For a guide to the most recent coverage of Bordeaux 2004, including how to find all those hundreds of tasting notes, see
Bordeaux 2004 - what's on jancisrobinson.com
It is my firm belief that the best red bordeaux of 2004, which may turn out to be bargains, will make the wine lovers of the world fall in love with tannin again, while providing an object lesson in the positive attributes of these astringent traces of young wines, cold tea, walnut skins and the like.
Tannins are so-called because they are crucial to tanning – not the sort to which so many northern British salons and palefaces are devoted, but the sort that turn animal hide into leather (so perhaps not that different after all). They act as a preservative in young wine and in excess can dry out the inside of our cheeks, making them feel as though they have been scrubbed with sandpaper. With time they interact with other compounds in wine to add a huge range of nuances and eventually end up as sediment in the bottom of the bottle.
The great thing about the tannins in the most successful 2004 red bordeaux is that they are not bitter or rasping but refreshing. They are certainly there, in very obvious spades, but they are not the dry, obtrusive sort that characterised so many wines made in the drought year of 2003, nor the green, underripe ones that plague the least successful 2002s. The tannins in the worse 2004s, and they constitute the majority unfortunately, are of this unpleasant underripe quality, but those in the best 2004s manage to be both ripe and fresh and therefore, perhaps unexpectedly, perform the appetising function that acidity usually does.
Just as the bracing, brisk 2004s are a radical contrast to the super-ripe, sometimes baked, 2003s, the 2004 growing season could hardly have been more different from its predecessor. While 2003 was the earliest harvest since records began with much of a small crop gathered in August, 2004 was the latest since 1988 with a huge crop picked well into October. While summer 2003 was fatally hot for thousands, 2004 temperatures from July to September in Bordeaux returned to normal (more than 10 degrees Centigrade lower on average than in 2003 but absolutely average), and were considerably higher than normal in September and the first 10 days of October which did no harm at all for some of the finest Cabernets, even if rain set in from the 10th.
"If you find anyone in the Médoc who claims that they didn't pick in rain, then send them to me," manager of Ch Latour Frédéric Engerer told me. "But there was no rot at all because the grapes were ripe and healthy. I would rather pick ripe grapes in the rain than grapes that still weren't ripe, but it was very tiring for the pickers because of the mud and so on."
At Ch Margaux, which made one of the finest 2004s, a wine described untranslatably by manager Paul Pontallier as both "dense et aérien" they were still picking the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon on October 21. The harvest at Ch Latour, whose 2004 is also excellent and just as expressive of the property's special character, picking ended only two days earlier. Average vineyard yields at Chx Latour and Margaux were 59 and 55 hectolitres per hectare respectively, almost double the 2003 levels.
While no-one doubts the lateness of the 2004 growing season, there is a massive question mark hanging over the unusually generous size of the 2004 crop. The vines, subjected to poor flowering in 2002 and quite exceptional heat stress in 2003, had enormous reserves of pent-up energy which they could hardly wait to express as an embarrassment of buds in the spring of 2004. This was potentially the biggest crop Bordeaux had ever seen – hardly what was required in a muted fine wine market when the dollar-euro exchange rate was, and remains, so unfavourable. (Prices are just coming out, perceptibly lower than for the 2003s.)
And while the previous year the vines had been stressed by heat, there seemed a severe danger that in 2004 they would be stressed by drought. From December 2003 until August 2004, rainfall was lower, sometimes dramatically lower, than average and conditions were perfect for an almost embarrassingly successful flowering of those numerous buds. This, and the sheer size of the crop, slowed down the development of the vine and doubtless helped to form those nice, savoury tannins.
At the end of June château owners had to take some big decisions. It was clear that to have any chance of making wine with sufficient concentration, the crop would have to be thinned. This has been common practice in Bordeaux since 1989 but in 2004 it was an imperative for any quality-conscious producer who could afford it, and today much more is understood about the virtues of precision leaf-plucking, another complex summer operation. The tragedy is that so many proprietors at the lower end of Bordeaux's food chain are in such straitened financial circumstances that they felt they could not justify the expense of this sustained vineyard operation, thus perpetuating the vicious circle of the quality gap between Bordeaux's top properties and the rest.
As Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Château Certan (another hugely successful 2004) put it, "2004 is the most expensive vintage we ever made, with the vineyard team hard at work - de-leafing, crop thinning and finally picking - solidly from 15 July to 15 October."
Observers of French culture will see a predicament here. Frenchmen believe in holidaying solidly rather than working solidly in July and August. Alain Vauthier of Ch Ausone, whose 2004 looked curiously muted last week, put it, "the biggest problem in modern viticulture is the holidays". With global warming and today's demanding marketplace, pro-active vineyard management in August, once the month when the vines were left to fend to for themselves, has become seriously important.
Every year in Bordeaux it seems there is a new buzzword, or at least fashionable technique. In 2004 this honour seemed to fall on sélection parcellaire, or harvesting parcel by parcel on the precisely perfect day according to ripeness rather than sending in pickers like storm troopers to work their way solidly through the entire vineyard. Again, only those with the deepest pockets or whose wines sell at the highest prices anyway, could afford the luxury of paying pickers to wait rather than pick.
So, yet again, only the top, or most recklessly ambitious, producers had the means to excel themselves. Nature co-operated after a cloudy but not especially cool August by delivering a fine, warm autumn. But there are many disappointing 2004s made from over-charged vines which clearly did not manage to ripen every grape fully (the state of maturity was very varied right up to the end so careful sorting and selection were essential). Such wines have no shortage of tannin, but sometimes those tannins are raw and rasping, a sensation exacerbated by the lack of ripe fruit to counterbalance them. This is particularly marked in the less successful wines of St Emilion and Pomerol.
As in 2003 although for very different reasons, in very general terms the Merlots were less successful than the Cabernet Franc on the right bank of the Gironde and Cabernet Sauvignon on the left bank. Because the vintage was late, the wines are even more backward to taste at this primeur stage than usual – especially since last month was so cold in Bordeaux which slowed down their maturation in barrel. Some of those which seemed disappointing during last week's tastings may well take on flesh over the months to come and their tannins will eventually seem less aggressive. Wines aged in warmer-than-average cellars probably showed better than most – and some wines were so strangely soft and un-tannic that I wondered whether those particular tasting samples had specially had the tannins fined out of them in preparation for Bordeaux's annual primeur tasting circus.
Many winemakers the world over, and particularly in the Americas, seem scared of tannins – waiting for extremes of ripeness in the vineyard to efface any sense of them from the tasting experience, even in very young wines. Perhaps the superb quality of the best Bordeaux 2004 tannins may encourage some of these producers to return to picking a little less ripe so that the tannins are perceptible, possibly refreshing, and alcohol levels less embarrassingly high. Tannins, after all, are no guilty secret - as Bordeaux 2004 so eloquently demonstrates.
Next Saturday in wine news – Bordeaux 2004 whites and the market
2004 bordeaux already showing well
Ch Cheval Blanc
Ch Tertre Roteboeuf
Vieux Ch Certan
Ch Eglise Clinet
Les Forts de Latour
Ch Léoville Las Cases
Ch La Mission Haut-Brion
Pavillon Rouge de Ch Margaux
Ch Pichon Lalande
For tasting notes on hundreds of Bordeaux 2004s, see purple pages. Still to come – all of the right bank, AC Bordeaux and whites, dry and sweet.