This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Serious red wine drinkers tend to divide themselves into bordeaux connoisseurs and lovers of burgundy. I use those different terms advisedly. An engagement with bordeaux is a cerebral business. With burgundy it is an affair of the heart. The finest private wine collection I know in London belongs to someone who positively dislikes red burgundy. I was given the catalogue of a major wine fair in Paris last weekend by one of the more prominent figures on the French wine scene, Tim Johnston of Juveniles wine bar, with a big black line through the long lists of exhibiting Bordeaux châteaux. "No need to taste those", he sniffed.
As someone who earns her living giving wine advice, and lapping up the evidence (I taste wine so you don't have to, after all), I can hardly afford to be so partisan. But I truly love good to great red bordeaux, even if I am fonder of merely good red burgundy than I am of merely good red bordeaux.
The problem for wine buyers however is finding good to great red bordeaux that is both available to buy by the bottle and ready to drink. Most serious bordeaux is bought by the case long before it is even bottled, let alone delivered. Many merchants work much harder at their allocations of these en primeur wines than at providing a good range of fine, mature wines by the bottle – although The Wine Society, the member-owned co-operative based in Stevenage, Hertfordshire is a particularly notable exception. Most of the big traditional merchants such as Berry Bros, Justerini & Brooks, Corney & Barrow and Tanners of Shrewsbury are also better than most. Smaller companies offering particularly good ranges of fully mature claret include Four Walls Wine of Chilgrove, Reid Wines of Hallatrow and Peter Wylie of Cullompton.
The most obvious vintages of choice for current drinking are 1990 and 1982, two vintages in which it is hard to find even a hint of failure. Three 1982 Pauillacs drunk within the last few weeks, Châteaux Latour, Lynch Bages and Pichon Lalande, all looked very delicious indeed, even if the Latour clearly has a much longer life ahead of it than the other two, especially the Pichon. As for the 1990s, they have provided mouthfuls of velvety gorgeousness ever since they were babies, and most above petit château level seem to be still steaming along fortunately. Nineteen ninety is one of those rare vintages that was super-successful on both left and right banks of the Gironde.
The other glamorous recent vintage one might think of starting to broach already is 2000 which was in general much more successful in Médoc and Graves than in St-Emilion and Pomerol. Most serious British collectors of red bordeaux probably imagine that the 2000s are a long way from being drinkable but third growth Ch Lagrange 2000 St-Julien tasted recently was beautifully balanced and already succulent even if far from fully evolved, while from the other bank, the almost roasted Ch Roc de Cambes 2000 Côte de Bourg was a great pleasure to drink. I suspect virtually all red bordeaux made in the 21st century will be ready much sooner than their predecessors.
Ordering from mail order merchants can require some planning and forethought however, and in many cases you are obliged to order at least a dozen assorted bottles. The following distinctly superior red bordeaux are available in larger branches of some of the multiple retailers.
Sarget de Gruaud Larose 1997 St Julien is the second wine of the often-overlooked second growth Ch Gruaud Larose, from an early maturing vintage, but just happens to be drinking delightfully now. Majestic's regular price is £15.99 a bottle but if two bottles are bought this comes down to just £12.99 – a steal.
Stephan von Neipperg of Ch Canon La Gaffelière was one of the first St-Emilion proprietors to expand eastwards with a very superior petit château in the Côtes de Castillon appellation. Waitrose supermarkets have long had a special relationship with him and the current offering in larger stores of Ch d'Aiguilhe 2002 Côtes de Castillon (£19.95 larger Waitroses) is exceptionally good for the vintage – much more obviously ripe than most with a hint of gritty dustiness on the finish. A good drink. This wine, incidentally, is available at £18.22 from Ava Wines (www.theava.co.uk) in Bangor, Northern Ireland which is happy to ship to the UK mainland.
Moving upwards in price, Ch Les Ormes de Pez 1998 St-Estèphe (£19.99 Majestic) is already quite supple yet dry, super-digestible and only medium weight in classic claret mould. Those who like their red bordeaux a little jazzier might prefer Ch La Garde 1999 Pessac-Léognan which tastes much more modern, if considerably less evolved – positively fossilised in fact - although the wines of the Graves region always have a certain inherent freshness. Thresher's regular price is £19.99 a bottle but this comes down to a bargain £13.33 if three bottles are bought.
The less starry 1999s are beginning to look rather charming now. Ch Cantemerle 1999 Haut-Médoc already seems fully evolved with a gentle mellowness and just a slight grip on the finish to keep it appetising. Relative prices are revealing. Majestic charges £19.99 a bottle while Oddbins asked £22.49 for their special parcel of this wine, but both Tanners and The Four Vintners of London can beat even Majestic's price – slightly. Majestic also offer the more concentrated Ch Talbot 1999 St-Julien, a silky classic that is full of fruit with a beginning, middle and end to it, at £30. (The House of Townend of Hull www.hotwines.co.uk ask £27.29.)
Surprising many traditionalists perhaps, many 2003s are starting to drink well now – much earlier than most Bordeaux vintages, but then the heatwave year was exceptional in so many ways. The second wine of Ch Pichon Lalande Réserve de la Comtesse 2003 Pauillac is just £21.99 at Tesco's 149 fine wine stores and can offer plenty of beguiling sweetness. Waitrose offer the much sterner <b>2002</b> vintage for £17.99. Domaine de Chevalier 2003 Pessac-Léognan is drinking well already – sweet and mineral-scented with seamless, satin-smooth texture. Corney & Barrow charge £21.10 for it while Berry Bros are asking £29.50. Your choice.
Such is the standing of Pichon Lalande's neighbour, first growth Château Latour that its third wine costs considerably more than Pichon's second. Pauillac de Ch Latour 2002 Pauillac is £24.95 from Lay & Wheeler. This third wine of a first growth from a second rank vintage is remarkably scented and seductive, beautifully made, and much better value than many a classed growth from the multiple retailers. It's also ready to drink now.
For tasting notes and scores on nearly 3,000 red bordeaux see tasting notes.