This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times. See my tasting notes on all 53 wines.
In my experience, Financial Times readers feel very strongly about Bordeaux. The majority of those who read my weekly columns in the FT (the spread of whose geographical readership closely reflects that of JR.com: one third UK, one third US and the rest spread between up to 90 other countries) seem to be particularly keen on red bordeaux and especially curious about how the claret in their cellar is maturing. But there is another, smaller faction whose attitude could best be summed up by 'Bah, bordeaux, humbug!' I apologise in advance to everyone who feels this way for this week's column, a survey of how the 1999s are drinking now.
On the other hand, it continues a fine, longstanding FT tradition, begun by my predecessor Edmund Penning-Rowsell, of 'looking at' each vintage of the top red bordeaux at 10 years old. He restricted his survey to the first growths but these wines are now so expensive that they are fast becoming of theoretical interest only to the great majority of bordeauxphiles, most of whom are interested in wines lower down the ranks.
I was delighted therefore when I learned that fine wine traders Bordeaux Index are reviving this tradition, with an annual tasting of more than 50 classed growth red bordeaux and equivalents, beginning with the 1999 vintage.The fact that this was a less than glorious vintage, with less than stratospheric prices, must have helped when they first approached the château owners with this idea. Apparently about three-quarters of the wines tasted first by a group of wine writers and then by some of their customers last week were donated by those who produced them, which reduced the cost of a potentially extremely expensive exercise considerably. The event drained four bottles, or two magnums, of each wine, which ranged in price from Ch Bernadotte 1999 Haut-Médoc at only about £100 a dozen in bond to Ch Pétrus 1999 Pomerol at closer to £9,000. (Below you see me, wine writer Stephen Brook and our laptops hard at work here, me swirling a particularly handsome glass which I most unfortunately broke only a few wines later. Note the traditional anti-back ache box under my Dell.)
The 1999 vintage was a large one, with such a successful flowering that summer crop thinning was needed to concentrate flavour. A few storms in August led to the threat of rot and mildew but a greater problem was the heavy rain in September which had a further dilution effect on many Médoc and Graves grapes although some St-Émilion and many Pomerol properties picked before the rains. Many vineyards west of the town of St-Émilion suffered a severe hailstorm in early September and were given special permission to pick early so as to stop rot spreading through the hail-stricken grapes.
Certainly these 1999s were very far from blockbusters, and some of them were just thin or inexpressive. Indeed, the least inspiring 1999s illustrate well how overpriced classed growth red bordeaux can seem. I'm afraid I would find it hard to justify the current price of Chx Branaire Ducru 1999 or Ch Haut-Bailly 1999 at £320-£390 a dozen in bond, which would work out at close to £40 a bottle. (I should point out that there are many other vintages of these properties which I have liked a great deal, and others liked the Haut-Bailly much more than I did.)
One common problem was that in some cases the fruit, which had clearly never been especially intense, seemed to be fading faster than the tannins were resolving themselves so that wines such as Ch Petit Village 1999 Pomerol and Ch Rauzan Ségla 1999 Margaux seemed to be drying out, with acidity rather than fruit coming to the fore. I feel sure that, had today's Bordeaux winemakers been faced with such a vintage, the extraction and the tannins would have been rather more skilfully managed – as in 2007 and 2008, for example.
But there were many attractive wines too – very much in the classical claret mould of being quite elegant and harmonious rather than knocking any taster's jazzily modern socks off. These are not wines to drool over in a crowded bar. They are designed instead for a traditional table, with food, and fairly undramatic food at that. The cheapest and most modest wine we tasted, Ch Bernadotte 1999 Haut-Médoc, for example, was a perfect example of what Edmund Penning-Rowsell used to call 'luncheon claret'. Light but expressive enough and beautifully balanced.
Although only 19 of the 53 wines we tasted were from the right bank of the Gironde, they strongly suggested that early-picking Pomerol was one of the most consistently successful appellations. Chx Pétrus and Lafleur were my two favourite wines of all, and I thought Trotanoy, L'Evangile, L'Église Clinet, Vieux Château Certan and the second bottle of La Grave à Pomerol (a first smelt rather fungal) all showed very well – rich and satisfying without being heavy.
The St-Émilions were a much more mixed bunch with the two first growths Ausone and especially Cheval Blanc performing well but otherwise only Tertre Roteboeuf of the mere eight we tasted really standing out – again because of its richness and sheer character. (Too many of these 1999s are just too muted to make a really strong impression.)
On the left bank, two of the wines grown on the gravels of Pessac-Léognan looked particularly pretty last week. Domaine de Chevalier (in magnum admittedly, which may have made the wine seem more youthful and vigorous than it would from a conventional bottle) was as refreshing and expressive as ever, while Ch Smith Haut Lafitte was in a very similar style – almost transparently Graves with a light but beautifully developed perfume.
Margaux is conventionally thought to have performed particularly well in 1999 but I was not entranced by the Brane Cantenac, Rauzan-Ségla or Palmer, and even Ch Margaux itself did not stand out from the other first growths alongside which it was served.
St-Julien seemed to have been more successful on the basis of the nine we tried, of which Gruaud Larose, Langoa Barton, Léoville Barton and Léoville Las Cases were particularly impressive. We tasted only the top three St-Estèphes but I ended up giving them all an enthusiastic 17 points out of 20, even if they were all at different stages of development, with Cos d'Estournel one of the most youthful wines of the entire tasting.
In Pauillac, Mouton was the only disappointing first growth, reflected in its price of 'only' £1,800 a dozen in bond, and it was easy to see why the second wine of Ch Latour, Les Forts de Latour, is a robust £1,000 a case. I have suggested below some of the relative bargains of the vintage, although on the basis of this tasting I would not rush out to buy 1999s.
As for when to drink them, I thought some of the St-Émilions and Pessac-Léognans were already in their prime, while the more serious examples from the other appellations should drink well throughout the next decade. The wines to cellar for a while yet, other than the left bank first growths, seemed to me to be Léoville Las Cases (as usual), Grand Puy Lacoste, Pichon Longueville (Baron), Montrose, Cos d'Estournel and La Mission Haut-Brion. Bring on the 2000s!
BETTER VALUE 1999s
Ch Bernadotte £14.35 Coe Vintners
Ch La Grave à Pomerol £240 a dozen in bond, HS Liquid Assets
Domaine de Chevalier £26.50 Lay & Wheeler
Ch Gruaud Larose £32.49 Fareham Wine Cellar
Ch Smith Haut Lafitte £36.50 Hennings
Prices and stockists correct at the time of writing. Global stockists at www.wine-searcher.com
Bordeaux Index asked all those who took part in this (sighted) tasting to nominate their five favourite wines and the five they though represented best value. Here's how the 80-odd tasters voted.
BEST: Latour, Lafite, Palmer, Lafleur - all by a long way, with runners up: Ausone, Tertre Roteboeuf and VCC.
BEST VALUE: Léoville and Langoa Barton; Gruaud Latose, Haut-Bailly and Bernadotte.