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A Year of Contrasts. The 2012 Vintage in Bordeaux: The Importance of Terroir & Soul.

John U. Salvi, MW, is analysing a very special vintage.

A pretty "special" vintage. A very fast "en primeur" campaign. Wines from very good to simpel. Conte John U. Salvi, MW, living and working in Bordeaux, wrote a pretty long but very interesting piece, analysing the vintage 2012.

A Year of Contrasts. The 2012 Vintage in Bordeaux: The Importance of Terroir & Soul.
The weather. Main part in developement of a vintage.

I actually rather dislike these brief adjectival descriptions of a vintage, BUT this year terroir/soil was decidedly paramount. Thus the tantalising title!

Various properties have come up with more exotic ones. Palmer says “A concerto in three movements”, Vieux Château Certan says “A classical English vintage with a classical Bordeaux climate, racé et equilibré” and Pichon Baron says “a fight on all fronts”. Many simply say “a year of contrasts”.

I will start by making a statement about which I am now totally convinced. In difficult years you can only make great wine, with very few exceptions, unless you can sell it at a great price - I repeat - in difficult years.

Cosseting the vine like a much loved baby costs a great deal of money. Green pruning, thinning and de-leafing are luxuries, as Denis Dubourdieu once said to me, and cost a fortune. Putting only 33% of the production into the first wine is almost a sinful luxury, especially if you do not have a second or third wine.

State of the art equipment for sorting the grapes (perhaps the greatest advance of recent times) runs into hundreds of thousands of euros. Vibrating tables, optical sorting machines, new ultra performing destalkers, and now chlorophyll sensitive sorters, all permitting only perfect, identical, ripe and healthy grapes to enter the fermenting vats.

Many people praised the virtues of the optical sorting machine this year where extremely severe selection was needed, as its optics can throw out any grapes that have even a tinge of green in them and are therefore not perfectly ripe. All this explains why the majority of growers, who are not fortunate enough to be able to afford all these luxuries, have great difficulty in making great wine in very difficult years, and 2012 was certainly one of the most difficult years in living memory. 40 or 50 years ago it would have been totally impossible to make fine wine and such a vintage would have been a disaster! The remarkable, ultra severe, perfected sorting procedures that have been developed over the past few years have made such a vintage possible and 2012 needed the very severest selection. We can say, before going any further, that 2012 was not a great year overall, with a few notable exceptions. A very good one in a number of cases, but not a great one. There were numerous faults and errors as we shall see. However making great wine is an art, like fine sculpting, fine painting or fine music. There are few great artists and this is as true of wine as it is of the other fine arts. Therefore it is no surprise if there are correspondingly few great wines.

Let us, as we do each and every year, look at the structure and quality of this difficult vintage, which as always is basically the result of the weather conditions and the climate, together with my hobby horse “terroir/soil”, skilfully handled by man.

The factors involved in fine wine making are both multitudinous and complex, but one factor that played an important part this year was decidedly terroir. A word interpreted differently by many, but which I am sure my readers understand. Drought resistance was a major factor and clay and calcareous soils that best resist drought conditions fared best.

Those soils that retain moisture were less affected by the hydric stress and had less shut-down and in some cases no stoppage at all. The grapes, particularly the earlier ripening Merlot, were able to reach full maturity in a year where on less water retentive soils the Cabernet could well have done with another week before harvesting. This was an important point in the final composition of the grapes and we shall come back to it again and again.

Cabernet versus Merlot.

Cabernet versus Merlot.
Château Figeac.

This is a relatively useless exercise, but so many people want to say “this is a Cabernet year” or “this is a Merlot year”.

It is not really very helpful in an area as varied as Bordeaux and with so many different soils and microclimates. There are people saying that this is a Merlot year, but if we look at Lafite, Mouton and Latour we see that the percentage of Cabernet in the first wine is one of the highest ever and they were picked in perfect condition and at perfect ripeness.

Lafite had 91% Cabernet Sauvignon in the First Wine, Latour 90.2% and Mouton 90%. Also it is fascinating to compare Palmer and Margaux, which are contiguous and which both made two of the very finest wines.

Palmer has 48% Merlot, 46% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Petit Verdot and 13% of it is Vin de Presse. It is supremely feminine, whilst Margaux has 87% Cabernet Sauvignon and only 10% Merlot. “Purity, elegance, refinement” said Corinne Mentzelopoulos!

At Brane Cantenac they put neither the Cabernet Franc nor their Carmenère into the first wine as they did not ripen sufficiently to satisfy them.

The Details.

The Details.
It is hard work and lots of kilometers, to try all the different regions.


