Bordeaux 2014: The Southwold Tasting


Southwold, in case you are wondering, is a picturesque Suffolk coastal town famed for its pebble beaches, pastel-hued beach-huts, quaint shops and most importantly, the Adnams pubs serving some of the finest ale known to mankind. It is a summer tourist magnet. Yet, it is during winter, when leaden skies meet leaden North Sea and both beach and streets lie deserted, that Southwold is at its most poetically beautiful. For many Januaries it was the venue for an annual Bordeaux tasting, to my mind the only one whereby practically all the major châteaux donate bottles for blind comparison. I use the past tense, for recently the tasting had to relocate from Southwold, but the name and its ethos continue to thrive. The tasting has a long and colourful history; one that I might retell in a separate article, suffice to say that in its first incarnation it was reserved for merchants invited by its founder, Clive Coates. I myself have participated since 2007 when journalists were first granted seats at the table, if I recall, Jancis Robinson, Steven Spurrier and yours truly, although it does remain a trade and not scribe-orientated fixture. What I have learned during these tastings is immeasurable and the stories heard from a gaggle of most experiences sages in the world, unprintable.

I took this picture in 2010. It captures the calming desolateness of Southwold beach on a bitterly cold January. Beach huts still look pretty though. 

The group gathers to assess a vintage that is always four years earlier, so this year the 2014s were under scrutiny. For this writer, it is a vital tasting, which is why I have only missed one-and-a-half in 11 years (the half when I had to leave midway through the flight of 2003 Saint Juliens...long story.) Whilst the en primeur “circus” witnesses legions of journalists descending to dish out scores and basically gift Bordeaux free press for the coming primeur campaign, how many tasters will sit down later and redo the exercise blind and question those original assessments of unfinished samples? Like any blind tasting, amongst the majority of bottles that thankfully vindicate your initial views, there are always going to be anomalies, incomprehensible scores that defy form and mock your pearls of wisdom. This occasion is no different. Derided wines perform well while previously fêted wines fluff their lines on stage and leave you scratching your head. It happens. However, I have always found that readers appreciate the Southwold reports because they are conducted single blind, insofar that we have prior knowledge of the flight but no idea of order. I will continue to publish them here on Vinous as part of our expanded Bordeaux coverage and who knows, uncover wines that may well have only blossomed after a year or two in bottle. That also happens. So, for now, let us recap the growing season.

The 2014 Growing Season

The year began wet and warm, in fact the warmest for some 24 years, and this was crucial in terms of replenishing the water table after a succession of dry seasons. Temperatures rarely dipped below freezing. March was warm, and this would have prompted an early budding had the vines not been dissuaded by cold night temperatures. Buds finally broke around mid-March, approximately a fortnight earlier than average. Unlike 2017, a warm and dry April precluded frost damage. Inclement weather towards the end of April saw some white varieties affected with some filage en vrille, whereby the vine expends energy producing tendrils instead of bunches. May was cool and damp and this caused some coulure and millerandage as well as diluting mineral uptake, though fortunately flowering passed evenly and quickly over a week in early June. 

Mi-floraison was around ten days earlier than in 2013 and there followed two heat spikes on 21 June and 17 July that caused some grillure, especially towards the eastern flank of Saint-Émilion. This aside, June was relatively benign and raised hopes for a growing season worth getting excited about. Alas, July was cooler than expected insofar that temperatures only exceeded 30° Celsius on three occasions and never in August. The late Prof. Denis Dubourdieu’s report noted that average temperatures were 5.8° Celsius below the 1981 to 2010 average in July and 2.2° Celsius below average in August, along with 12% less sunlight hours. Therefore, the vine refocused its energy upon foliage to increase photosynthesis instead of bunches, hence the protracted véraison. In some localities véraison began in mid-July and in others it did not start until the end of August thanks to the cool temperatures, lack of diurnal temperature variation and moisture levels. Bunches began to show uneven ripeness levels that obliged constant work in the vineyard to thin out obvious under-ripeness. It should also be noted that Saint-Émilion and Margaux suffered more rainfall than either Saint-Julien or Saint-Estèphe. To add to their woes, there were the constant lurking threats of oïdium and an outbreak of cicadelles to make vineyard work “uncomfortable”. By the end of August hopes had been dashed. I still recall one winemaker who confessed that they thought 2014 would end up even worse than 2013. 

