The 2013 vintage is Bordeaux was notoriously difficult. How did members of the Cru Bourgeois fare?
Last month, first in Paris and then in London, the Medoc’s Cru Bourgeois for 2013 were put on display. Some producers have described the vintage, representing the third challenging year in a row, as the most difficult of the past 30 years. They look back to the pair of terrific vintages, 2009 and 2010, with fond nostalgia.
The issue in 2013 across most of Bordeaux was essentially a late start to the growing cycle compounded by an early harvest due to the onset of rot. This resulted in difficulties in getting grapes to ripen fully, a huge issue around varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon which need phenolic ripeness to help tame those tannins.
The number of estates receiving 2013 Cru Bourgeois status was reasonably stable, 251 compared with 260 in 2010, spread across seven of the eight authorised appellations (AOCs) of Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Listrac-Medoc, Moulis, Margaux, Pauillac and Saint Estephe. (There was nothing from Saint Julien).
But production was dramatically lower. In both the mega 2009 and 2010 vintages, a total of 32 million bottles of Cru Bourgeois was produced. In 2013 this was stubbornly set at 20 million bottles.
The wines may seem uneven compared with, say, the 2009s, but all in all, there was clearly some very skilled work going on in both vineyard and winery and, critically, some serious grape sorting: hence the significant drop in bottling. Some wines, though, display striking perfumes with a satinate texture, and deep concentration of flavours.
All this is excellent news for the director of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Medoc, Frederique Dutheillet de Lamothe, because it proves that all the hard work which has gone into creating a credible, reliable system, is paying off.
She was on day 5 of this job when something dramatic happened. A three-tier classification system created in 2003 and intended to go up for review only after a decade, collapsed in 2007. It simply wasn’t working for the producers, at least not for all of them.
De Lamothe set about rebuilding a system that would this time be objective and impartial, and at the same bring transparency and quality assurance for the consumer. The new system is very strict for the producer, with the Alliance controlling production including the amount of time the wine must spend on oak (18 months). Before gaining the right to use the moniker Cru Bourgeois on the label, each wine has to be submitted to a blind tasting. After bottling, every bottle now has a unique secure visual recognition system embedded in a sticker attached to the foil, containing a random code.
Besides preventing counterfeits, this system means that unscrupulous producers cannot increase their bottling with an inferior wine. Further, if a wine fails to be selected after the blind tasting, the chateau has to label it with an alternative name. In a good year like 2009, a producer might be able to use the entire production for Cru Bourgeois wine. In a vintage such as 2013, it might only be 70 per cent, to maintain quality within the system.
Submitting wines annually creates a lot of work, but apparently the system, which began in 2010 with the 2008 vintage, “is going very well”. De Lamothe agrees that it has taken a certain degree of diplomacy to get the system safely in place, but in fact 90 per cent of producers “really wanted to save the traditional, centuries-old Crus Bourgeois du Medoc name”.
However, she says that the Alliance is continually “looking for another way, the right way”. This might later involve granting eligibility to use the moniker for five years rather than one, and the introduction of a two-tier rather than one-tier classification.
The system is certainly giving the Alliance’s traditional stance of offering quality and value renewed credibility. One buyer in Paris has apparently said to de Lamothe that he doesn’t necessarily even have to do his own tasting because he trusts the system so much. The idea is that while the 2013s may not be close to the 2010s in quality terms, they’re still good wines, or they would not be allowed to call themselves Cru Bourgeois.
Nor are they price-speculative wines. While Bordeaux is often criticised for its pricing policies, this affects only the very top wines. Average retail in France for Cru Bourgeois is 10-20 euros, with an average price in London of £16. The price-quality ratio can further be assumed given that this band of wines sits just below the ranks of the five First Growths identified in the 1855 classification. Thanks to the Alliance, even the 2013s are worth looking at.