We have already talked about this. The wonderfully ripe and rich Merlot, which of course ripens earlier than the Cabernet and had all the time needed during the fine August and September to reach optimum maturity, often at 14° of alcohol or more and considerably more than the Cabernet. The latter wonderful on the finest and earlier ripening terroirs and with mature and old vines with deep root structures that were able to resist the severe drought, not suffer any stoppage or shut-down and mature fully to give magnificent fruit of optimum maturity. Poor, unripe, harsh and in some cases disastrous on later ripening terroirs, where carrying too many bunches, not sufficiently green-pruned or thinned out, with shallow root structures and sadly on young vines. Here tannins remained unripe. Leaf removal, bunch thinning (in some cases twice), removing double buds and third clusters as well as secondary shoots, and tying off, were all of great importance this year where ultra-meticulous work in the vineyards has never been so vital. Perhaps we should just clarify that September only had 8 days of rain to a total of 59.4mm. However only a tiny 2.6mm fell during the first 20 days, which was when the dry whites were picked under perfect conditions. 58.6mm fell between 21st and 26th, which was not good for those who started their red vintage. October had 21 days with rain to a total of 115.5mm. As only 29.1mm of this fell up to 17th inclusive absolutely everybody claims to have finished by then. This because no less than 71.9mm fell on the 3 days from 18th – 20th. The 14.5mm that fell on the 7 days between 21st and 31st therefore only concerned the sweet white wines!

An interesting and individual case that shows how one year can impinge on another is Château Palmer. They did not have the same difficulty achieving fully and totally ripe Cabernet as did many. Why? Partially of course because of the poor fruit set at flowering reducing the yield, but primarily because of the hail in 2011, which caused them to prune exceptionally severely and drastically during the 2011-2012 pruning season and therefore meant a much smaller potential crop than the usual yield from the very outset of 2012.


There is not so very much to say about this except that the wines this year are deep coloured, vivid and intense. Some producers feared that the grapes with thicker skins would have less easily extractible colour and therefore cold-soaked, in other words did a pre-fermentation maceration. Naturally colouring matter forms part of the phenolic compounds and if the phenolics in the later ripening Cabernets were not completely ripe then it would be normal that the colour would not be easily extractible. For the very ripe Merlots, as I have already said the colours were deep, dark and intense and became soluble with no trouble at all. Colour is soluble in an aqueous solution, whilst tannin only becomes soluble in the presence of alcohol.


As always a very major factor and this year more important than ever. A huge amount of work was needed to get them smooth, concentrated and crisp. Successful wines had a rich tannic substance with both precision and elegant concentration. Extraction had to be very gentle indeed to keep them silky, enhance fruit expression and not over-extract. There was a long gap in many vineyards between physical ripeness (acidity and sugar) and phenolic ripeness and this year there was no hang time as there was last year. Although the Merlot ripened fully and was in many cases super ripe with fine concentration, rich, exuberant and with notes of cassis and blackberries, the Cabernet had real problems in ripening on less early ripening terroirs and often did not achieve total phenolic maturity. I think this is the greatest failing of the 2012 vintage. By mid-October the ripening power of the sun has become very weak and this year to boot the bad weather arrived from 18th. Henri Lurton at Brane Cantenac said, “any over-confidence or willingness to harvest in extreme conditions of over-ripeness was severely punished”. Fortunate were those who were able even to consider over-ripeness in their Cabernets. Phenolic compounds include colouring matter as well as tannins and Palmer says that the August lack of water as well as nitrogen allowed the vine to focus its energy on developing the phenolic compounds and the anthocyanins.


As you will see below, the wonderful dry white Bordeaux had perfect acidities as long as they were not picked too late (after 20/09). Basically acidities were NOT one of the problems in the red wines this year. The cooler, wet weather in October, together with the drought of summer and therefore the lateness of the ripening, combined to keep the acidities at optimum levels. Also, close to harvesting time, the large variation between daytime and night-time temperatures, as well as helping to develop flavour and bouquet compounds, helped retain good acidity levels.


