulting in small, seedless shot grapes) and Rot have also resulted in reduced yields. Bordeaux is now looking at a historically low crop which will mean higher prices on some wines.

There is not a lot we can do about the weather but Bordeaux does have a secret weapon – it’s very own Area 51: Parcelle 52. This is an experimental testing ground but unlike Area 51 in the USA, Bordeaux’s Parcelle 52 doesn’t attract any conspiracy theories about aliens or little green men.

Parcelle 52 is an acre of land that has been planted with 52 grape varieties from around the world, in Gradignan, south of Bordeaux. Research is being carried out there into how these different grape varieties cope in Bordeaux’s weather and how they cope with climate change.

Interestingly innovation in Bordeaux grape varieties attracts a lot of attention from wine lovers and my series of blogs on Unclassifiable Bordeaux received a large readership. The series looked at Bordelaise wine makers who were bucking the norm and producing unusual wines – sometimes from rare or forgotten grapes – outside the restrictions of their AOCs. It’s an intriguing trend and the popularity of the series just shows how many of us enjoy new discoveries. . .

Talking of new discoveries, Paul’s blogs on Discovering New Wines in Bordeaux also proved to be very popular. Paul is our Financial Director and he set off on a mission in Bordeaux to discover new wines, chateaux and wine makers that offered fantastic quality for the money. Something that Bordeaux-Undiscovered is always on the hunt for!

Turning to the Grand Cru Classé’s exploits in 2013 we saw yet more expansion of their vineyards with several chateaux buying up their neighbours and even acquiring estates outside Bordeaux:

Alfred Tesseron, owner of Chateau Pontet Canet, bought Domaine Jenssen Cognac
along with tis 22 hectare estate (50 acres) Le Maine Pertubaud in the premier cru Grande Champagne appellation (Boneuil).

Francois Pinault added to First Growth Chateau Latour’s expanding empire with the the purchase of the 65 hectare Araujo Estate in Napa. Pinault is also one of the very few wine producers who own both Burgundy and Bordeaux estates.

He owns Domaine d’Eugénie in Vosne Romanée, some acres of vineyard purchased from Chateau de Puligny Montrachet and from the Montrachet Grand Cru Bâtard-Montrachet and Chateau Grillet in the Rhone. He has also expanded in Bordeaux with the purchase of Chateau La Becasse (a small unclassified property of 4 hectares with old vines near Chateaux Lynch Bages and Latour).

The Pichet Group, owners of Chateau Les Carmes Haut Brion and part of Chateau Le Thil, have continued to invest in wine making and have expanded their vineyards with the purchase of 42 acres of red vines at Chateau Haut Nouchet in Pessac Leognan. The Pichet Group will use their newly acquired acres in their new wine Les Clos de Carmes Haut Brion.  Chateau Haut Nouchet will continue to make a white wine.

Jacky Lorenzetti acquired 50% of the Third Growth estate Chateau d’Issan in Margaux and also bought the strategically placed Chateau Béhèré in Pauillac. An astute move as Béhèré is in a prime location, perfectly situated on parcels of vines nestling between the First Growths Chateau Latour, Lafite and Mouton. It was sold by Mr Camou who reasoned that the interest in his little property from more prestigious chateaux was that the big estates needed to invest to reduce their taxation.

Domaine Clarence Dillon, owners of First Growth Chateau Haut Brion, purchased Chateaux L’Arrosée and L’Armont which will now be merged with their Saint Emilion property Chateau Quintus. The small estates will now disappear off the radar as individual entities as they have been absorbed into Quintus – it seems that Domaine Clarence Dillon are keen to boost Quintus’ volume and strengthen its brand.

Chateau Prieure Lichine, the Margaux Fourth Growth Grand Cru Classé, acquired nearby Cru Bourgeois Chateau Pontet Chappez. It’s thought that the 18.5 acres (7.5 hectares) of Pontet Chappez vineyards will be absorbed into those of Prieuré Lichine.

Third Growth Chateau La Lagune has purchased its neighbour, Chateau D’Arche, from Mahler Besse (who also own Second Growth Chateau Palmer). Apparently the vineyards of D’Arche once belonged to La Lagune so it has regained what it once owned. I suspect that Chateau d’Arche will be absorbed into La Lagune rather than remain a separate entity.

Matthieu Cuvelier, owner of the Saint Emilion Premier Cru Classé B Chateau Clos Fourtet (and also of Chateau Poujeaux in Moulis) purchased 3 chateaux in Saint Emilion: Clos Saint-Martin, Chateau Les Grandes Murailles and Chateau Côte de Baleau. There is some speculation that Clos Saint Martin and Les Grandes Murailles may be included in the wines of Clos Fourtet rather than be maintained individually.

Chateau La Tour du Pin, in Saint Emilion, has been absorbed by its owner, First Growth Chateau Cheval Blanc. Cheval Blanc will use 3.5 acres of the best of La Tour du Pin’s vineyards and the remainder will be used to make a generic Saint Emilion.

The Grand Cru Classés have also been on the warpath over branding battles with smaller chateaux bearing similar names. The thinking behind it is that fame by association to a prestigious wine producing estate can benefit lesser chateaux as folks assume they are one and the same – which in turn can damage the more prestigious estate’s reputation.

The only examples of branding battles of this nature I can find are First Growths attacking smaller fry that impinge on their brand identity. The latest battle has been between the Saint Emilion First Growth, Chateau Figeac and two estates both owned by the Dutruilh family:

Chateaux Croix Figeac and de Pavillon Croix Figeac. The Court of Appeal of Bordeaux decided that Croix Figeac and de Pavillon Croix Figeac would have to drop their names after 6 years of litigation.

As we see chateaux bought out by their big rivals and aggressive brand protection in 2013, we also see smaller chateaux continuing to be snapped up by Chinese buyers – reportedly 60 this year! Is Bordeaux turning Chinese? The motives behind the acquisitions vary from a passion for Bordeaux’s wines to the desire to control the supply chain and lucrative tourism opportunities.

I hope that 2014 will bring some better weather for Bordeaux, some common sense re pricing at En Primeur and greater promotion of the petit chateaux!

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