Test of Endurance: Bordeaux 2014 Ten Years On


My 15 minutes of fame began around midday. A strange female voice telephones from the Paris press office of the Daily Torygraph - the starting pistol for a surreal afternoon when every national newspaper craves an interview with yours truly. Soon, there’s a call every five minutes. My wife hollers up the stairs…

“The BBC’s on the phone.”

They want me to come into the studio, but there’s not enough time, so I’m transferred to a household name journalist and interviewed for that evening’s Six O’Clock News, the frivolous ‘…and finally’ to cheer up listeners after all the war and pestilence. I’ve barely put down the receiver when it’s the call I’ve been dreading…

“Hi. This is The Sun.”

How did this muck-raking tabloid obtain my number? Hacked? Should I call Prince Harry for advice? A spurned ex-girlfriend giving lurid details of our love life? A winemaker avenging a poor review? Once we establish that his knowledge of wine goes little beyond cheap beer, I agree to help him rustle up something witty to appeal to a readership that I suspect is unfamiliar with the double-Guyot pruning or biodynamics. The only stumbling block is a requested list of supermarket recommendations – not my specialty. After surviving that call and scooping up my daughter from infant school, I return home to find a stranger in a trench coat, armed with a Nikon weaponized with an enormous lens, loitering at the front door.

“You Neal Martin?” he says gruffly, breath stained with tobacco. “Been sent to take a photo for tomorrow’s piece in The Sun.”

We repair to the green outside my home. I pose within smelling distance of the dog waste bin. Later, I stubbornly refuse to listen to the Six O’Clock News, though I can tell I’m being aired by my daughters’ hysterical laughter. The Sun “exclusive” appears the following day, occupying the entire page seven under the headline: I hate wine snobs…I write my guide in McDonald’s. The first part is true, the second a misquote, but whatever, it’s a fun piece, even if my five wine recommendations are completely fabricated.

Why recount my 15 minutes of fame? Well, the previous evening, at a pre-organized press conference, sitting next to the abdicating king of wine criticism, Robert Parker announced that coverage of Bordeaux was being handed to some geezer from Essex who never even drank wine until he was twenty-five. First assignment? The 2014 Bordeaux vintage…

Time flies. It’s difficult to believe that a decade has already passed since my 17th en primeur. I was fortunate insofar that 2014 followed the woeful 2013s, so the only way was up. Hence, there was a veil of optimism that the wines were at least better than the previous three vintages, essentially a “useful” crop for merchants and consumers alike, inasmuch as they were decent wines at decent prices.

Between flights of the Southwold 10-Year-On tasting held at Farr Vintners

I revisited the wines blind in 2018, soon after joining Vinous. Now that the 2014s have reached ten years of age, I conducted two annual tastings to examine their evolution. The first, organized at Bordeaux Index, comprised around 57 top-tier wines that I could assess at a leisurely pace. The second, just a few days later, took place at the annual “Southwold” 10-Year-On at Farr Vintners’ office; 150 wines tasted blind and overlapping the first tasting. For this reason, you will see either amalgamated notes or, if deserving, separate snapshots, two separate reviews, especially if the same wine showed differently. All in all, it is a thorough examination of the vintage. Readers should note that I habitually fold this into my annual “Centuries of…” article; however, since these wines probably occupy more cellars and restaurant lists than older vintages ending in the same number, I decided to publish as a standalone piece.

The 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, which 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. Towards the end of April, inclement weather 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. Two heat spikes followed 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 second 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 averaged 27.8° Celsius, with 27% more sunlight hours than in 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 were 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 second 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. Estates had to be careful since some vineyard managers 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 was less frequent compared to other vintages, as many feared over-extraction.

The Wines

Comparing the two tastings, I felt that the wines showed slightly better at the first tasting at Bordeaux Index. I wonder if that might have something to do with the weather. While I am not one to believe in root or fruit days, atmospheric pressure does impinge upon wine. The first tasting was a bright sunny day, the second coinciding with a deep low-pressure system that brought torrential rain.

Some 2014s have evolved faster than envisaged since my last assessment in 2018. This takes the shine off the vintage and suggests that it twinkled brightly in its youth, but many of its alumni were not predisposed toward longevity. It certainly lacks the legs of, say, 2010 or 2016, perhaps even 2012 or 2017. Most alarmingly, I was perturbed by some Right Bank wines that felt overly advanced with tertiary aromas that usurped the fresh fruit-driven scents evident six years ago. Such secondary scents can definitely be appealing. However, they were occasionally accompanied by insufficient fruit, thus rendering them a little mean, even dour. Moreover, there is no question that some of the modern, turbo-charged Right Bank wines are hobbling along, at worst, quite distasteful. Thank goodness we have moved on.  

As you move up the hierarchy, the wines have much more to offer, not least those blended with Cabernet Franc: Cheval Blanc, Figeac, Ausone and a refreshingly more restrained Pavie in Saint-Émilion. L’Eglise-Clinet, Lafleur and in particular, Vieux Château Certan, excel over in Pomerol, likewise Petrus and Clos l’Eglise. Yet none of the aforementioned ranks among their best wines, and overall, I do not consider it a fecund vintage for the Pomerol appellation. To wit, the likes of Clinet, Hosanna and La Conseillante show much better in other vintages.