The Indian summer saved the day as a high-pressure system squatted over Europe and warded off the low depressions that might have come in from the Atlantic. Temperatures in September were 27.8° Celsius above average with 27% more sunlight hours than August. Despite outbreaks of thunderstorms that affected Saint-Émilion, September was a perfect month and it verged on excessive as high temperatures caused some berries to shrivel. These had to be discarded before entering the vat, although at least these high temperatures compensated for the lack of concentration earlier that summer. The harvest kicked off around 3 September with the dry whites as usual under dry conditions. The Merlot started coming in around 22 September after potential alcohol levels rocketed by almost a degree per week. The clement conditions enabled vineyard managers to drag out the growing season, most of the Cabernets was picked in an October that was warmer than usual and with only 20mm of rainfall. The berries were found to be small and concentrated. In Sauternes, the Indian summer was a mixed blessing since it precluded the onset of pourriture noble, at least until an outbreak of rain in October caused an explosion of botrytis that necessitated almost block picking rather than the piecemeal tries through the vineyard. They had to be careful since some chef de culture noticed some bouïroc or sour rot in a small number of bunches, but finally they were able to crop fruit that would create very fine sweet wines.

Before fermentation, it was wise to keep the fruit cool because the temperatures were warmer than usual. Maceration periods were a little shorter and pumping over less frequent compared to other vintages as many feared over-extraction.

The Wines

Of course, this is not the first time that I have covered the 2014s in bottle, although generally my conclusions echo those expressed before. The bottom line is that 2014 vintage is a good to very good vintage but not truly great. It does not belong on the mantelpiece with the 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015 or the nascent 2016s. As I have written before, timing tends to govern the perception of the vintage and therefore, arriving after the mediocre run of 2011, 2012 and 2013, the 2014s were received with open arms. I remember the relief, especially as the growing season had been so fraught up until the end of August. I still regard 2014 as a “proper” vintage, to quote a fellow Southwold participant, in the sense that it achieves what one expects from top Bordeaux: the terroir expression, the freshness, structure and class. There are only a handful of wines that truly aspire towards legendary status, hardly any deserving a score above 96 points. However that does not imply that 2014 does not have plenty to offer.

One interesting comment concerned the performance of the Right Bank. Suffice to say that over previous Southwold tastings, the endless flights of high-octane, high-alcohol, super-charged Saint-Émilions has not gone down particularly well with a group of “fey” English palates. (A few years ago, possibly with the 2009s, I recollect one participant virtually disappearing under the table complaining that he could not longer take it any more, after one too many over-ripe Merlots. Glad to say he has since recovered.) The reception to the 2014 Saint-Émilions was much warmer. The wines generally showing more restraint, lower alcohol levels, certainly more freshness and vitality, along with great precision. They were frankly more enjoyable to drink, which is the raison d’être of fermented grape juice at the end of the day. Does that imply a sea change in attitudes?

I think so. I have been visiting Saint-Émilion regularly for over two decades and so I notice changes not only in the wines, but perhaps more importantly, in what people say both on and off record. These days there is less compulsion to push wines as far as possible in terms of ultra-low yields, headline-grabbing late picking dates, long skin maceration periods, micro-oxygenation techniques and zealous use of new oak. What has caused this change? Well, land and vines are the same and therefore one must ask proprietors and winemakers. Partly they are responding to changes in demand as wine-lovers shift away from heavy wines that fall after a couple of seductive sips. That is not to suggest a ravishing and concentrated wine cannot be successful in the right setting and with countervailing natural acidity and structure. It is more the monotonous ponderous and preening ilk that is being eschewed, perhaps the ones predesigned to seduce critics like me? It has to be said that this sea change in attitude is contemporaneous with Robert Parker’s withdrawal from Bordeaux primeur. That is a discussion for another time. However, the result of this, let’s call it “rearrangement of the furniture” was expressed in the flights of Saint-Émilion wines that showed more site expression, whereas previously all that was evident was the imprimatur of either winemaking or consultants’ modus operandi.

