11 Dec 2014 This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times on 20 April 2013 which we are reprising as part of our Throwback Thursday series to amplify our tasting notes on these wines in bottle.
See also the guide to our extensive coverage of Bordeaux 2012, including tasting notes on about 450 wines.
What was it Robert Burns said about a mouse? 'Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie, O, what a panic's in thy breastie!' The words just popped into my head as I was considering the 2012 vintage presented to trade and media in Bordeaux last week. For this is very far from a bombastic vintage swaggering about, demonstrating its obvious qualities as 2009 and 2010 did. This is indeed a small, cunning, cowering, timorous vintage made, when truly successful (as it is only in a minority of cases), by the skin of its teeth and with huge effort and costs in the vineyard and cellar. As for the panic, there is certainly a distinct air of panic about the process of selling these wines, particularly after a dismal 2011 en primeur campaign. In the current economic situation, and with China much less enthusiastic, who will buy them? And, crucially, when?
The superficial shorthand for the 2012 vintage is that it is a Merlot year because the whole season was so late that the ripening of Cabernet Sauvignon was severely compromised. But it is perhaps more accurate to say that growers were presented with so many challenges during the growing season that success can be measured only on a case by case basis, depending on exactly how each property reacted to each. The top properties, so flush with the cash generated by the 2009 and 2010 primeurs sales that whole new wineries have been or are being built at Châteaux Cheval Blanc, Mouton, Palmer, Margaux, Le Pin and Petrus, can nowadays afford to make some great wine every year. It's just a question of deploying enough people in the vineyard to treat the vines to what they call toilettage, or snip off excess crop (vital for Cabernets, particularly young Cabernets, in 2012), and of putting only the very finest lots of wine into the grand vin.
But now that the top red bordeaux are selling for three-digit prices per bottle, only a handful of readers are likely to be interested in them - and they will probably be investors rather than drinkers. My chief interest in tasting these 2012s was to identify much more moderately priced wines designed to generate pleasure rather than profits. The appellations Médoc and particularly Haut-Médoc had been so promising for these sort of wines in the easy years of 2009 and 2010. But the vines needed so much attention in 2012 that it was much more difficult to make outstanding wine in these more cash-strapped appellations - particularly since they depend so heavily on the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon that was still underripe at the end of September. There were heavy rains in the Médoc 24-26 September and then there were remarkably few dry days in October and downpours in the middle of the month, so it was particularly difficult, and expensive in terms of the crop reduction that was necessary, to pick really, really ripe Cabernets, ones with fully ripe phenolics such as tannins as well as high enough sugars. Paul Pontallier at no less an address than Château Margaux, where he is always understandably proud of their venerable Cabernet vines, admitted that in 2012 they had to reintroduce chaptalisation, adding a little sugar to the fermentation vat to supplement what nature had provided.
Julia, who tasted the right bank wines for JancisRobinson.com, reports on many successes there, particularly in Pomerol, but bargain Pomerols are thin on the ground. Bargains are more likely in the satellite appellation Lalande-de-Pomerol. It was Julia who tasted the sweet whites, by no means glorious in 2012, and in some cases not even made, although Ch Climens is likely to provide an exception.
But as taster of the rest of the appellations, my top tip for value in 2012 is Pessac-Léognan. This pretty, wooded region on the southern outskirts of the city is warmer and less bleak than the Médoc and its grapes tend to ripen more satisfactorily. In fact, the red wines of Châteaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, closest to the city centre, almost reached 15% alcohol, yet were beautifully balanced. After them I blind tasted the Pessac-Léognans of the Union des Grands Crus, which, as for all such tastings, was a very mixed bag with some wines overplaying the sweetness card and very few with particularly marked tannins. But there was enough quality here in both reds and whites to pique my interest in the appellation, so I followed this with a major tasting of less famous names via the Syndicat de Pessac-Léognan and found some really excellent wines selling for as little as 11 euros a bottle ex cellar (though these wines are not really the stuff of an en primeur campaign).
The dry whites, a speciality of Pessac-Léognan and Graves to the immediate south, are one of the big success stories of Bordeaux 2012 - and there should also be particularly good value to be had to the north in the Entre Deux Mers region, although these are not wines to be bought as futures. The whites are much racier and livelier than in most vintages and the most successful winemakers have kept a very gentle hand on the oak tiller - just as those making red wine throughout Bordeaux in 2012 had to extract very, very gently. In some appellations - St-Émilion and Margaux spring to mind - far too many wines seemed to have been made to the same recipe as much riper vintages so that, although they had wonderfully flattering perfumes, they finished with painfully drying tannins after a lack of real fruity core. There is not a great deal of anything in the 2012s. The reds in general are relatively low in both alcohol and acidity - even if some have the greenness of underripe Cabernet Sauvignon - and they lack the ripe tannic intensity of the 2010s.
Château Latour is the one high-profile property whose owner, François Pinault, has removed it from the annual en primeur circus. It too has the accessory du jour of a crane, presumably busy excavating more space for maturing vintages since the policy there now is to offer wines only with several years' bottle age. To say this move is unpopular with Bordeaux's merchants would be an understatement, but they are feeling particularly nervous at the moment, with so much young wine unsold, and the obvious need to reduce the price of the 2012s quite dramatically if they are to have any chance at all of selling en primeur.
SOME BETTER 2012 BUYS
(with average prices in pounds for the 2011 according to wine-searcher.com)
Grand Village, Bordeaux 10
Bouscaut, Pessac-Léognan 20
Chantegrive, Graves 10
Clos Floridène, Graves10
Olivier, Pessac-Léognan 18
Batailley, Pauillac 25
Carbonnieux, Pessac-Léognan 18
Couhins-Lurton, Pessac-Léognan 11
Cos Labory, St-Estèphe 19
Dauzac, Margaux 25
Faurie de Souchard, St-Émilion 15
Ferrande, Graves 9
Fonroque, St-Émilion 16
Franc Maillet, Cuvée Jean Baptiste, Pomerol 26 (2010)
de France, Pessac-Léognan 11
Jean Faure, St-Émilion 27
Gloria, St-Julien 22
La Croix de Beaucaillou, St-Julien 24
Laroze, St-Émilion 21
Larrivet Haut-Brion, Pessac-Léognan 18
Lynch Moussas, Pauillac 22
Malartic Lagravière, Pessac-Léognan 25
Malescot St Exupéry, Margaux 34
St Pierre, St-Julien 33
Virginie de Valandraud, St-Émilion 29
See the guide to our extensive coverage of Bordeaux 2012, including tasting notes on about 450 wines.