Bordeaux’s 2014s: An Excellent, Well-Priced Vintage

The press regarding the 2014 vintage in Bordeaux, written in the spring of 2015 after the “en premieur” tastings (a week long series of tastings of “representative” barrel samples in Bordeaux) was lukewarm.  The vintage was damned with faint praise (e.g., “It’s the best of the lesser vintages,” or “The best since 2010,” which of course isn’t saying much, given the trio of mediocre vintages, 2011, 2012 and 2013).  Hence, I approached the annual Union des Grands Crus (UGC) tasting in New York City last month with a lack of enthusiasm.  At this tasting, 89 major chateaux pour ed 102 of their 2014s, which, unlike the wines sampled during “en primeur,” were finished wines, bottled and ready for sale, not barrel samples.

What a pleasant surprise!  It turns out that 2104 is, in fact, an excellent vintage in Bordeaux across all three categories:  Reds, dry whites and the sweet wines.  It’s rare for all three categories to succeed in the same year, but they did in 2014.  Thankfully, it’s not a “vintage of the century,” which is usually characterized by ripe–sometimes over ripe–wines with lots of oomph.  Rather, it’s a classically proportioned vintage, showing the elegance and finesse of Bordeaux.  Tannins and acidity provide structure without being aggressive, making the wines approachable.  But do not interpret that to mean that the wines will not develop with bottle age.  Their balance indicates they will.  Importantly, the prices are amazingly good.  One of my favorites of the vintage, Château La Lagune, is widely available on retailers’ shelves for about $40 a bottle.

Olivier Bernard, owner of Domaine de Chevalier, one of the top properties in Pessac-Léognan, and president of the UGC, described it as a “cool vintage,” characterized by a colder than normal summer.  Superb weather in September made the harvest.  A cooler vintage theoretically favors Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines since that grape remains on the vines later than the earlier ripening Merlot.  To my mind, however, the Right Bank Merlot-predominant wines from Saint-Emilion and Pomerol were equally successful this year.

Producers to whom I spoke had a difficult time comparing the 2014 with previous vintages. Frédéric Vicaire from Château Coufran, a top-notch Haut-Médoc estate, described 2014 as “a classic Bordeaux vintage.”  He felt it was similar to 2004, while Bernard thought the wines were similar to those from 2008.  Panos Kakaviatos, an acclaimed wine writer and Bordeaux expert, echoed Bernard’s comparison to 2008.  John Anderson, another writer with great experience tasting Bordeaux, felt the wines were similar to those of 2001, another vintage in which all three categories turned out superbly.

Other producers compared the vintage to the highly rated 2000. Véronique Dausse, Managing Director of Château Phélan Ségur, a superb property in Saint-Estèphe, thought for a while, and then with a smiling Gallic shrug, said that she could not compare it to another vintage. She felt it was a vintage with unique character.  I agree.  To me, the wines are not up to the superb quality of the 2000 vintage, but they are definitely better than those produced either in 2004 or 2008, because they are just a touch fleshier, while still exhibiting an alluring herbal character.  Indeed, the 2014s remind me a bit of the 1978s.  The growing season was similar to that year, a cool summer and a vintage saved by September weather.  If the 2014s turn out like the 1978s everyone, consumers and producers alike, will be very pleased.

One thing the vintage is not–and everyone to whom I spoke agreed on this point–is over ripe.  The wines are beautifully proportioned, not flamboyant or boisterous.  Yes, there are some that are over extracted and overdone, but of the 51 reds I tasted, only one showed a high level of alcohol.

Although others have characterized 2014 as a “Cabernet year,” I found exceptional wines in all of the sub-appellations represented at the UGC tasting, making it difficult to say that one area “did better” than others.  Standouts in Saint-Julien, for example, were Léoville Poyferré ($68, 94 points), Léoville Barton ($71, 94) and Langoa Barton ($46, 92), whose fleshy wines were alluring.  Similarly, Jean-Dominique Videau, winemaker at Brainaire-Ducru ($49, 92), and Matthieu Bordes and his team at Château Lagrange ($38, 92), were equally successful balancing fruitiness, structure and herbal notes.

In Pauillac, Château Pichon Baron ($105, 96) produced a wine with amazing concentration and grace that is, at this stage, one of the top wines of the vintage.  Similarly, Château d’Armailhac ($45, 93) had a wonderfully dense and mineral-y quality enrobed in polished tannins.