Not a word I like to use when talking about red wine, but of course I mean the amount of sugar in the grapes per kilo of juice and therefore the must weight. Just over 17 grams of sugar transform into 1° alcohol during fermentation. It is not something that was talked about much, but this year a number of growers chaptalized, something that nobody has needed to do now for several years. There is absolutely nothing at all wrong with chaptalisation as long as it is done sparingly, correctly and legally. The alcohol levels overall were very considerably lower than in 2011 or over the last few years. This was not because of the Merlots that were generally fully ripe, but because of the Cabernets that were often not. Palmer is a good example. The Merlots frequently had just over 14° and the Cabernets just over 12°, with a resultant alcohol strength of around 13°. Haut Brion, although they picked early as always (17-27 September for Merlot and 1-9 October for Cabernet Sauvignon) found the Cabernet hard to ripen and have their highest ever percentage of Merlot in the final wine – 65.5%! Some producers did cold soaking where they had thick skins and wanted to help the extractability, but this affected tannins and colour more than alcoholic strength. It was the difficulty in ripening and therefore the lack of total ripeness that kept the must weights down in the Cabernets. Nobody was worrying at all about these lower strengths as too high alcohol levels have been becoming a serious problem here in Bordeaux over the last few years. In the final analysis alcoholic strengths for the most part were exactly what producers would have liked them to be this year. It is very important to note that the relatively early cessation of vegetative growth allowed better maturation by giving more sugar to the grapes. One remarkable wine was Latour with 90.2% Cabernet Sauvignon and ONLY 12.8° - a new Latour!


This is of vital importance this year. Pichon Baron, and others, said, “everything this year was aimed at keeping the freshness of the fruit”. The freshness and abundance of the fruit did not come without effort and any over-maturity of the Merlot would have been disastrous. To keep this freshness the vignerons had to fight fungus attacks, coulure and millerandage. Attacks of both downy and powdery mildew were fierce in spring. However the variation in September between daytime and night-time temperatures helped keep it fresh, crisp and energetic. Low yields also helped keep the grapes healthy and therefore with good fruit.

The Press Wine.

The Press Wine.
Modern Times.

This used to be rough old stuff which we drank in-house when I worked at Palmer 50 years ago. Now it is given great importance and a number of top producers spoke at length about it this year.

Several said that the optical sorting machine had greatly improved its quality. Château Palmer used up to 13% in the Palmer and no less than 18% in the Alter Ego. When as good as this it lends structure, body, colour and density to the wine and must be regarded as a prime element in the production of the very finest wines.

Great Dry Whites. Unloved Sweets.

Great Dry Whites. Unloved Sweets.
In Sauternes...


In Pessac-Léognan, and indeed in almost all the dry white wine vineyards, the vintage for these took place, almost entirely, during the first 20 days of September (Haut Brion White 4-14 September), 2 weeks later than in 2011. The weather was both dry and sunny. Ideal!

Hot by day and fresh by night, favouring the retention of perfect acidity levels and developing fine flavours and aromas. The grapes were perfectly healthy, due to the dryness. This year they had no rot at all. They could be picked rapidly and under perfect conditions. Yields were small for Sauvignon but more or less normal for Semillon.

Some of these are GREAT wines and I use the word advisedly. I cannot help but mention the Haut Brion Blanc, Domaine de Chevalier Blanc and the white wine of Château Margaux. They are close to divine. A purity of fruit, an elegance, finesse, harmony, sugar-acidity balance, freshness and gracious expression of fine fruit of the very highest order. A joy!

However what was vitally important everywhere was to pick the grapes before the acidity levels started to fall. Generally speaking his was done. In this category there are many very fine and great wines!


The sweet, botrytised wines had a fearsomely complicated year and a hair-raising vintage. The twin problems were summer drought and autumn rains.

The extreme dryness of mid-July – August created severe hydric stress except on calcareous soils where water reserves are always greater. By the time the dry white vintage was finished not a trace of noble rot had appeared. They arrived with the rains of 21st – 26th September (58.6mm).

Fortunately for Barsac it developed more rapidly on its calcareous soils and less rapidly in Sauternes. Barsac started to vintage at the beginning of October.

Naturally the noble rot developed more slowly as the season advanced and in much of Sauternes insufficiently. Picking, by tris, continued more or less until end October, but was stopped in the middle by heavy rains 18th – 20th. Finally heavy rains at the beginning of November brought harvesting to a close and what had not been picked had to be discarded.

As mentioned above, on calcareous soils it was possible to make small quantities of wine with very pure noble rot, but still relatively light. A number of the great Sauternes properties, including Châteaux d’Yquem, Suduiraut and Rieussec, decided not to make any first wine at all. Nary a drop!

Other producers have complained about this, saying that if great properties renounced making a vintage it gave the whole region a bad name. However Sandrine Garboy at Château d’Yquem told me that it was really impossible. She said that yeasts and bacteria had developed that usually never normally do so and that one of these was the one that makes Roquefort cheese!!!

Thus very small quantities of good botrytised wines have been made by a number of properties, but overall the wines are relatively light even if clean, pure and sweet.


Château La Lagune.