Pessac-Léognan was up and down with the usual suspects performing well, perhaps my personal favorite Domaine de Chevalier, notwithstanding a decent showing from nowadays less bombastic Pape-Clément. While the Malartic-Lagravière was perplexing compared to previous showings, Haut-Bailly came across as nicely restrained and classic in style. Some, like Carbonnieux and La Louvière, imply that these wines have zipped past their drinking windows, which frankly is far too brief considering their standing. Between Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, I erred towards the latter, though again, neither belongs within the canon of top vintages.

As the 2014 Bordeaux vintage matures, the wines confirm a view stated in my original en primeur report: the Left Bank is more consistent than the Right Bank. That is logical since the clement September and October months advantaged later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon-orientated blends, and as I already mentioned, those on the Right Bank with a splash of Cabernet Franc. The Margaux appellation is inconsistent, although I admired the second bottle of Palmer, having demanded a second bottle, convinced the first was simply out of sorts. I scored the Pavillon Rouge so generously that it was a little different from the Grand Vin. Blind tasting can skew results in this way since Deuxième Vins are predesigned to flatter in their youth. There are a couple of overperformers, namely Siran and Prieuré-Lichine; however, if I had to buy one Margaux in 2014, then it would definitely be the Brane Cantenac, a wine that I have rated highly on several occasions and showed splendidly in both tastings.

At this juncture, the appellation that appears to rise to the challenge is Saint-Julien. It was “business as usual” on release, though it did not grab headlines. However, Saint-Julien was the most satisfying flight for some attendees, including myself, at the Southwold 10-Year-On tasting. For sure, you cannot go wrong if it has “Léoville” in the name, in particular Léoville Poyferré, one of the few 2014s that caused a rush of endorphins. Given market prices vis-à-vis other vintages, this represents a wise acquisition. I was more positive towards the Pauillacs than other attendees. Pick of the bunch without question is the 2014 Mouton-Rothschild, a contender for wine of the vintage. This is one of a handful of wines that transcends the limitations of the season, partly due to the skills of former winemaker Philippe Dhalluin. The 2014 Latour, already late-released, was tremendous and a few steps in front of Lafite-Rothschild. The 2014 Grand-Puy-Lacoste is outstanding and performed neck-and-neck with the First Growths. I must caution that two bottles at the blind tasting were oxidized and were not scored. Other strong showings came courtesy of Clerc Milon and Pichon Comtesse de Lalande, though I’ve had better bottles of Pichon Baron in the past.

Saint-Estèphe was touted highly at en primeur. For sure, there are some excellent wines, namely Montrose, Calon-Ségur, a dark horse in the form of Tronquoy-Lalande. A fabulous Haut-Marbuzet had the chutzpah to score higher than the Cos d’Estournel, though stylistically, there are similarities between them, a sense of opulence and voluptuousness. Some of the wines seemed to have lost a bit of momentum in recent years, and I expected more from Meyney and a misfiring Phélan-Ségur that I’ll endeavor to revisit. Sometimes bottles misbehave. Don’t we all?

The Sauternes benefitted from a much-needed rush of botrytis that was ignited by mid-October rains after a long arid stretch. The Southwold tasting saw impressive showings from Climens, de Fargues, Doisy-Daëne and Rayne-Vigneau. My highest score was not Yquem but, in fact, Suduiraut (which blind, I mistook for Yquem.) It’s not a consistent vintage for Sauternes: the La Tour Blanche is a little toffee-ish to my liking, and Doisy-Védrines is missing the mineralité of its Barsac siblings. Given prices, it is certainly a vintage that I would give consideration to.

Final Thoughts

Even since I started writing about wine, I have felt that it is a writer’s duty to keep returning to a vintage and monitor its evolution. Some are more predictable than others. Revisiting a vintage at any juncture is certainly not to reconfirm previous scores to convince readers of your preternatural consistency. Wines differ from bottle to bottle as evidenced in this very tasting. A vintage can be like a murmuration of swallows and dive en masse in an unexpected direction. Perusing my report in 2018, I wrote that the wines would doubtlessly be “more unpredictable than other vintages,” and so, that is one prediction proven correct.

After an initial burst of promise that lasted several years, these wines suggest that with a handful of exceptions, they are not going to repay long-term cellaring. Some are beginning to fray at the edges. They are definitely not unattractive. There’s part of me that feels the negative remarks in this introduction don’t quite correlate to a bunch of scores in the low 90s. On reflection, perhaps I was hoping for a surprise package, a comparatively unsung vintage that would prove doubters wrong. I suspect it is simply a vintage to approach with modest expectations. You need to sort the wheat from the chaff, separate those that deserve drinking in the near future and others that might deliver more, and do not expect much above a notional 95 points. Maybe we have become accustomed to that in recent years? At best, the likes of Léoville Poyferré, Mouton-Rothschild, Lafleur and Grand-Puy-Lacoste will be intriguing to revisit at 15 years, though I wonder whether the 2014s might start flagging. To reiterate my point, it is definitely not a bad vintage. The optimist in me expected more, especially based on the positive showing in 2018. Sometimes, vintages are like lovers. They just let you down when you least expect it.

I would not go so far as to say that the 2014 vintage’s moment of fame is as fleeting as my own. Still, it will be interesting to see whether it was predestined to be a vintage attractive only in its flush of youth or whether, at ten years, we simply encountered the wines at an awkward juncture. Perhaps I should ring up The Sun to ask whether they are interested in reporting on the wines to their readers? Somehow, I think not. The one thing that I can promise is that this report was not written at McDonald’s. I no longer eat fast food - another thing that has changed since 2014.

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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