This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
In an ideal year bordeaux is made in the vineyard and all that needs to be done after the grapes are harvested is to allow them to ferment and express themselves as eloquently as possible. Last summer was far from ideal however, and for wine producers the work was just beginning in late September when the fermentations got underway.
Indeed most producers in the Médoc were still busy harvesting when rainy September slipped in to what was to be overall a very dry, warm October. But unfortunately the rain that did fall in October fell in the first few days right in the middle of the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest and there was no question of allowing already compromised grapes to stay on the vines to benefit from a last blast of heat. Picking in the rain is no fun and even at Château Latour which made one of the finest wines of the vintage, the harvest was described glumly as "five muddy weeks".
Average ripeness levels in the late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were the same as in 2004 and 2001, and a full 10 per cent lower than in 2005, 2003 and 2000. Average total acidity in the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes which dominate the Médoc and Graves was higher than in any year this century apart from 2001.
With Merlot, the dominant grape of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, most of which had been picked much earlier, from around September 11 before being interrupted by the heavy mid September rains, it was a different story. The Moueix family used special drying machines to dry their Merlot grapes after the mid September rains, and believe that their Châteaux La Fleur Pétrus, Hosanna and Providence in Pomerol were especially successful because their early-maturing terroir meant they could be picked before the rain. Even if the Merlots' thin skins had in less well-tended vineyards left them prone to rot, they notched up impressive average sugar levels – higher even than in 2000 and 2005 – with total acidity lower than in 2004, 2001 and 2000. Cabernet Franc was a washout and Petit Verdot generally underripe.
Jean-Philippe Delmas at Ch Haut-Brion observed that their average pH readings, the measure of the intensity of acidity, suggested that analytically their 2006s had slightly less acidity than their 2005s, but admitted that the 2006s actually taste much tarter ("fresher" is the prevailing euphemism), because they have so much less stuffing and intensity than the preceding vintage.
At the best properties there had been crucial work at the sorting tables, throwing away any split and rotten grapes as well as those which were most obviously underripe. (August saw one of the most protracted veraisons ever, leaving grapes of different colours on the same bunch.) Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Château Certan admits that he owes the exceptional quality of his 2006 partly to the sorting work of Master of Wine Fiona Morrison, the wife of his cousin Jacques Thienpont of nearby Le Pin, where another superb 2006 was made. "It was obscene what we left out", Alexandre Thienpont told me, "but the result was that we had practically no rot in the fermentation tanks."
Outside Pomerol, Merlot seems to have been generally of more disappointing quality, picking having often been forced by the threat of rot after the September rains. It constituted a record low proportion, just four per cent of the blend, for the main wine, the grand vin, of Château Margaux for example.
Partly because of this in 2006 generally there is a much bigger gap in both style and quality between the grands vins and second wines at the big Médoc properties. In some vintages such as 2005, second wines can offer a thoroughly rewarding and well-priced way of experiencing first growth expertise. Not in 2006 – although Mouton, as so often, seemed to offer an exception to the rule, with Petit Mouton tasting particularly well on the morning I visited Ch Mouton Rothschild.
As for the tannins, there is absolutely no shortage of them in 2006. The famous IPT, the index of total phenolics (including most notably tannins), was as high as in 2005 in most significant properties, but the problem in far too many cases was that the tannins were not nearly as ripe as in 2005 (and not as appetising as in 2004). Thomas Duroux of Château Palmer described them diplomatically as "less flamboyant". Particularly in the less successful Saint-Émilions and Médocs, the tannins were positively rasping on the end of the palate, and seem to have been the result of wine producers panicking over the natural lightness of the musts and prolonging macerations, thereby extracting too many of these underripe tannins.
Others seem to have hit upon a more winning formula for making the best of 2006. At Château Léoville Las Cases, where past vintages have often seemed extremely obdurate at this early stage, the new wine was deliberately transferred to barrel early to soften the wine. The ideal of course was to have employed such first class viticulture that the grapes were healthy enough to be picked at full ripeness. François Mitjavile of Châteaux Tertre Roteboeuf and Roc de Cambes seems to have been in this happy position, and describes 2006 as Vivaldi to 2005's J S Bach.
Few could agree on exactly which vintage 2006 most resembled, for it has been a very long time since both August and September were so unprepossessing, even if top producers are now infinitely more skilled at making up for nature's deficiencies. For Jean-Guillaume Prats at Cos, 2006 was "a super 2002". According to Alain Vauthier of the recently feng shui-ed Ch Ausone, "2006 is not better than '05, maybe better than '04, definitely better than '01, and richer than 02." For Frédéric Engerer at Château Latour, 2006 was closest to 1986 "yet in 2006 105mm rain fell in September, whereas 1986 was a perfect summer – which just shows how much the work in the vineyard has evolved. Our labour costs were 60% higher in 2006 than in 2005."
François Pinault would certainly need an absurdly high selling price to match Latour's income from selling the 2005 harvest. Only 38 per cent of the crop went into the 2006 grand vin (the comparable figure at Château Margaux was 36 per cent, but then Latour have been acquiring vineyard at quite a rate recently). According to Engerer, the total number of cases of grand vin produced in 2004, 2005 and 2006 were 15,000, 12,500 and 10,000 respectively. Still a lot in 2006, but a lot less.
His nemesis Bernard Arnault of LVMH must be absolutely thrilled by what has been produced at his first growth Château d'Yquem in 2006. The damp 2006 autumn yielded some pretty ropey Sauternes at lower levels but the two top wines, Climens and especially Yquem, are stunning.
But neither of these billionaires, nor the Bordeaux wine producers as a whole, are famous for underpricing.
See purple pages for detailed tasting notes on more than 430 bordeaux 2006s.
MY TOP 2006 BORDEAUX
Whites: Climens, Haut-Brion Blanc, Laville Haut-Brion, Pavillon Blanc de Château Margaux, Yquem
Left bank reds: Cos d'Estournel, Grand Puy Lacoste, Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, Léoville Barton, Léoville Las Cases, Margaux, Palmer
Right bank reds: Angélus, Arrosée, Conseillante, Evangile, Le Pin, Tertre Roteboeuf, Vieux Château Certan, Eglise Clinet, Lafleur, La Fleur Pétrus, Providence
POSSIBLE GOOD BUYS
Bernardotte, Bahans Haut-Brion, Clos du Clocher, Grand Puy Lacoste, Haut Bages Libéral, Phélan Segur, La Tour Carnet