Bordeaux’s Sweet Wines Offer a Bright Spot in 2013

Despite unfavorable weather for reds, the growing conditions set up Sauternes and Barsac for success

Excerpted from the March 31, 2016, issue

Whew. That is basically the feeling among the Bordelais as the red wines from the 2013 vintage are now finally headed to retail shelves in the United States. There’s a sense of resignation and relief that the vintage—easily the region’s weakest since 1997—was a small crop that should result in quick absorption by the marketplace. Like the character Neo in The Matrix, Bordeaux’s winemakers twisted and turned in an effort to dodge everything that Mother Nature threw at them during a chaotic growing season.

“2013 was certainly the most difficult vintage I’ve known in Bordeaux,” says Stéphane Derenoncourt, the owner of his own Domaine de l’A in Castillon and an influential winemaking consultant to dozens of Bordeaux estates.

In the end, those vintners who were rigorous in their viticultural work throughout the season and uncompromising in their sorting at harvest—as well as positioned to benefit from a hefty dose of technology in the cellar—managed to coax a set of light-bodied, early-drinking reds into bottle. The dry whites, typically overshadowed by the reds, are generally excellent in 2013, and the sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes are mostly superb, giving the region something to cheer about.

Overall, I have reviewed nearly 475 finished, bottled wines from Bordeaux’s 2013 vintage via blind tastings at Wine Spectators New York office and in Bordeaux. These reviews confirm my initial impressions based on the barrel tastings I conducted in the spring of 2014, when the vintage was first presented by winemakers and château owners, a period known as en primeur (see “Disaster Averted,” June 30, 2014). The total count of all wines in this report is 362 reds, 83 dry whites and 27 dessert wines.

While red wine producers were scrambling to deal with the spread of gray rot at the end of the season in 2013, the region’s sweet wine producers were happy to watch their own form of rot develop: botrytis. This is the “noble rot” that shrivels grape skins and concentrates sugar, helping Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon to produce some of the world’s greatest sweet wines. In the end, the best 2013s are not as deep and complex as the stunning 2011s, but they are generally excellent, with fresh acidity and racy profiles to match their sweetness. Although the vintage is a success, it was not without its hurdles. As rot spread quickly, leaving only minimal time between rains, producers still had to work fast.

“We had a lot of rain on Oct. 4 and 5, and then Oct. 11. We were very lucky to see a strong south dry wind from Oct. 17 to 20, which was efficient to dry the effects of the rain and have a rapid concentration of the berries,” says Eric Larramona, director at Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey in Bommes. “But we had to pick quite quickly, and we finished on Oct. 25. The result is a very low yield—11 hectoliters per hectare [0.8 tons per acre]. But the quick picking gave the wine a good purity because the botrytis was very fresh when we picked.” The Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey Sauternes 2013 (95, $59) is one of the stars of the vintage as well as a promising new beginning for the estate, which was purchased by Silvio Denz just after the 2013 harvest.

With most of the sweet wines now released, the Château d’Yquem Sauternes 2013 (98, $360) leads the way. Other top dessert wines include the spectacular Château Climens Barsac 2013 (97, $68) and Château Doisy Daëne Barsac L’Extravagant 2013 (97, $195/375ml), the latter an individual berry selection of only fully botrytized Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Châteaus Coutet, Guiraud and Doisy-Védrines also produced classic-rated wines in 2013. Overall, two-thirds of the 27 Barsac and Sauternes in this report earned outstanding ratings.

Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on the wines of Bordeaux.

For the complete 2013 Bordeaux tasting report, including the red wines and dry whites, read “Bordeaux Squeaks By” in our online magazine archives.