It is very hard to sum up. Just to show how varied and heterogeneous it was Denis Dubourdieu and most growers are talking about thick skins and large berries, whilst Cos d’Estournel claims thin skins and small berries with rapid extraction of anthocyanins! The wet harvest carried a continuous threat of botrytis, but the low yield helped maintain health in the grapes. Merlots were ripe, concentrated and exuberantly cassis, whilst the Cabernet were the crux of the whole 2012 problem. Ripe or unripe depending on the many factors mentioned here.

As already said, where the vines and grapes were of optimum age, ripeness and health, and on the finest and earlier ripening terroirs, some magnificent wines have been made. Unfortunately these are in the minority. Léoville Barton says, “severity, austerity, precision, strength”!


Denis Dubourdieu has formulated five criteria
needed to produce the perfect vintage. How does 2012 measure up against these and how did the weather shape and structure the 2012 vintage?

1. Early and rapid flowering. NOT ACHIEVED

2. A touch of hydric restraint during the formation of the fruit after flowering, thanks to warm dry weather to assure excellent flowering, predisposing homogenous maturation and limiting the size of the grapes. NOT ACHIEVED.

3. For RED wine. Sufficient hydric limitation before and after colour change to stop vegetative growth. ALMOST ACHIEVED.
Stopped vegetative growth allows all the goodness from the roots to go into the grapes not the vegetation.

4. For RED wine. Slow maturation thanks to a dry august and September, but without excessive heat. ACHIEVED.

5. Fine weather with reasonable heat and little or no rain during the vintage, allowing optimum maturity of each parcel without dilution or rot. ONLY FULLY ACHIEVED FOR DRY WHITE AND MERLOT AND THE BEST CABERNET. NOT FOR A LOT OF CABERNET.

Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux cites 4 points for great wine:

1. Early ripening terroir

2. Old vines with deep roots

3. Perfect Terroir

4. Precision, elimination, selection (very costly)

Three of the features of the 2012 vintage, according to Denis Dubourdieu, were large berries, irregular maturity and protracted flowering and colour change, thanks to wet conditions during flowering and nouaison.


December was mild and wet. The antithesis of 2011.
174.9mm of rain on 25 days and 78 hours of sunshine.

January was dry and cold with 53.4mm of rain and a miserable 58 hours of sun.

February was a brutal month, desperately cold with 19 frosts, 5 falls of snow and an average temperature 4.9°C lower than normal. Also dry with a mere 6mm of rain.

March was dry again, going into spring.
Moueix describes this period as, “contrasted – mild, very cold, lots of rain, drought”. Over the 5 winter months total rainfall was 30% less than the average.


Overall an unstable spring led to a late and uneven flowering and favoured early fungus attacks. March had just 31.3mm of rain, was mild and enjoyed 72 hours of sunshine.

April was a thoroughly miserable month, cool and very wet with 178.8mm of rain. The very opposite of April 2011 which was the hottest and driest on record. Budding was relatively late, taking place between the end of March and mid-April (much later than 2011 (28/03 in Pomerol and 31/03 in Saint Emilion). We had general frosts on 16/17 April. Lafite and close-by vineyards had hail on 24th April, and in Graves there was also a frost on 9th May. Latour talks about spring mineralisation!

May was relatively favourable and very dry with just 28.3mm of rain and 258 hours of sunshine, but the vine was unable to catch up, development remained behind average and led up to a very late flowering right at the end of it. This was both late and protracted under poor weather conditions. There was both coulure and millerandage and old vines lost a lot of crop.

Mid-flowering was 11th June, the same as 2008, and with 2008 the latest over the last 10 years (but a touch earlier in Saint Emilion and Pomerol). This added up to a wet Spring with the rain finally stopping around 20th June, having caused severe attacks of mildew from the flowering onward, which was to be found on the leaves but also sadly on the flowers. Fungicides worked well but BIO growers lost a lot of crop, especially on the Merlot. From 22nd June summer temperatures set in.


26th and 27th June temperatures reached over 30°C (34.6°C on 27th). Rain amounted to 64.8mm and sun to 221 hours.

However July was very cool with record low temperatures and was the 5th coldest over the last 30 years. It had 46.8mm of rain and 249 hours of sunshine. Happily the relative dryness was sufficient to dry out any fungi. We continued with increased lateness.

Really hot weather only started on 8th August. It was very dry and dry enough to almost stop growth and favour maturation. Just 18.7mm of rain all month and 249 hours of sunshine. The middle of August was totally dry and brutally hot, culminating with a blistering 39.1°C on 17th. It remained hot, sunny and dry for the rest on the month, although the heat was considerably more moderate. Hydric stress was felt quite seriously. The vine had slowed down from the beginning of August, but only stopped (where it did stop) around 9th when the brutal heat struck it.

