Which 2023 vintage wines should you buy? A trip through Bordeaux’s vineyards

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Last month, when Bordeaux was just verging on springtime, I was reveling in silky textured wines from the 2023 vintage. Many were far better than I expected, especially after hearing so many tales of growing-season hardship from winemakers. Many seemed relieved just to have made it through the vintage without experiencing total disaster.

Overall, the wines are far too heterogenous to call 2023 a great vintage, though some are pure magic.

“You can’t put the 2023s into any category,” says Omri Ram at Pomerol’s Château Lafleur, one of my top wines. “It’s like every château experienced a different vintage.”

The annual rite of Bordeaux en primeur took place from April 22-26, and I arrived early so I would have time to taste more than 450 barrel samples of the 2023 vintage. All told, the event drew about 100 journalists and thousands of merchants from 70 countries.

While there are outstanding wines worth buying in every appellation, from famous names to good values, many châteaux missed the mark. Their wines show bitter tannins and lack of concentration. Some feature green, unripe flavors.

Happily, my first stop,—at 9 a.m. on April 15 at first-growth Château Lafite Rothschild—set a standard for the best. 

The style of the wine

My top reds and whites are as good as (and sometimes better) than the 2022s, but in a style that Bordeaux lovers like to call “classical.” While they lack the lusciousness and oomph of the best 2022s, they combine the ripe tannins and smooth texture of a warm vintage with the floral aromas, vibrant fruit, purity and freshness of a cool one—with lower alcohol levels, too.

“It’s a vintage where you find the terroir in your glass,” said Mathieu Cuvelier of Clos Fourtet in Saint-Émilion, meaning you can clearly detect the personality nuances of each estate’s wines.

The growing season wasn’t easy amid a deadly combo of excessive rainfall and warm day and night temperatures—quite different from that of 2022, which was beset by serious drought and heat. Winemakers struggled to deal with abrupt shifts in weather, with forecasts often misleading. Success came down to luck, microclimate, soil type, grape variety and human decision-making. Experience and resources (meaning expertise and money) made the ultimate difference. Disaster lurked for those who made a bad call.

Rain and warm, humid weather in June set a prolonged scene for virulent outbreaks of mildew that some said was the worst in 25 years. This fungus can quickly sweep through a vineyard to decimate a crop.

“We had to monitor the vineyard by the hour and spray immediately,” says Veronique Sanders of Château Haut-Bailly—even on Sundays. Organic farmers had to regularly and preemptively spray with copper sulfate, though biodynamic Château Fonplégade reports good results with an oak bark solution. Some vineyards were so wet that tractors couldn’t be rolled out. Not all vignerons had enough workers on call to respond so quickly. Merlot is more susceptible to mildewthan cabernet sauvignon or cabernet franc, which is why many 2023 wines have a higher proportion of the latter two.

Christian Moueix, owner of many top Pomerol estates, said they had sprayed from 18 to 20 times, raising the production cost per bottle. Every time it rains, the leaves are rinsed and need to be resprayed with copper or a fungicide.

This was the second-hottest year since the beginning of the 21st century, explains Jean-Philippe Delmas of first-growth Château Haut-Brion. “The cloudy weather in July protected the grapes from the sun and kept freshness,” he says. “Then, intense periods of heat in mid- and late August and early September were like a machine for concentration.” 

That heat transformed some wines into something more profound. It also burned some grapes, making it essential to sort at harvest. A long window for picking the grapes meant they could be harvested at perfect maturity. 

Winemakers emphasize that adapting rapidly and rethinking everything they do has become the new normal.

Should you buy now?

The short answer is yes—if the price is right. But pick carefully.

Here’s a quick reminder of how buying wine futures works. You tie up your cash now (sometimes with only 50% down), while the wines are still aging in barrel, and receive the bottled wines in fall 2026. Don’t assume you can flip the bottled wines for a profit, as was once the case. Some 2019s now cost less than they did as futures four years ago. One reason to buy now is to lock in your favorite wines and pick the format you prefer (magnums, half-bottles, and so forth). 

Price was the big topic at private lunches and gala dinners, with negociants and merchants insisting the top châteaux would have to reduce prices by 30% from last year’s levels to generate excitement.

“The market situation is serious,” says Emmanuel Cruse, head of Commanderie de Bontemps, a Left Bank Bordeaux Château trade association, and co-owner of Château d’Issan. “We all know the wine merchants already have plenty of stock.” Market pressures include high interest rates, inflation, two ongoing wars and a weak market in China.

Says Jeff Zacharia of Zachys, a Port Chester, New York, retailer that has been offering Bordeaux futures to customers since the 1970s: “The quality of the wines exceeded my expectations, but we will only buy what we can sell.” He says he’ll take on fewer names than in the past.

Shaun Bishop, owner of California Bay Area-based JJ Buckley, says he has tasted compelling wines and will probably offer 100; 10 years ago, he would have offered 200. “The first growths will sell, as well as collectible great wines with a following like Pontet-Canet and Les Carmes Haut-Brion.”

