Julian Hitner reports on one of the most inconsistent and overpriced vintages Bordeaux has faced in recent years.
A question of value:
by Julian Hitner
If there is one lesson claret connoisseurs may take from the 2012 vintage, it is that it pays to be selective. To best understand this, we must briefly turn our attention to the back-to-back vintages of 2009 and 2010. Widely hailed as two of the most luxurious, most ageworthy harvests Mother Nature has ever bestowed, most estates and négociants experienced little compunction in raising their prices by hitherto ludicrous margins. Considering the quality, collectors and casual buyers both played along, and sales went extremely well. Then came 2011, a vintage of middling quality that should have brought prices back to levels similar to 2008 – ironically the most underrated vintage of the 21st century. It didn’t, and sales were anything but vigorous.
This brings us back to 2012, a vintage of even more variable quality. For most of us, common sense would dictate that estates and négociants, smarting from a sharp decline in 2011 sales, would deign to adjust their prices to something mimicking 2008. Once again, this did not happen, leaving many claret lovers to ask, especially when considering how mediocre 2013 is purported to be: when will Bordeaux wise up?
Hence the importance of selectiveness in 2012, in patronizing only the best wines from a select few estates and négociants with the audacity to sell at reasonable prices. For the record: a surprising number of estates did in fact manage to produce some really attractive, freshly flavoured wines, making it doubly unfortunate that 2012 is most likely to be remembered along the same lines as 2011 or 2007: two deceptively average years plagued more by price gouging than precipitation or pestilence put together. In the end, only a handful of top performers got their acts right.
The Left Bank:
In terms of consistency, Margaux is the standout appellation, with more wines than naught retaining remarkable freshness, definition and fragrance. Clarity of fruit is essential in a vintage like 2012, particularly where new oak is often (and advisably) used in lesser amounts. Those that had problems with ripeness suffered in spades, not just in Margaux but in many other places. In St-Julien, many estates seem to have publicly defied the challenges of the harvest, crafting wines of impeccable fruit orientation and layering. By contrast, Pauillac is more of a mixed bag, where only the really illustrious properties seem to have produced wines of exceptional body, structure and class. More than anything, this is likely to do with problems in fully ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, a factor on which great Pauillac almost always significantly depends. In St-Estèphe, many châteaux seem to have compensated by using larger percentages of earlier-ripening Merlot, crafting some truly appetizing, approachable wines.
For bargain hunters, however, the appellations of Moulis-en-Médoc and Listrac-Médoc rank as top picks. Without the same name recognition as their above-mentioned counterparts, prices for the best wines, crafted with undeniable scrutiny and care, seem strikingly rewarding and reasonable. Though not exactly as fulsome and cellarable as the best of Margaux or St-Julien, the most promising examples (crafted from larger percentages of Merlot) clearly possess more than enough freshness, structure and durability for both youthful enjoyment and long-term accumulation. Such is the theme of most overvalued yet underappreciated vintages: it gives underdogs a rare chance to shine.
Along with at least several parts of the Left Bank, the reds of Pessac-Léognan are largely hit-and-miss affairs. The whites, on the other hand, are a different matter entirely. Though I was only able to record formal notes on a handful of them (same with the reds), it seems 2012 will be remembered as an extremely successful vintage for white Graves. Crafted mostly from Sauvignon Blanc with Sémillon as accompaniment (along with a few drops of Muscadelle), a great glass of white Pessac-Léognan certainly ranks one of Bordeaux’s most under-celebrated types of premium wine. Like top white burgundy, the best examples are both fermented and matured in oak barrels, resulting in impeccable concentration, complexity and long-term cellaring potential. In 2012, many estates produced truly exceptional, sophisticated examples.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the sweet whites of Sauternes and Barsac, with several estates opting out of even declaring a vintage. This is has generated a great deal of controversy, with many arguing such a move serves only to discourage buyers from patronizing the vintage in any way whatsoever. On the other hand: there is general consensus that most estates experienced enormous difficulties in 2012, with only a small number of properties managing to craft really rejuvenating, desirable versions. Thankfully these days, prices for Sauternes and Barsac are almost always agreeable, especially when considering the amount of labour that goes into producing this type of wine.
The Right Bank:
In this neck of the woods, where wines are mostly crafted from Merlot and small amounts of Cabernet Franc, there is no question that Pomerol is the winner, with many estates producing wines of impeccable beauty, harmony and charm. Like their counterparts on the Left Bank, the best examples shall easily keep for two decades or more, though may be enjoyed now with unfettered enthusiasm. Unfortunately, many of these same properties also seem to have taken the same misguided cue in pegging their wines at markedly high prices. As a result, one must use the same level of caution when selecting from Pomerol as with Margaux, St-Julien or white Graves.
