Success on the Right Bank in the Bordeaux 2014 vintage depended on a vineyard's specific soil type and an estate's attention to detail ahead of harvest amid a cool and rainy summer, says James Lawther MW after tasting the young wines during en primeur week.
Chateaux on Bordeaux's Right Bank had to contend with more rain than their neighbours on the other side of the river, and the early ripening characteristic of Merlot - the dominant grape variety for many - meant harvest came to soon for grapes to enjoy the full benefit of the region's September heatwave. Some have labelled 2014 a Medoc and Cabernet Sauvignon vintage.
'It doesn't mean that there aren't some decent wines, but it's a little bit more of an up and down vintage on the Right Bank,' said James Lawther MW, whose tasting notes and scores will be published on DecanterChina.com this month.
'It was important to have the right type of soils,' he said. 'The limestone plateau in St Emilion probably helped a lot. What you didn't want was to have too much of the sandy, silty soils. There are some very good wines, but they tend to be on the best sites. In Pomerol it's on the plateau, 30m above everything else, which is not a great height but it probably made the difference this year.'
Limestone in St Emilion helped to regulate water levels in the soil, while the same was true of clay and gravel in Pomerol, Lawther said.
It may be a year for consumers to focus on the top estates. 'Prestige chateaux will come out well, because they have the best soils.'
He also believes that estates in both St Emilion and Pomerol relied more heavily on Cabernet Franc in 2014. 'If it is a Cabernet year, it's also a Cabernet Franc year. There are estates that have had a fair amount of Cabernet Franc - and some with Cabernet Sauvignon - and some with the highest ever [proportions] in their blends. They are the ones that will come out top of the pile. This year you'll see a lot more Cabernet Franc and those that have Cabernet Sauvignon in the blends.'
Battle 'won' in the vineyard
But, no matter the grape variety, summer vineyard work was also important in producing a good wine in 2014.
'It wasn't a vintage where you worked miracles in the cellar,' said Lawther. 'You needed a soft hand in the cellar, but it was a vintage where you needed a lot of work in the vineyards. Because of the weather, the vines kept on growing, so a lot of effort was needed to do leaf plucking and to balance out the ripeness of grapes. I think the battle was fought and won in the vineyard and not in the cellar.'
A few producers may have tried to do too much in the cellar, Lawther added. 'The fault in some of the wines is extraction. I wouldn't say it's over the top. The Right Bank has generally veered away from heavy oak and over extraction, but one or two in the context of the vintage forced their hand a little bit too much.'
In terms of potential ageing, Lawther said the wines were already very approachable and he expected 'good mid-term ageing' with some exceptions that might age longer.
'We could be proved wrong because of the acidity,' he said, but added, 'The tannins are tender, there's a lot of freshness in the wines which makes them very drinkable, and so we've come back to a more classic Bordeaux vintage. Alcohols are down from what they had been; a couple are above 14% abv, but you don't feel it because of the acidity.'
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