It looks as if some châteaux, including Lafite, have heard that price message. Château Pontet-Canet, a super success in 2023, was released at a price 27% lower than last year’s; the brilliant Leoville Las Cases was priced down 40%, Lafite Rothschild 31% and Mouton Rothschild 37.2%.

A key caution: Buy only from a reputable merchant with a long track record for delivering finished wines in bottle. In the US, for example: Zachys, JJ Buckley, Millesima USA and K&L Wine Merchants. In the UK: Farr Vintners, Bordeaux Index, Fine + Rare, and Berry Bros. & Rudd.

What to buy

Several dozen wines are worth buying if the price is right (including whites, which I’ll discuss in a future column). As usual, all the first growths are among the best wines of the vintage, and I was wowed by Right Bank stars such as Petrus, Le Pin, Ausone and Figeac. In addition to those and my 14 favorites and five values below, I’d single out Léoville Las Cases, Léoville Barton, Haut-Bailly, Rauzan-Ségla, Ducru Beaucaillou, Cos d’Estournel, Giscours, L’Evangile, Les Perrières, Canon, d’Issan, Domaine de Chevalier, Vieux Château Certan, Troplong Mondot and Rocheyron. An expanded list of my top 100 wines, with notes, will be available on my website (elinmccoy.com) in June.

Here are my 14 top wines (price included when available):

Château Beausejour Duffau Lagarosse 
The third vintage under co-owner and winemaker Josephine Duffau Lagarosse is the best yet, featuring an opulent, silky texture and seamless earth, mineral, salt and fruit flavors.

Château Bélair-Monange
The first vintage made in the château’s gorgeous new cellar has a wonderful juiciness, along with mineral and truffle notes and a rich depth.

Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion
This Pessac-Léognan property has become one of Bordeaux’s new, buzzy stars. The 2023 has more cabernet sauvignon and franc than usual, which gives it aromas of violets and peonies and a dark violet and mineral taste.

Château Cheval Blanc
Very rich, structured, nuanced and polished, and more mineral and floral than the 2022. The perfumy aromas remind me of violets, peonies, iris and more.

Château La Conseillante
A great wine in this vintage: long and precise, fleshy and layered, with exuberant pure fruit and expansive aromas of lilacs, rose petals and a bit of tobacco.

Château L’ Église Clinet
A stunning wine with intense aroma of cherries, raspberries, cocoa and tobacco. It’s very, very long and powerful.

Château Haut-Brion
Energy, tension and a gorgeous, velvety sensuality mark this always-complex wine that unfurls layers of olive, licorice and cedary flavors.

Château Lafite Rothschild ($520)
A rich wine with quiet, deep power, elegance, and energetic freshness, Lafite brims with stylish flavors of cassis and graphite and a distinctly salty note to its extremely long finish. It’s the best-value Lafite on the market, according to Liv-ex. 

Château Lafleur
A profound wine that seems even better than the fantastic 2022. It shows expressive tea, violet and tobacco aromas, along with deep layers of vibrant, dark fruit and a hint of spice.  One of my favoritewines of the vintage, it will be expensive but usually rises in value quickly.

Château Margaux
Sophisticated, charming, elegant and vivid, this first growth is all subtle flavors and energy. It’s very classical and silky.

Château Montrose
With dark, intense color; pure blackberry-fruit nose; fine, smooth tannins; and a concentrated dark-fruit character, this is one of the best on the Left Bank.

Château Mouton Rothschild ($442)
With a dense texture that suggests dark chocolate mousse, this fleshy 93% cabernet has just about everything: layers of smoky black fruit, notes of pomegranate, tension and a long finish. It’s cheaper than any other vintage on the market.

Château Pichon Lalande
Consistently one of the top wines among recent vintages, this second growth shows off a luxurious silky texture, precise floral and mulberry aromas, and layers of bright, ripe fruit.

Château Pontet-Canet ($91)
The vivid aroma of peonies and exceptionally pure, deep, savory flavors of blueberry fruit, mint and fennel really stand out. This wine shows how brilliant cabernet sauvignon can be.

Five Value Wines

Château Bellefont-Belcier
With each recent vintage, this Saint-Émilion estate outdelivers. This vintage features juicy red-berry flavors, density and structure and a long, mouthwatering finish.

Château Corbin
With cool, seductive dark fruit, a silky texture and everything in balance, this Saint- Émilion grand cru classé exudes both harmony and elegance.

Château Fonplégade
The wine from this biodynamic American-owned Saint-Émilion estate is a standout. Crushed rose petal aromas, plummy fruit and notes of spice.

Château Siran
The wine from this Margaux estate is a consistently good buy. Lively and succulent, it has a core of bright mulberry fruit and minerals, as well as smooth but powerful tannins.

Château Tronquoy 
The billionaire Bouygues brothers own this property, whose quality continues to go higher and higher. This violet-colored wine boasts mint, floral and tobacco aromas and flavor notes of red cherries.

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