Is 15 the new 12?

When my wife and I first came to Bordeaux in (gulp) 1978 after a couple of years in the Napa Valley, I can remember being impressed with the perfumed elegance of Bordeaux wines, but disappointed with their lack of body and what I’ll call oomph. It didn’t take long, however, before I came to prefer the style.

All those years ago, the red wines of Bordeaux were mostly 11 and 11.5% alcohol by volume. The standard level then bumped up to 12% for quite some time (including a legally allowed variation of 0.5 percent with the amount stated on the label) before creeping ever upward.

What do we have now? 2022 Haut Brion is pushing 15%. Haut Brion! I cite this château specifically because, along with Margaux, it is held up as a paragon of class and balance. And this first growth is by no means an anomaly today.

What happened?

Is it more about viticulture and winemaking, or mostly due to global warming? Should consumer preferences also be held accountable?

Whatever the causes, it would be fair to generalize that there has been a fundamental shift in the make-up of fine Bordeaux, above and beyond the “Parkerization” phenomenon of a few years ago. Is 2022 an atypical vintage that shouldn’t necesdsarily be perceived as the way of the future? Possibly, but I think it is part of a continuing trend.

The question is, have things changed for better or worse?

Having just finished a marathon session of en primeur barrel tastings, I think that a nuanced answer is called for. Let’s take the example of Haut Brion. I can honestly say that the wine is, in fact, balanced and classy. It carries its (almost) 15% with distinction.
And I encountered plenty of other wines like that during my forays into the wine country. Only a minority of wines I sampled were under 14%. One Pomerol was even 15.5% –  nearly as high as unfortified wine can go…
On the other hand, I was also pleased to see that Angélus, an estate I have long felt was somewhat heavy-handed with extraction and oak, has backpedalled and deliberately toned things down.

If you had asked me five years ago about a 15% Bordeaux, I’d have been pretty dismissive and turned up my nose. A wine for barbarians! Well, times have changed. Yes, although some 2022s are ponderous, heavy, overly rich, and even have an alcoholic burn on the finish, these are the exceptions. Bordeaux has simply adapted to a bunch of factors and achieved a new sort of balance. I had an in-depth look at this and mostly liked what I saw, or rather tasted.

There is increased talk on the Right Bank of planting more Cabernet, especially Cabernet Franc, to replace Merlot now that the former ripens more fully thanks to climate change. This would also tend to bring down sugar levels.

Simone Signouret’s memoirs were entitled “La nostaligie n’est plus ce qu’elle était”, which I think is a great name.  Anyway, for those of us who regret old-style Bordeaux, I would say that our memories can be somewhat selective… A number of wines from yesteryear were thin, herbaceous, and featured not-so-welcome acidity. All was not sweetness and light.

How will today’s great wines age? Your guess is as good as mine, but I am reminded of a tasting of California wines I attended in Bordeaux. The owner of a famous château sipped a wine and exclaimed that it was truly delicious, but wasn’t it unnatural for it to taste so good just four years after the vintage? Surely something was wrong… This left me thinking well, no, nothing’s wrong at all, and that for great wine to taste so good so early on is an advantage rather than a shortcoming. Some of my English friends may disagree, but ageworthiness is not a measure of quality in my book. Balance is. And if a fine balance can be achieved earlier, I say so much the better.
Many of the 2022s are – a little – low in acidity so maybe they won’t be ones for the very long haul. But the vintage is a good one and I am not disappointed with it, nor worried about the future of Bordeaux.

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