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The year of Merlot and good terroir
2012 vintage has produced a number of very good to excellent wines and they are well spread right across Bordeaux. In a less homogenous vintage such as 2012 it is essential to tread carefully in order to secure the true gemsx’s appellations
2012 is an excellent vintage for Bordeaux white wines. The most have benefited from the cool summer and warm and sunny weather conditions in September. The best combine wonderful ripeness and weighty fruit with a nervy freshness and excellent tension. Complex aromatics are wide in spectrum exhibiting, citrus fruit, peaches as well as mineral and floral notes. 2012 whites are forward and charming with sufficient concentration and structure to promise graceful ageing.
Bordeaux’s red wines are far more varied in both quality and style. Following the challenging growing conditions especially during spring and autumn, earlier ripening Merlot has done exceptionally well in 2012, particularly in Pomerol. Here many compared this vintage with the very good 2001 and with the exceptional 1998. And indeed, the best Merlot based wines in both Pomerol and St Emilion have very pure aromatics. They are rich and dense with silky texture, ripe tannins and good levels of refreshing acidity. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc planted on the greatest terroirs of the Left and the Right bank, have also done very well. Aromatic red and black berry fruit is pure and well defined. Good acidity was provided by the cool summer and the best exhibit ripe tannins. 2012 reds might not have the density and structure of recent great vintages but they will be capable of mid-term ageing. Still there were a number of wines we tasted that exhibited insufficient ripeness and displayed rather green notes. There was a higher level of quality consistency to be found in Pessac –Léognan than in the other left bank communes but overall quality and the style of 2012 red wines varies greatly, even within the most successful appellations.
Part of the reason for the varied quality is that 2012 was a vintage in which terroir, good practices in the vineyard and in the winery have made the biggest difference. Extensive green harvesting and rigorous selection were needed. The best performing chateaux used a five-tier sorting table procedure. As we reported in previous years, the gap between properties being able to invest in new technology and facilities and those with lesser financial muscle continues to widen in Bordeaux. The best red wines of 2012 were in most cases made by the wealthiest chateaux that were able to invest in new cellars, vat rooms, application of optical sorting machines and plot by plot vinification in bespoke fermentation tanks designed to fit specific parcels of the vineyard. Some even used satellite mapping of their vineyards as this enables them to counter uneven maturing and meticulously plan harvesting plant by plant. Many of the winemakers and chateau owners argued that 20 years ago it would not have been possible to produce such good wines given 2012’s difficult weather conditions.
2012 was a late ripening year with a wet spring, a very dry, prolonged summer and an irregular, wet autumn. After the relatively mild and dry months of December and January, February was the coldest and driest on record since 1956. 35mm of rainfall was reported between January and March in Pauillac as opposed to the average of 130mm. March was warm with maximum temperatures averaging 18.3°C and consequently, bud break occurred from the end of March. However, April weather brought wet conditions with 178mm of rain; more than double of the last twenty year’s average and this had a negative effect on vegetative growth and caused uneven bud break. May temperatures and rainfall went back closer to the average of 18.5°C and this once again encouraged vegetative development. In Pomerol Château Bon Pasteur reported average vine shoot growth of 18cm per week. Still, the start of flowering was late with the mid-point recorded around 2nd June in St Julien by Léoville Poyferré, 4th June in Cheval Blanc St Emilion, 10th June in Lafite, Pauillac and 12th June in St Estèphe Cos d’Estournel. The process took place under wet and cool conditions causing coulure and millerandage. Particularly affected were the old Merlot plants and this will have a significant effect on the size of the crop and an uneven size and ripeness of grapes.
Damp conditions between April and June were also ideal for the development of mildew and oidium. Extensive work in the vineyards was needed on leaf thinning, secondary shoot removal, ploughing and bunch thinning to preserve the quality of the crop. Finally, sunny and warm weather started from 15th July and lasted until 3rd week of September. Lack of extreme temperatures helped to preserve acid levels in grapes. Also it accelerated the growth, helping plants to make up for some of the time, lost at the beginning of the cycle. Veraison for white varieties began in late July and for Merlot and Cabernets around 2nd of August. It occurred slowly and was prolonged over a three week period causing further variation in ripeness of the berries.
Rainfall in August was particularly low – 20mm – three times less than the average causing water stress needed for grape concentration. The best growers carried out green harvesting towards the end of month to eliminate less developed clusters and reduce the gap between maturity of the grapes. Warm and sunny weather continued in September and allowed chateaux to pick white grapes at their leisure. The harvest started on 4th September in Graves for white Haut Brion, 13th September for both Haut Smith Lafite in Pessac and Blanc de Lynch Bages in Pauillac and 17th September for Cos d’Etstournel in St Estèphe. The crop was healthy, promising great balance, with the higher sugar levels than in 2011 and similar high acidity to 2011 and 2010. The weather then changed in the last week of September. Very beneficial rain was recorded on 25th that stimulated ripening and slightly improved the size of the berries. Merlot was harvested from 24th September at Montrose, 1st October at both Mouton Rothschild and Palmer and 3rd October at Ducru Beaucaillou. On the Right bank Petit Village started harvesting young Merlot plants on 24th September, L’Evangile on 27th September and Ausone on 9th October. The size of the crop was reduced by poor flowering of Merlot and needed careful selection. However, the crop that passed careful selection was of superb quality. Cabernet Sauvignon required more time and the harvest started from 1st October at Mission Haut Brion in Graves, 8th October at Calon Segur in St Estèphe, 9th October at Lafite in Pauillac, and 10th October at Figeac in St Emilion. By the 20th October the harvest was finished in most of the places, more than 20 days later than in 2011. Despite October’s rains Cabernet grown on the best terroirs achieved a good level of ripeness. The crop was uneven in quality and needed meticulous selection. Judging by the excellent level of quality of the best reds, 2012 is in many ways the triumph of hard work and know how over very challenging weather conditions.