The Best of Bordeaux 2014 Vintage
First published South China Morning Post, April 2015 here
A reversal in weather conditions resulted in mixed fortunes for the 2014 vintage
Another year, another difficult decision to make on whether to buy the fledgling Bordeaux wines. This time it's the 2014 vintage; a year that Pierre Seillan at Château Lassegue in Saint-Emilion described as "crazy".
"In 48 years of making wine, I have never seen such a spectacular reversal of fortunes as in 2014," he says.
What he means is that after a dismal July and August, the skies cleared and there were two months of uninterrupted sunshine, allowing the grapes, at the very least, a fighting chance of turning into high-quality wines.
The 2014 vintage has a few characteristics you should know about before deciding whether to buy - either now during the en primeur season, or in a few years when the wines are in bottle.
First, even with the September and October sunshine, the quality of the fruit has remained on the fresh scale because by the time the sun made its appearance, the heat that it brings in July and August had dissipated somewhat, and the nights had turned cooler. In most cases the grapes have ripened fully - particularly the cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, which love a slow ripening season. But there are no cooked aromas in 2014, so expect plum, damsons and cherries rather than figs or prunes. At the same time, the sunshine was sufficiently prolonged so that in the best properties the tannins are soft and approachable.
At the same time, high acidity is a feature in both reds and whites. Again, this is a direct result of the weather, as the malic acid naturally present in grapes tends to get zapped by summer sunshine in normal years. The rainy August in 2014 meant that by the end of the month the malic levels were still very high, so you're going to find plenty of wines that have a real skip in their step. Producers on dry gravelly soils have done best, as have those who reduced the number of grapes halfway through the season, leaving the rest of the crop to concentrate and ripen fully. Some cooler clay soils, or those who left yields high seem to have fairly meagre wines where the acidity hasn't dropped low enough to be palatable.
Inevitably it means that cabernet-dominated wines have the edge, but overall it leaves the wines falling into two camps - those with a gorgeous freshness and minerality to them, that will age beautifully, and those where the mid palate is lean and the finish is tart.
High acidity is a feature in both reds and whites. Again, this is a direct result of the weather, as the malic acid naturally present in grapes tends to get zapped by summer sunshine in normal years
The best of the reds are fruit-forward with well-extracted firm but silky tannins and will provide excellent medium-term drinking - a step up from the past three years. There are even some that might go a full 20, 30 even 40 years because the very best reds have achieved that magic combination of fruit, tannin and acidity. For the best of the whites, this is a vintage with huge appeal to lovers of fresh, classic wines in the mould of 2001 or 2011.
Best first growths
For me, Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Latour have the edge in 2014. Latour has been farming its key plots organically (and increasingly, biodynamically) for a decade, and there is a clear lightness and vivacity to its structure in 2014, still with the customary restrained power of this property. Lafite has easily produced its best since 2010; perfectly balanced, deftly handled, capable of decades of ageing. Of the Right Bank first growths, I would say Château Cheval Blanc has performed the best. With a blend of 55 per cent merlot, 45 per cent cabernet franc, this is another property that has found the magic combination of power and restraint in 2014.
Best second wines
Up in Pauillac, Petit Mouton is incredible, with a full 93 per cent cabernet sauvignon in the mix in a cabernet year, as is La Réserve de Comtesse. Other great second wines include La Dame de Montrose (Saint-Estèphe), Le Petit Lion (Saint-Julien), Petit Haut de Smith Haut (Pessac Léognan).
Best merlot dominated
On a general tasting of the Right Bank, merlot seems to have suffered compared to cabernet sauvignon, but there are some truly brilliant exceptions - namely, Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol. The 2014 is one of the best vintages of this great wine that I can remember tasting at this stage, and even though it has a high proportion of cabernet franc, owner Alexandre Thienpont is enthusiastic about his merlot. Other great merlots in 2014 are found in Château Canon (Saint-Emilion, and likely to be great value), Château Clinet in Pomerol and Château Montlandrie in Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux.Château Ormes de Pez, AOC Saint-Estèphe
Best cabernet dominated
There is a long list for this vintage, but right up there, touching the first growths without a doubt, is Château Montrose in Saint-Estèphe. Just total class, easily capable of ageing several decades or more. Many of the other unmissable cabernet-dominated wines are in the Saint-Julien appellation - it's hard to go wrong here in 2014, but two of my favourites include Château Langoa-Barton and Ducru-Beaucaillou. Down the road in Margaux, Château Palmer is looking good, as is Château Giscours, while further south in Pessac Léognan my money's on Châteaux Pape Clément and Malartic Lagravière.
Fresh acidities mean good ageing potential in the whites, but the best ones also manage to get some body and weight into the palate. At the top of the tree are Domaine de Chevalier, Château Haut-Brion Blanc, Château Smith Haut Lafitte and Pavillon Blanc - but don't forget smaller estates such as Villa Bel Air or Clos Floridène in AOC Graves.Château Lalande-Borie, Saint-Julien
Both Château Figeac and Château Calon Ségur divided opinions this year for their apparent style changes, especially Calon Ségur with its high merlot percentage and slightly rounder, more-gourmet-than-average style. Both are beautiful examples of 2014, but veer a little off their usual paths - see what you think.
Several estates have hit it out of the park in 2014. Among them are Château Pédesclaux in Pauillac, where new cellars and a more finessed approach have resulted in a big improvement; and Château Olivier in Pessac Léognan, where new plantings and smart winemaking are starting to translate into brilliant wines. Château Duhart-Milon is an underrated Pauillac force.
Don't look for investment potential if buying en primeur, but, instead, intrinsic value (wines you look forward to opening at the price you bought them at). For me, these include the brilliant Château Lalande-Borie (another Saint-Julien from the Ducru-Beaucaillou stable at a reasonable price), Château Ormes de Pez (from the Lynch Bages team but up in Saint-Estèphe), Château Meyney and Château Clerc Milon
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Crush course