This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
See also my tasting notes on these wines.
Which vintage of red bordeaux is the best value? This is a fair topic for anyone with a classic wine collection. There aren't many obvious candidates from the last decade of the last century and among the wines of the 1980s there are many examples that are already a little long in the tooth. There is no doubt that red bordeaux is being made to be drinkable much earlier than in the past so it is worth considering the vintages of the first decade of this century.
The least expensive 21st-century vintages with any pretensions to being drinkable - 2002, 2004 and 2007 - are all about the same price. As in Burgundy, the 2007s are relatively charming early-maturers, but with under six years in bottle, they are hardly ambassadors for red bordeaux's great distinguishing mark: its ability to age. Ten years has conventionally been considered the minimum age for enjoying a halfway serious red bordeaux. Two years ago I wrote about how the 2002s tasted at the 10-year mark. There are some exceptionally good ones such as Latour and the Haut-Brions but on the whole 2002 is a relatively slight vintage.
Last week I had the chance to taste 77 of the smarter 2004s (though not the first growths) blind in suitable flights, followed by 22 less glorious reds and an array of the finest Sauternes non-blind. I had quite high hopes as, although this was a record crop in terms of size, I'd enjoyed some of the wines when I first tasted them and enjoyed the firm, ripe tannins and freshness in the best of them. This was a year when, after a poor flowering in 2002 and the depredations of the 2003 heatwave, the vines had a mass of pent-up energy and, in delightfully fine weather, they sprouted forth buds in June - so much so that the better estates which could afford the labour had to thin the crop rigorously in the summer. Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Château Certan reported gloomily in 2005 that 2004 had been the most demanding year in the vineyard that he had known. (Little did he know what the next decade had in store for him.)
The trouble was that only those whose wines command high prices could afford to do this and 2004 is therefore not a year for great performances lower down the status scale, where some producers had to leave unpicked grapes on the vine simply to stay below the authorised yields. Grape ripening was very uneven, often within the same, generally copious, bunch. Much-needed concentration was achieved during a warm fortnight in early September which effectively saved the vintage, and an exceptionally late harvest took place in decidedly showery weather. Many a winemaker 'bled' off some of the juice, the so-called saignée.
Presumably because this tasting, based as it is on the leftover bottles from the annual Southwold tasting of wines only recently put into bottle, excluded the first growths, I did not find myself raving about any of the wines. My top mark was 17.5 out of 20. But the best 2004s represent real value (in Bordeaux's inflated context), are generally starting to drink well (and are much, much more approachable than the next two vintages 2005 and 2006) and, given the record size of the vintage, shouldn't be too difficult to find.
Most of the stars of our tasting were on the left bank: appetising, medium-bodied wines for drinking over the next six to 10 years. The real surprise was how well the Margaux performed - better than St-Julien, which is rare in one of these vintage overviews. I still love Pavillon Rouge 2004, the second wine of Château Margaux. Rauzan-Ségla and Giscours also performed very well. Palmer was delicious, too, but much less of a bargain.
St-Julien, usually one of the most reliable appellations, fielded a series of pretty obdurate wines, as though producers had responded to their record yields by pursuing a relentless programme of extraction or concentration. The star in a field of starrier names was Beychevelle, whose 2004 has always shown well.
Next door in Pauillac there were no disappointments at all. My lowest mark in the blind tasting of the Pauillac flight, for what it's worth, was 16, I gave many a 17, and 17.5 for Carruades de Lafite, making this the single most consistent appellation. We may not have tasted first growths Mouton and Lafite, but all the wines from these two rival stables were impressive, with Petit Mouton, the second wine of Château Mouton Rothschild, the group favourite, and Pontet-Canet, another big success in 2004, being the group's second highest scorer.
In St-Estèphe my overall favourites were the Calon-Ségur and Lafon-Rochet although chunky Meyney wooed many other palates.
Pessac-Léognan was another appellation which fielded a number of very appetising wines, including Châteaux La Mission Haut-Brion, La Tour Haut-Brion and the less expensive Malartic Lagravière and de Fieuzal. Our bottle of Bahans Haut-Brion, on the other hand, was as dead as a dodo.
Unusually, we did not encounter a single bottle suffering from cork taint but, to judge from the single bottles tasted last week, some other wines seemed to be over the hill, notably Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse and Monbousquet. It was perhaps no coincidence that both of these are St-Émilions. The St-Émilion flight was far from glorious with the usual winemaking exaggerations, although Canon, sister property in the Chanel stable to the equally successful Rauzan-Ségla, was a notable, and not expensive, success. Larcis-Ducasse and Beau-Séjour Bécot showed quite well, too.
Pomerols usually show considerably better than St-Émilions in these sort of tastings but 2004 does not seem to have been a particularly successful vintage in Pomerol either - perhaps because August was wetter on the right bank than on the left. That said, there was just a single point between average scores for the group's most and least favourite Pomerols.
The Sauternes, which benefited from the noble rot encouraged by autumn rains, were in general much more impressive, and surely underpriced.
Because of the different speeds at which these vintages are maturing, we have decided to taste the precocious 2007s in a year's time, the so-so 2006s in two years' time, and to delay re-examining the hugely promising but rather monolithic 2005s until - ye gods - 2017.
BEST VALUE 2004s
These are wines I gave 17 or 17.5 points out of 20 and for which wine-searcher.com calculates an average price per bottle of less than £50 (although in the UK they are generally available only by the dozen, alas).
Sigalas Rabaud, Sauternes £23
Doisy-Védrines, Sauternes £24
de Fieuzal, Pessac-Léognan £28
Nenin, Pomerol £33
Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Sauternes £34
Malartic Lagravière, Pessac-Léognan £34
Rieussec, Sauternes £37
Lafon-Rochet, St-Estèphe £37
d'Armailhac, Pauillac £38
Suduiraut, Sauternes £44
Tour Haut-Brion, Pessac-Léognan £44
Canon, St-Emilion £47
Giscours, Margaux £47
See also my tasting notes on all the wines. International stockists from wine-searcher.com.