Field Notes from Bordeaux 2023: Feeling Out of Sorts?

By | 15 April 2024

In the first of a series of blogs from the Bordeaux 2023 en primeur tastings, Simon Field MW sets the meteorological and commercial scene behind the vintage.


Simon Field MW

It was 29°C (64°F) in Bordeaux yesterday, Sunday, April 14, with azure skies and the morning freshness gifted by the Atlantic Ocean. A far cry from two years ago, when, a mere week earlier, I was driving through a miasma of low-clinging mist and vineyard bonfires, the latter attempting, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to dissipate the threat of frost. It’s never safe at this time of year, however; Bruno Lemoine at Larrivet Haut-Brion reminds me that today’s more than clement weather was also experienced in 1991, only to be followed, a full two weeks later, by a terrible outbreak of frost. In Bordeaux, you never can tell.

You certainly can’t, for that matter, tell how the market will react to the imminent 2023 en primeur campaign. A year ago, optimism was all pervasive, a triumph, maybe, of hope over experience, with a strong sense that the superb harvest would trump any vulgar and somewhat inconsequential commercial doubts. A magnificent vintage unfurled and with it, disappointingly, a relatively lackluster primeur campaign. The dial was already shifting. A year on, there is less elation about the harvest and, inevitably, appreciably less by way of optimism. Even if it is 29 degrees outside.

The nature of the ’23s, according to my initial impressions, seems to be mixed. The two severe mildew outbreaks in 2018 and 2021 had a greater impact on those properties incapable of swift action. This explains why the more renowned appellations and larger properties suffered less, able to act swiftly and treat consistently, resulting in a polarized yield in the region. For example, yields per hectare increased in locations such as St. Julien, St-Estèphe, and Pomerol, but saw significant reductions in areas responsible for the majority of red Bordeaux wine.

This had nothing to do with weather conditions favoring exclusive locales in Médoc or Libourne, but was completely dependent on preparedness. As Olivier Bernard highlights, mildew can be disastrous but, when managed, it can lead to greater concentration and potentially higher quality wines. Domaine de Chevalier employed a three-step grape sorting method, ensuring that all lighter, mildew-affected grapes were removed. I have not detected any sign of mushroom flavors in my initial tastings as a result of this meticulous process.

On a related note, the 2023 Bordeaux style has been coined as “contemporary classic”. The season had plenty of sun late but no extreme heat peaks or drought risks. Moreover, the high water levels provided by winter rains and the wet June weather (which triggered the mildew) meant that the vines seldom lacked nourishment and the evapotranspiration patterns were within control.

The late season’s warmest weather resulted in a successful harvest of white grapes at the end of August, resulting in wines with plenty of freshness and bright acidity. The red grape harvest was warm and generally rain-free, with its extended duration partially explaining the diverse nature of the wines. A portion of the crop wasn’t harvested until early October, just a week before a significant rainfall period. In Sauternes, most of the botrytised fruit was harvested in one or two tries at the start of October; the wines there are impressive, sweet yet harmoniously balanced. The red wines tasted so far have tended more towards a linear and chiseled profile, both descriptions intended positively. Nothing excessively diluted has been discovered, and likewise, nothing resembling artificial or ponderous. Indeed, contemporary classics, even if this makes the wines sound similar to a new season’s range from a fashion retailer.

During the next three weeks, I will be visiting about eighty properties (and tasting from many more) to verify whether these initial insights are supported by the quality of the actual wines, tasted in a relaxed and in situ setting; much preferable than in the overcrowded exhibition centres in downtown Bordeaux. Then it will be interesting to see if the reality of the ensuing campaign supports the sometimes overreactionary journalistic voices—some advocating for a 30 per cent reduction in primeur prices to “salvage” the category.

While it’s desirable to avoid creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, an ever-expanding gap seems to be developing between the vintage’s identity and the commercial model used to market it. Is it disconnected or broken? One might recall how the press responded to the (undeniably significant) mildew incidents, with terms like ‘decimation’ and ‘disaster’ being thrown around without restraint. The yield was slightly below average, but the quality seems to be good to very good. Will that be enough to mitigate the doom-and-gloom calls for a radical revamp of the en primeur system? Probably not, but we’ll see. For now, the skies remain bright and clear, even though the temperature is set to drop by over ten degrees tomorrow.

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