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What 2012’s vintage has to offer by Bordeaux Index’s Giles Cooper

Pichon Baron

Every year, April in the wine trade is taken over by Bordeaux En Primeur. This is the annual merry-go-round where chateaux in Bordeaux offer their young wines for critics and merchants to taste, in order to then sell them as ‘futures’ to the general public. Traditionally this was to help chateaux’ cash flow (making and storing wines of this calibre is very costly); in return for ‘cash up front’, the buyer got a discount, their choice of bottle size and a guarantee of securing the wine they want. The finished wines are then delivered approximately two and a half years after the grapes are picked.

In order to establish what to offer their customers, each merchant visits Bordeaux to taste hundreds of young wines from the vintage on offer – in this year’s case, 2012. This may sound like a jolly – and it’s unlikely that anything I say will change your view of that – but whilst tasting wines at this stage is a fascinating challenge, it’s not exactly enjoyable. Because the wines are so young (around six – seven months) and awaiting another year ageing in barrels followed by another year in the bottle before they’re even released. The wines often don’t smell of much, are aggressively tannic, and rather one-dimensional. So rather than finding out what the wines specifically ‘taste like’, you’re looking for the characteristics which will make the wine great further down the line. Structure, depth of fruit character, balance of acidity and alcohol; these will indicate how good the wine will taste when it’s eventually released and ready to drink.

Cheval Blanc 2012

So what are this year’s wines like? Well, it’s important to look at the conditions which produced them. In many parts, the 2012 vintage in Bordeaux was hard work, thanks (or no thanks) to the weather. Rain in spring meant the vines were late producing the first flowers (which turn into grape bunches); this was followed by a warm summer which in some parts threatened drought, preventing proper fruit development. Just as things were looking quite good, the rain fell at harvest time, speeding up the need to pick the grapes – if they didn’t, the grape juice would be diluted or worse, the bunches would be attacked by rot, spoiling the harvest. So fully ripe or not, the harvest was brought in.

Sounds bad, right? 20 years ago it would have been a disaster but thanks to modern vineyard practices, the technological ability to ruthlessly sort the good grapes from the bad, and a gentle hand in the winery, there are some beautiful wines in 2012.

In Pomerol and St Emilion, on the right bank of the Gironde, the main grape is Merlot which, due to its earlier ripening, was less affected by the late rain; furthermore, in the parts of Pomerol where the clay soils held water reserves through the hot summer, the vines were not stressed. The result here is some truly stunning wines.

On the left bank, the Medoc, the main grape is Cabernet Sauvignon which ripens later and was therefore more susceptible to the late rain. The best vineyards are also planted on gravel soils which don’t tend to hold water as well as clay – meaning the vines have smaller water reserves to draw on. However, this is also where the richest and most experienced chateaux are; they can pull out all the stops to make sure they make the very best of the harvest and this year is no exception.

To the south of Bordeaux town lies Graves and Pessac-Leognan, an area of vineyard which stretches right up to just a few kilometres from the town centre. This region had the most pleasant weather conditions through 2012 and produced arguably the most consistent wines of 2012; not just reds but stunning dry whites made predominantly from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, the likes of which you cannot find anywhere else.

So should you buy 2012s en primeur? Whilst once-in-a-lifetime vintages like 2009 and 2010 (yes, I know there are two – and they’re back to back as well) produced incredible wines, the prices were equally ambitious. The concept of rewarding the customer for buying futures by giving a discount was lost. However in 2012 the pricing looks extremely sensible: the rule of thumb is that the wine should be cheaper than any immediately available or ‘physical’ vintage of the same wine – at least in terms of comparable vintages – and in 2012 this is broadly true, with some serious discounts for those who look carefully.

For more information on the 2012 vintage, contact Bordeaux Index through email, by calling +44 20 7269 0703 or visiting the website.

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