Across the border in St-Emilion, the same generalizations regarding quality are almost impossible to make. On the one hand, there are a good number of estates that steered clear of overt Parkerization (excessive extraction), crafting wines of beautiful smoothness, opulence and pedigree. On the other, you have countless establishments that seem to have lost their way, their wines possessing more in common with port than with claret. While these same wines may be awarded high scores, their injudicious use of new oak and prolonged hang-time on the vine to promote extra ripeness and higher levels of alcohol (particularly inadvisable in 2012) serves only to distort the origins and singular qualities of the wines themselves, not to mention fails to disguise any phenolically underripe grapes that may have been picked. After all, what is the point of growing wine in St-Emilion when they all start tasting like they originated from Napa? In a year like 2012, the creation of such supercharged, overpriced wines does little to boaster long-term support for one of Bordeaux’s most dynamic appellations.
For many wine lovers nowadays, Bordeaux continues to harbour an image problem. For some, the estates and their wines are too stuffy, too obsessed with their own self-worth, charging exorbitant prices for bottles that may not even be opened for a decade or more. This makes the pricing structure of a vintage like 2012 all the more problematic, in that it only feeds into such sentiments. If claret is to remain relevant, its countless producers must never forget that its wines are unique, that it is short-sighted to produce wines like those of the Upper Douro or Napa Valley, and that it is especially important for premium estates to significantly lower their prices in non-legendary years. For an underappreciated vintage like 2012, most simply failed to recognize this.
Château Carbonnieux Blanc 2012 Pessac-Léognan hails from one of the most consistent, most proficient producers of premium white Graves. Retaining exemplary palate roundness, harmony and refinement, the Perrin family is yet again to be commended for its superior efforts. Drink now or hold for up to a decade.
Château Kirwan 2012 Margaux may be easily justified as one of the top premium picks of the appellation, if not the entire vintage. A wine of remarkable purity, fragrance and freshness, it’s a miracle VINTAGES isn’t charging more for this. Drink now or hold for up to two decades. Decanting is recommended.
Château Siran 2012 Margaux comes from one of the friendliest, most accessible estates in its neck of the woods. Though not included in the 1855 Classification, this deliciously fruity and flavourful claret is easily one of the best bargains of the vintage. Drink now or hold for a dozen years or more. Decanting is recommended.
Château Prieuré-Lichine 2012 Margaux hails from one of the most fragmented estates on the Left Bank, with as many as forty different parcels scattered throughout the appellation. Over the past several years, quality has risen considerably, its latest outing showing exceptional structure and precision. Drink now or hold for eighteen years or more. Decanting is recommended.
Château Maucaillou 2012 Moulis-en-Médoc is unquestionably one of the best bets for the budget-minded, demonstrating outstanding precision, style and harmony. Owned by the Dourthe family since 1929, quality at this estate has risen much over the past several years. Drink now or hold for fifteen years or more. Decanting is recommended.
Château Poujeaux 2012 Moulis-en-Médoc is capable of going head-to-head with many more famous names throughout the Left Bank. Possessing remarkable harmony, precision and build, the Theil family has every reason to be proud of all they’ve accomplished. Drink now or hold for up to eighteen years. Decanting is recommended.
Château Sociando-Mallet 2012 Haut-Médoc comes from one of the most adept, most undervalued estates on the Left Bank. Possessing remarkable structure and class, wines from this exemplarily situated property are always reasonably priced and delicious. Let’s hope this never changes. Drink now or hold for a dozen years or more. Decanting is recommended.
Château Coufran 2012 Haut-Médoc is a great choice for the budget-minded, containing far more Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon in the final blend – a reflection of vineyard conditions. Owned by the Miailhe for a very long time, this is one property to watch. Drink now or hold for up to a decade or more. Decanting is recommended.
Château Saint-Pierre 2012 St-Julien is definitely one of the year’s highlights, possessing extraordinary layering, structure and elegance. One of the smallest estates included in the 1855 Classification, this impeccable Fourth Growth is seldom sold in VINTAGES, only through its futures programme. Drink now or hold for two decades or more. Decanting is recommended.
Château Haut-Bages Libéral 2012 Pauillac hails from one of very few estates in this vintage with the gumption to set its prices correctly. A claret of marvellous framework, balance and appellation character, a wine like this merits our patronage. Drink now or hold for up to eighteen years. Decanting is recommended.
Château Gazin 2012 Pomerol has all the makings of an exemplary red wine, crafted at one of largest, most greatly improved estates on the appellation’s plateau. Exhibiting impeccable layering, structure and breed, it is unfortunate loyal admirers were only given a perfunctory break on the price. Drink now or hold for two decades or more. Decanting is recommended.
Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey 2012 Sauternes regrettably represents one of few sweet wines for which I had time to write formal notes. Even so, few would deny that this particular specimen ranks as one of the most sensational, most lusciously stylish of the bunch. Reasonably priced when considering the amount of labour involved. Drink now or hold for three decades or more.
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