The biggest surprise came in Saint-Estèphe where the young wines are often difficult to taste because of their tannic structure.  Château Phélan Ségur, which under Dausse’s management has catapulted into the top ranks, produced a positively gorgeous wine in 2014 (94). Though refined and polished, it retained the attractive gritty earthiness that makes the wines of St. Estèphe so engaging. At $35 a bottle, it is one of the best buys of the vintage.  Similarly, Château Lafon-Rochet’s 2014 (93) conveys the earthy gravely quality of the appellation while exhibiting an uncanny elegance.  Another bargain at about $35 a bottle.

There are a bevy of 2014 reds from Pessac-Léognan to recommend.  Olivier Bernard believes that the wines from Pessac-Léognan should be “feminine, not a powerhouse.”  Their inherent ash-like nuances remind me of Burgundy.  Chateau Haut-Bailly’s 2014 ($80, 93) has marvelous concentration without being flamboyant, still conveying the earthiness of the region.  Bernard’s Domaine de Chevalier 2014 ($58, 94), a majestic wine, while less concentrated that Haut-Bailly, conveys just as much.  It’s flavor without weight, a description I often use for Burgundy.  Château Malartic-Lagravière ($46, 92) is another example of the graceful exoticness that the wines of Pessac-Léognan achieved in 2014.  More muscular, but still not over the top, Château Smith Haut Lafitte ($74, 93) continues their streak of winners in 2014.

The commune of Margaux had a wealth of riches in 2014.  Château Brane-Cantenac ($51, 93), with suave tannins and a dark core, reflects the grandeur these wines can achieve.  Similarly, Château Giscours ($48, 93) hit the bull’s eye with density and energy.  Château Rauzan-Ségla, ($63, 94) fractionally less dense than Brane or Giscours, impresses with its glossy elegance and finesse.  As usual, Château d’Angludet (91) delivers far more than its price (~$35) suggests.

The Haut-Médoc appellation provides bargains in 2014.  Château La Lagune ($40, 93), smooth and delectable, delivers that alluring “not just fruit” character without being flashy.  With remarkable length and elegance, the often under-appreciated Château Cantemerle (92) is a steal at ~$30.  So is Château de Camensac ($25, 92) because of its herbal quality and polished tannins.  Château Coufran ($18, 90), an oddity on the Left Bank because of its high proportion of Merlot, confirms to me that plenty of properties did well with grape.  It combines a leafy earthy component with fine tannins.  It’s a steal.  And just because Coufran is not a “classified growth” (that is, it was not classified as Grand Cru Classé in 1855) do not dismiss its ability to develop with age.  I recently had a bottle of the 1982 Coufran, which I purchased upon release for about $5 (the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $11.50 today).  The wine was wonderfully fresh and complex.

Four examples from Saint-Emilion demonstrate that the Right Bank also succeeded in 2014:  The fleshy and seductive Château Beau-Séjour Bécot ($51, 92), the refined and elegant Château Canon ($74, 93), the gorgeously mineral-y Château Canon-La-Gaffelière ($64, 95) and stylishly balanced seemingly endless Château La Gaffelière ($55, 94).

The toasty and exotic Château Bon Pasteur ($70, 92) and the structured fleshinss of Château Gazin ($59, 94) confirm that wines from Merlot-dominant Pomerol turned out well in 2014.

Bernard emphasizes that the cool vintage explains why the dry whites excelled across the board.  My notes were repetitive with praise–you can practically point and shoot depending on the style you prefer and your wallet. Château Bouscaut ($35, 90) is crisp and refreshing.  Château de Chantegrive ($15, 90) manages a touch of creaminess atop its crispness.  An outstanding buy!  Château Olivier ($35, 93) managed to combine spice, pungency and creaminess.  Both Château Louvière ($28, 91) and Château de Fieuzal ($44, 92) marry creaminess with an attractive bite whereas Château Pape Clément ($135, 93) and Château Smith Haut Lafitte ($95, 94) deliver more power and richness without losing vibrancy.  Domaine de Chevalier ($93, 96), an “OMG” kind of wine, combines everything perfectly as usual.

Aline Baly, whose family owns Château Coutet in Barsac, says it took a lot of patience–and hand wringing–in 2014 because the botrytis necessary to shrivel the grapes and make outstanding sweet wine, hit sporadically.  With a broad grin, she beams, “The anxiety was worth it. It’s a great vintage.”  I concur.  Again, point and shoot.  But don’t miss the energetic Château Coutet ($44, 95), the lush and lively Château Doisy-Daëne ($41, 92) the ripe and nutty Château La Tour Blanche ($39, 92), the apricot-tinged and lively Château Suduiraut ($64, 94) and the luxuriously rich Château Guiraud ($45, 93).  The prices listed are for full (750 ml) bottles, but remember, a half-bottle (375 ml) of these sweet wines easily serves four.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Bordeaux in general and the 2014s in particular at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

February 1, 2017