Just examine the performance of the resurgent Canon and Figeac, both of which showed extremely well in 2014 even if both might be predestined to be precursors to their extraordinary 2015 and 2016s. It will be fascinating to see whether they are mooted as candidates for Grand Cru Classé “A” come the next Saint-Émilion reclassification. Look at the change in approach at Pavie where Gérard Perse has re-evaluated the wines of the past 15 years and concluded earlier picking, more Cabernet and less new oak. I like the 2014 Pavie although having recently juxtaposed it against the 2015 and 2016; I feel it is these two vintages that mark the real change in style.

Two of my favorite wines in the world – but not necessarily in the 2014 vintage

That said, in concurrence with my colleague Antonio Galloni, the consensus was a soupçon of disappointment with respect to the 2014 Pomerols, and readers will know how close that appellation is to my heart. It was perhaps the first Southwold where I noted more affection towards Saint-Émilion. I was reading a feckless article the other day about “untouchable” properties. Well, you can put me on record that I would not place either Pétrus or Le Pin at the top of the game in 2014. Olivier Berrouet and Jacques Thienpont respectively have crafted superior wines in recent vintage and hey, part of the attraction of any wine is its ability to translate the growing season. I feel that both just miss a little élan – lovely wines, but not ones that really belong the canon of legends. I have always had reservations marked against Clinet from when I first tasted the wine from barrel and maintain that Ronan Laborde oversaw much better wines in 2015 and 2016. There are some successes in Pomerol, notably L’Eglise-Clinet, Trotanoy and Vieux Château Certan, all with a percentage of Cabernet Franc, plus a strong showing from La Violette, so don’t write the entire appellation off.

On the Left Bank, you should travel to the northern Médoc to find the best, not least both Cos d’Estournel and Montrose who are engaging in tussle to see who made the best Saint-Estèphe that year. Here, contrary to my previous notes, it was Cos d’Estournel that just pipped Montrose, but the bottom line is that they are both stupendous long-lived wines that may dare eclipse their 2015 counterparts. There are a couple of dark horses as well. Echoing Antonio’s comment from last year, check out a wonderful 2014 Meyney, a property that has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, also the upswing in 2014 Lafon-Rochet vis-à-vis its showing in barrel. Calon-Ségur appeared to have shut down that explains my parsimonious score under blind conditions, though I am sure given recent form, it will repay those with the nous to cellar for a decade. I would also point to Tronquoy-Lalande that won its group, a noteworthy Saint-Estèphe that perhaps unfairly lies in the shadow of Montrose.

Pauillac is predictably strong. Perhaps with the exception of a quite brilliant 2014 Mouton-Rothschild that achieved the highest average score from the Southwold group, I found no “chasm” in quality between the First Growths and other Grand Cru Classé, especially when you factor three exceptional 2014s from Grand Puy-Lacoste, Pichon-Baron and Pichon-Lalande. I guess what motivates buying choice is whether you intend to profit from or drink your wine. Perhaps the divisive wine here was Pontet-Canet. There is a susurrus of opinion that the enormous efforts of Alfred Tesseron and Jean-Michel Comme notwithstanding, there has been a small but perceptible deviation in style away from what one might term “quintessential” Pauillac. Testament to that is the fact that several participants in this blind tasting immediately nailed Pontet-Canet by dint of its atypically exotic bouquet. There is attractiveness in those traits. But I question whether it is really part of this cru’s DNA, part of what have made previous vintages so great? And as someone with a lot of experience of Pontet-Canet, I still cite the introduction of clay amphora as the moment that for me, something changed. Now maybe the terroir will reassert itself with bottle age – I sincerely hope that is the case. However, against its peers, I was not the only person to discern more precision and detail in the likes of the Pichons or Grand Puy Lacoste. I know that this might be a controversial view and maybe I will be proven wrong as the wine matures in bottle. Nothing would please me more if that turns out to be the case.

