It might have been a poor growing season for Bordeaux, writes but the 2012 vintage holds great promise
emand and prices for Bordeaux’s best wines, as you’d expect, are based on the perceived quality of particular vintages. Great years sell for the highest prices and poor years for the lowest. But every once in a while a “sleeper vintage” appears where the quality of the wines is underestimated and outstanding bottles sell for bargain prices. This is the case with the most recent Bordeaux vintage to hit the market—2012. Wines of excellent value, especially from top names in the Right Bank regions of Pomerol and Saint-émilion, are now available.
Earlier sleeper vintages include 2001 and 1994. These are particularly good years for merlot-based reds. For example, the legendary Château Le Pin is fantastic in 2001, clearly better than the highly lauded 2000. It was the same in 1994, which is arguably better than the touted 1996.
I remember first tasting the 2012 vintage in the spring of 2013. I taste new vintages each year in March after the harvest, just before the global wine trade descends on Bordeaux to assess the year. Most of the 500 wines or so— samples taken from barrel—seemed slightly diluted and lacking in structure. The growing season in 2012 was generally cool and wet, conditions that make it difficult to harvest ripe grapes and make structured wines. This was reflected in the barrel samples.
However, the wines improved after 12 to 14 months in barrel in the cellars of the châteaux. They gained density and structure. They became better wines. “I think we underestimated what we had in the barrel,” says Philippe Dhalluin, the technical director of Mouton Rothschild, the first growth that made the best wine of the 2012 vintage.
I don’t think the improvement in the 2012 was due to ageing in the barrel. It was all about what happened in the vineyard during the growing season months before. These days top estates—about 300 to 500 names—work their vineyards in an incredibly meticulous way, particularly in a difficult year like 2012. They tend the vines with the devotion of award-winning gardeners nurturing prized roses. So in less-than-perfect growing seasons, they do whatever is necessary to produce the best grapes possible. This could be anything from removing bunches of grapes to induce vines to better ripen the remaining fruit, to opening the leaf canopies to allow more sunshine to reach the grapes.
“It’s vintages like 2012 that show who are the best grape growers in Bordeaux,” says Alexandre Thienpont, who made one of the best wines of the year, Château Le Pin. “Everything has to be done at the right time and in the right way to produce the best grapes for harvest.”
It’s this attention to the detail of viticulture in Bordeaux that amazes me. In a vintage that should be mostly a washout in quality, most of the top producers of the region managed to harvest grapes of excellent quality and make outstanding wines. This is what makes a year a “sleeper vintage.” That’s why I’m enthusiastic about 2012 Bordeaux.