by Rod Smith MW

A Classic In The Making?

After the excessive heat of 2022, the vintage 2023 marks a return to normality for Bordeaux. Had this vintage happened 30, or even 20, years ago, it would have gone down as a “difficult” vintage. With all the euphemistic baggage that carries. But at this point, with all the developments in the vineyard and winery, and the sheer amount of work and selection that the estates of Bordeaux – certainly the great and good ones anyway – can accomplish, the wines are little short of revelatory.

The word “classic” gets overused, and with Bordeaux that has long been the case. In consequence, pretty much uniquely among wine regions and even in general, the word “classic” has come to be almost pejorative – shorthand for a lean, tannic vintage with overtones of the hard wines of yesteryear.  “Classic Pauillac” – good. “Classic Bordeaux” – bad.

2023 is, however, classic for all the right reasons. It was a warm year, the second warmest ever in fact, which is in line with what is going on in the world in general. But there was ample cloud cover and rain. It is not a “solaire” vintage, and carries none of the heat of 2022, 2018 or 2015, which were seductive in their youth, but unlikely to live for decades. It also does not have those years’ levels of alcohol. Which is good. However, the warmth meant that this is not a lean, green year with fruit – and specifically tannins – struggling to ripen fully (the bad sort of classic). In short, this is a year of great balance and precision.

It may not go down in history as a great vintage, like 2016, 2019 and 2020, because there were problems, and only the clever, or well-resourced, or both, managed to overcome them. The ample spring rains bought with them the mildew pressure that usually accompanies them. This required treatments and selection, especially of Merlot. A very generous flowering created the potential for enormous yields, and lots of seeds in the grapes. Those who needed to select their Merlots (especially Margaux on the left bank) to take out the mildew suffered from reduced yields in consequence, although in some cases this has helped concentration in the wine. This has resulted in a lower than average volume across the whole region (mainly Merlot wines), but a higher than normal yield among the top appellations and estates, especially those with a large percentage of Cabernet.

2023 completed a trio of small crops, with 384 million litres (37 hl/ha). The hotter 2022 saw 411 million litres (38 hl/ha) and in the wet 2021 377 million litres (35 hl/ha) were produced. In context, the annual average between 2011 and 2020 was 487 million litres, and between 2001 and 2010 the average annual figure was 581 million litres.

A late summer heatwave caused the berries to begin to shrivel, and although the Merlot (and the dry whites) had, by and large, been harvested by then, there were Cabernets awaiting harvest with some fairly under-ripe tannins and yet-to-ripen-fully seeds. A predicted downpour on 19th and 20th September was the catalyst for some people to pick earlier than optimal. Those who waited were well rewarded, partly because the rainfall was much less than predicted, and partly because it did a fine job of freshening the grapes, thereby creating balance to the acidity, fruit and sugar, and allowing the much needed few days (or even weeks) of extra ripening. This matured the tannins and especially the seeds. All the great estates waited, as did most of the good ones. Only a very few lesser wines carry the rigid tannins as a symptom of not having done so.

When all these elements came together, and producers who had learned and continued to practice the lessons of limited extraction from the hot 2022 vintage, the wines are touching their optimum greatness. Balanced alcohols, almost all a full degree less than 2022. Fresh and juicy acidities (one of the “mots du millésime” was “juteau” (juicy)), without exceptional pH levels (in either direction) and full, ripe fruit weight without any jamminess. There is a lovely Margaux-like floral touch across the whole region. The tannins are ripe, but not overly so, and fine. They dominate a little at the En Primeur stage – which is as they should. Years when the wines seem drinkable at this point are probably not destined for longevity.

In Sauternes the much needed September rainfall was followed by ideal conditions for a rapid, and very well balanced, harvest of perfectly botrytis-affected grapes. It is a great Sauternes vintage.

The 2023 vintage is definitely superior to the recent weaker vintages of 2021 and 2017, but will probably sit somewhere below the supreme quality of 2016, 2019 and 2020.
The freshness means that it will probably last longer and provide more enjoyment long-term than 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2022.

As always, tread carefully. Some lesser Merlots lack precision and depth, and some lesser Cabernets have hard tannins. The top estates have all made great wine.

This is a vintage which has really exposed and amplified the great terroirs, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot on clay.

Communes which succeeded especially well include St Estèphe and Pauillac (in this respect, if not really in others, 2023 resembles 2014). Pomerol (almost all succeeded brilliantly here), the dry whites of Pessac and Graves. It is also, as I said, an exceptional for Sauternes. Elsewhere look for the finest terroirs and greatest producers.

The Bordeaux producers are all well aware that if the sales En Primeur do not constitute a bargain in some way, then purchasers will not be interested, thereby further unhelpfully augmenting the stock sitting in négociants’ cellars. If you can buy, say, 2019 (more ready to drink, less storage costs, known fine vintage) in the market for the same price, why would you take a gamble on 2023? Although in some cases the 2023 wine is superior to the same property’s 2019, as a generalisation they are at best on a level, and obviously  four years behind in terms of drinking.

The prices for the 2023 wines are already being released, and many of them are offering the kind of reduction from 2022 which seem near-certain to set fire to this En Primeur season and result in some serious uptake, and resulting bargains. Santé.

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