Saint Julien was consistent this year, as it always is. The 2014 Léoville Las Cases had closed down and was shaded here by the exuberant and quite irresistible Léoville Poyferré, probably two estates where blind tasting disadvantages and advantages wines respectively. Léoville Barton produced a divine 2014 that won its flight though my pick, the dark horse, is the stunning 2014 Saint-Pierre. The Margaux 2014s are not as strong as those appellations located further north, perhaps suffering from the slightly higher rainfall levels. There are some good wines here like Rauzan-Ségla, Labégorce (watch out for this property) and Marquis d’Alesme however there was nothing that really stood out, not in the same way as in 2015. There is clearly a clutch of outstanding wines from Pessac-Léognan, in particular and with unapologetic predictability: Pape-Clément, Haut-Bailly, Domaine de Chevalier and Smith Haut-Lafitte. The standout is likely to be La Mission Haut-Brion although whether its quality to price ratio is as good as those four is doubtful. I could not get my head around the 2014 Haut-Brion by comparison. I have rated this wine highly in the past however; here I felt that this particular bottle was just led astray by the menthol note that obfuscated the terroir expression. Remember, this was written before I knew its identity, so it is a trait that I will keep an eye on. Hopefully it was just an off bottle.

Finally, the white 2014s... I have to admit that I was a little disappointed here. I was expecting more given the growing season. These wines always shine in barrel and yet they seem to be prone to misguided winemaking more than their red counterparts. Even the 2014 Haut-Brion Blanc, not an inexpensive wine, showed ordinarily compared to its reputation and personal previous encounters. You want to know which Pessac-Léognan received the highest average score? None of them. It was the 2014 Les Champs Libres, the pure Sauvignon Blanc from the Guinaudeau family at Lafleur.

Last but not least the Sauternes. The 2014s benefitted from that much-needed rush of botrytis prompted by the mid-October rain after a long period of dryness. Generally, these are laden with botrytis and perhaps not as tensile as recent vintages. But, certainly, I felt that at the top level the vigilance of pickers in avoiding picking grey rot paid off and the result is a raft of gorgeous sweet wines, especially in Barsac courtesy of Climens, Doisy-Daëne, Doisy-Védrines and Coutet.

Final Thoughts

That wraps up the 2014 Southwold tasting. It is not a vintage that boasts wines that leave you enraptured. There is not really a single wine that transcends the growing season, leaves you running out of superlatives. It is a fascinating vintage in terms of its heterogeneous nature, its adherence to what might be termed “classic” Bordeaux. It is clearly not a faultless vintage and there are appellations that could not reach full potential because Mother Nature did not co-operate. There are still some properties on the Right Bank that need to reassess their winemaking approach because they are allowing potential great wines to slip through their fingers via an eagerness to soup-up their wines. But overall, there are enough gems to veil 2014 in a positive light and I suspect that their evolution up to their “10-Year On” reappraisal will be more unpredictable than other vintages. For your information, when asked to rank 2014 against other vintages, it was categorized with 2003, 2008 and 2012.

Will the “Southwold” fixture still be going by then? Well, I hope so. It gives an invaluable perspective upon a vintage, away from the hyperbole and puffery down in Bordeaux, the contents inside the bottle the only cause for discussion rather than history or the label. In an age when such wines are increasingly expensive, the ability to assess them within objective conditions is more important now than ever, not just for the benefit of myself as a participant or those that read the report, but for Bordeaux winemakers themselves, many of which pore over the feedback from this tasting.

(My thanks to the Southwold team and especially Bill Blatch for gathering the samples together.)

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