first growths

2013 Bordeaux: That’s Why They Call Them The First Growths

Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux

Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux pontificates on the 2013 vintage

The first growths are so designated because they are considered to have the best terroirs in the Haut-Medoc. (I say this knowing that the Right Bank and Pessac are excluded here.) The argument here is that the land speaks more than the winemaker’s hand.

Over the past few years with Bordeaux consistently churning out some incredible wines, the riding tide of quality that comes from a great vintage compresses the distance between the first growths and other top notch estates of the Haut-Medoc. Witness the astounding Pontet-Canets from 2009 and 2010 which arguably give the first growths a run for the money.

But what happens in the more difficult years? Do the supposedly superior terroirs actually allow the first growths to produce wines better than their neighbors? Or has the new money that has modernized so many wineries in combination with whipsmart winemakers closed the gap between the first growths and their upstarts? With some of the worst weather in decades, the wines from 2013 would provide a good platform to answer these questions.

Luckily, our schedule was constructed to visit all of the Haut-Medoc first growths in succession. Now let’s acknowledge that from a purely hedonistic point of view, this was going to be a pretty awesome experience. We consider ourselves quite lucky to have a morning where we can indulge in some of Bordeaux’s best wines, one after the other. This all notwithstanding, we had some work ahead of us!!

Tasting the 2013 Chateau Latour

Tasting the 2013 Chateau Latour

Fortunately, this morning also followed a couple of days going through many of the wines that comprise the other four classes of the 1855 classification. Domaines like Pontet-Canet, Cos d’Estournel and Palmer are among the 10-20 or so estates that can easily challenge the first growths as one of the best wines of the vintage. Would any of these wines surpass the quality of the first growths in 2013?

A visit to Chateau Margaux showed that 2013was a test the winery passed successfully. As winemaker Paul Pontallier observed, “We feel we are quite privileged to have the means to make great wine. But also it is true that in vintages like 2013, great terroirs show their supremacy.” Parceling much of their merlot into the domaine’s other cuvees, this year’s grand vin had 94% cabernet sauvignon, 5% cab franc and 1% petit verdot and showed graceful power with good length. This vintage shows a richness of fruit that is tempered by Margaux’s trademark finesse and was a success for the vintage.

Focusing again on a first growth that possesses a finessed palette, Lafite Rothschild showcased it’s prettier fruit expression clearly in 2013. Like Margaux, Lafite depended on cabernet sauvignon (98% in this case) to provide the power and foundation of the grand vin. One trait of the 2013’s is a fresh and vibrant red fruit expression with a crisp and crunchy texture that slowly gives way to more depth and concentration with some air. The wine’s fine grained tannins were in balance with the fruit weight keeping the sleek structure that Lafite is known for.

When it comes to power, Mouton Rothschild and Latour traditionally show the full-bodied texture and intensity of flavor that is a foil to Margaux and Lafite’s elegance. Once again, these two properties stayed true to their identities pouring 13’s that were as good if not better than last year’s wines. Depth and concentration abounded, not only in their top cuvees but also in the second wines. Already looking like complete wines, layers of blackfruits peeled away to reveal even more nuance and complexity. Just the right amount of acidity added vibrancy and precision to the flavors while the integrated tannins added support contributing to the wine’s overall balance. These were thrilling examples that stayed true to the pedigree of each estate. At the same time, these wines proved that excellent wines could be found in this difficult year.

The setup at Lafite-Rothschild

The setup at Lafite-Rothschild

Compared with the wines of the Haut-Medoc tasted during the previous two days, the first growths clearly stole the show. Their 2013s were what you would expect of a first growth, maybe without the potential to age 25+ years, but they were no slouches. The other top chateaux of the Haut-Medoc clearly showed more variability among them with successes mixed with others where the challenges of the harvest proved difficult to overcome.

In the end, it seems that in 2013, the great terroirs of the first growths added that something special to make wines of greater quality than what we found in all the Haut-Medoc wines encountered beforehand. The technical talent and equipment available to Bordeaux’s best estates is relatively equal so perhaps it is the terroirs that speak with a stronger voice in challenging years. Why? Who’s to say. As those at Chateau Margaux say themselves, “The genius of great terroirs is difficult to fathom.” But in 2013, the terroirs of the top estates clearly showed why they are called “The First Growths of the Medoc”.