Cheval Blanc says that 2005 had a similar drought and that from 27/09 to 15/10 weather conditions were identical to 2000. It was the hottest August since 2003 and the 5th driest over the last 50 years. From 7th – 31st only 4 days were under 25°C and 11 were over 30°C. At this stage, in spite of the spring rains and the cool early summer, a measure of hydric stress, that had been noticeable from bunch formation, was accentuated during colour change (around 12th August) and much of the maturation period. Some days of peak heat caused “échaudage” or “burn”. The effects of hydric stress were important for 2012 during colour change and should not be minimised. Knowledge and skill were required.

This year many did two green-prunings; the first in July to clear any “millerandé” grapes and bunches too closely packed together; the second after colour change to get rid of any green grapes. Severe deleafing was also required to control the abundant July vegetative growth, although growth had now stopped.

The colour change, around 12th (14th at Latour) as stated above, had been around 3 weeks later than 2011. Now the vine caught up a bit, but not much, as the bursts of intense heat that caused burn also accentuated stoppage on the most exposed vines. Heterogeneity increased even further. One can say that the slow and difficult colour change, especially with Cabernet, and the resulting increased heterogeneity, are vital factors in the make-up of the 2012 vintage. From 15th it was essential to green prune and thin out still green grapes. A painful task on an already small crop. However if not done then unripe grapes at harvest time would give vegetal tastes to the wine. Latour still had some green grapes at the beginning of September.

Here we come back to those who had state-of-the-art sorting equipment and those who could not afford such luxuries. The ideal would have been for the vine to stop growth a week earlier at the beginning of colour change. The last days of summer and the first two decades of September were lovely, warm, relatively dry, sunny and ideal. Here comes a very important factor talked about elsewhere. A large variation between day and night temperatures, which favours both the development of aromatic expression and the synthesis of the anthocyanins. This was a boon!


Now we sort the men from the boys! On gravel soils, with little water reserve, on young vines with shallow roots and on vines carrying too much fruit the vines stagnated. Some suffered temporary maturation stoppage. Vines with deep roots and on calcareous or clay soils had much better resistance to the persistent hydric stress and matured regularly and well, which explains perfectly the magnificent wines produced on great terroirs.

Mouton Rothschild says that by end-September the total rainfall since 1st January had been 435mm instead of the 50 year average of 589mm (-26%). This is an important point.

The weather changed dramatically from 21st September. In came wet weather and an early autumn. Overall, as mentioned earlier, September had 59.4mm of rain and 228 hours of sunshine.

October this year was less sunny and wetter than normal with very heavy rains 18th – 20th October. Total rainfall was 115.5mm (long term average 93mm) and sunshine 119 hours (long term average 143 hours).

Generally speaking the Merlot vintage started around 25th September and the Cabernet 2 weeks later. It is interesting to note that the vintage started in 2012 at Brane Cantenac the same day that it finished in 2011.

Here we have to repeat ourselves because it is what made the fine wines in 2012. Vines with not too many bunches, vines that had resisted the drought for one or other of the reasons already mentioned, vines correctly green-pruned not too late, vines whose late grapes had been eliminated, all these ripened fully and satisfactorily, BUT, and here we are talking about a very large percentage of the red wines of 2012, many required at least another week to mature the Cabernet fully and did not get it.

These ended up with thick skins and feeble extractability as well as frequently rough and unripe tannins. Where the rain thinned the skins the grapes became more sensitive to botrytis, which made it more difficult to wait for maturity. It was the sandy gravel soils that suffered most. On the other hand, in the less good wines, acidities were sometimes on the low side. There are also vegetal flavours in those unripe wines. To be briefly technical, Denis Duboudieu attributes this to the isobutylmethoxpyrazine content being above perception level.


This is an extremely long report this year, but I have tried to cover in some depth the complicated situations that confronted producers throughout the growing season. I hope I have been successful. I would just like to reiterate that skilful growers, who did the right thing at the right time and listened to their vines, have produced some truly remarkable wine worthy of any and every wine lover.


Profound thanks must go to Denis Dubourdiau for providing a great deal of the material in this article, to the Union des Grands Crus for inviting me and organising the En Primeurs Tastings for the Press, to Bernard de Laage de Meux of Château Palmer for help and support and to Steven Spurrier of Decanter for organising many of the Châteaux visits.

Text by John U. Salvi, MW
Photos: Helmut O. Knall, Editor Wine-Times
© by Weinspitz_Helmut_Knall
last modified: 2013-05-09 04:57:51

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