2023 Bordeaux Field Notes: A Year of Mixed Blessings for Vineyards

By | 4 June 2024

How well will a heterogeneous vintage sell?

By Simon Field MW

Two questions underpin every en primeur campaign: What is the quality of the wine, and how is the campaign going? One of the increasingly obvious anomalies, and one which should at the very least be a cause for concern, is the lack of correlation between the two answers. It is as if the commercial body politic has taken on a life of its own and responds not to the nourishment of qualitative analysis, but rather to somewhat unpredictable economic forces at large. This is the case, once again, with the crop of 2023.

The wines themselves are sometimes, appropriately enough, hard to read. 2021 was wet, yes; 2022 hot, indeed; but 2023 was both hot and wet. All very well in series, but in parallel, especially at certain points of the season, potentially problematic. Hence the early summer mildew and the late summer sunburn; hence the fact that there was no “canicule,” no drought, but also, at times, not much to challenge the vines with what one may term as creative stress. This could result in excessive foliage, which could, if left, aggravate the mildew risk, and if cut back, expose the grapes to the sun and impending desiccation. The dangers were more evident with the Right Bank Merlots, some of which have bequeathed rather hollow, uninspiring wines, others of which make up for the lack of 2022’s generosity with magnificent structural regality. In the latter camp reside such labels as Vieux Château Certain and l’Evangile, the latter particularly impressive this year. Pomp and circumstance.

On the Left Bank, the best approach was to follow the D2 road northward to discover the premier vineyards. Notable stops include northern Pauillac and St-Estèphe where Lafite and Montrose present true treasures. Don’t overlook St-Julien, where Branaire-Ducru shows marked improvements and Gruaud Larose offers one of its finest vintages in recent memory. Nearer to the city, and closer to the estuary, the vineyards faced greater mildew risks and produced a more variable quality of wines. Margaux, however, showed a predominantly strong performance, underscored by a considerable number of estates adopting organic or biodynamic practices. Notables in Margaux included the outstanding Chateau Margaux, Brane Cantenac, and Durfort Vivens, with Palmer consistently following its unique path.

Heading further south revealed commendable efforts in Pessac, albeit slightly lacking in purity or concentration. Cooler conditions maintained by frequent cloudy skies somewhat hampered the photosynthetic activity. Haut-Bailly and Domaine de Chevalier were, as usual, among the highlights. The white wines from this region were generally good to very good, benefiting from an early harvest that preserved their freshness and vibrancy, bypassing the typical August vacation. The sweet wines enjoyed perfect early autumn conditions, harvested swiftly amidst considerable excitement. Yields remained low but not as poor as the previous year, sugar levels were high though not as much as before, resulting in a more balanced vintage with notable examples from Suduiraut and Climens.

A mixed bag then, with the term “heterogeneous” commonly used by critics this year. The market has noticeably adjusted from the somewhat lackluster ’22 en primeur campaign, despite the high quality of wines, reflecting significant price reductions (sometimes over 30% or even 40%) on previous vintages for top labels such as Lafite, Las Cases, and Haut-Brion. Preliminary signs suggest the market is favoring wines priced below not only their initial release cost but also versus comparable past vintages available on secondary markets.

The situation described is less than optimal, potentially deflationary, and likely difficult for the growers to come to terms with. The risk of luxury goods transitioning to branded commodities, driven by demand rather than supply, is precisely what the en primeur business model aims to avoid. The times are challenging both geopolitically and economically, with high cost of capital and growing stockpiles at Quai des Chartrons. So far, price cuts have shown some positive impacts; however, it remains uncertain whether these will address the issues or exacerbate them. It’s important to remember that most of Bordeaux’s sales occur outside the en primeur sphere, and the broader Bordeaux market also faces its commercial challenges.

The situation presents a challenging environment, with a diverse stylistic range among the wines. Personally, having the opportunity to stay in Bordeaux for over a month, hosted by four generous châteaux, and tasting a wide variety of wines was a significant privilege. The general awareness of the hurdles facing both vineyards and marketplaces is notable, as is the high level of technical expertise and eagerness to innovate. The quality benchmark is impressively high. I particularly enjoyed the 2023s for their lower alcohol levels, brisk acidity, and generously succulent tannins, which provide an accessible structural framework without being overly powerful or showy. They are quietly confident and seem to have promising ageing potential. These are, without doubt, deserving of notice.

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