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June 3, 2024

2023 Bordeaux Field notes: Mixed blessings

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.

Hard to read

The wines themselves are sometimes, appropriately enough, hard to read. 2021was wet, yes; 2022 hot, yes 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 rule of thumb was to keep traveling up the D2 to reach the best vineyards. Northern Pauillac then, and St-Estèphe. Real gems from Lafite and Montrose. And we should not forget St-Julien; keep an eye on the ever-improving Branaire-Ducru; and marvel at one of the best Gruaud Laroses in years. Closer to the city (and especially closer to the estuary) there was more mildew threat and a more diverse crop of wines. A generally encouraging performance in Margaux, however, especially given its high proportion of wineries which are now committed to organic or biodynamic viticulture. Margaux itself is excellent, as are Brane Cantenac and Durfort Vivens, with Palmer continuing to plow its own magnificently idiosyncratic furrow!

Further south, some very creditable Pessacs and the like; I felt they generally lacked a little purity of definition, or maybe were a touch short when it came to concentration. It may have been warm latterly, but the sun was often obscured by clouds, which had an effect on the photosynthetic process. Or at least that is what we were told. Haut-Bailly and Domaine de Chevalier both stand out, not for the first time. Overall, the white wines were good to very good, with most preserving freshness and vibrancy as a result of an early harvest (forget the August holiday!); the sweets, for their part, benefited from ideal conditions early in the autumn and were brought in at great speed and with no lack of excitement. Yields are still parsimonious (not disastrous, however, as in 2021) and the sugar levels, whilst impressive, are not as high as last year. Better balance ensued, with Suduiraut and Climens the stand outs.

2023 en primeur: Selling the heterogeneous

A mixed bag then, with the word “heterogeneous” getting a lot of use from the critics this year. The market, for its part, has recognized the relative failure of the ‘22 en primeur campaign (despite the superb quality in play) and has reduced prices accordingly, with big names such as Lafite, Las Cases, and Haut-Brion all coming out at significant (30% plus, sometimes 40%) discounts on their forebears. Early pointers seem to indicate that the market is responding positively only to the wines which underprice not only the ‘22 release price, but also that of other equivalent vintages on the secondary market. 

This is a far from ideal scenario, deflationary at the very least and surely a situation which the growers will find hard to accept. All the more so if their template, that of a luxury good, is at risk, increasingly, of morphing into that of a branded commodity, demand rather than supply led. Exactly what the en primeur business model was set up to avoid. Tricky times, however, both geopolitically and economically, with the cost of capital high and stocks building up on the Quai des Chartrons. For the time being, the price reductions have had some positive effect (the campaign, at the time of writing, has not finished) but whether or not they will solve (or merely exacerbate) the extant problems remains to be seen. We shoud not forget that the majority of Bordeaux is sold outside the en primeur bubble, and the greater Bordeaux is not entirely free from commercial problems itself, quite the reverse.

A challenging environment, then, and a constituency of wines which is stylistically diverse. From a personal point of view, it was a great privilege to stay in Bordeaux for over a month, courtesy of four accommodating châteaux, and to have the opportunity to taste so broadly. The mood at large captures an awareness of the challenges in both the vineyard and the marketplace, and the technical expertise (and willingness to learn) is impressive. The qualitative benchmark has never been higher and I, for one, have a soft spot for the style of the ‘23s; lower in alcohol than some, with brisk natural acidity and yet generous succulent tannins and an “easy” structural integrity. Nothing too powerful, fleshy, or demonstrative. Quietly assertive, however, and with good ageing potential. Worthy of attention, at the very least.

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