Bordeaux – which vintages to drink now


This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

An excellent new book, What Price Bordeaux?, reminds me to turn my attention to red bordeaux vintages and how ready those in your cellar may be to drink. This dense volume, thick with footnotes and liberally illustrated with graphs and charts, looks not unlike a scientific dissertation, which is hardly surprising since the author, fellow Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin, was the founding editor of the biology journal Cell and his previous hardcover titles are Genes, then Essential Genes and finally Cells.

But this is not to imply that the writing is dry. Far from it. The text is eminently lucid and readable, even if some readers may stumble over such tables as ‘Pair wise vintage correlations between en primeur château release prices’ and ‘Auction price of Le Pin relative to the average of the Médoc first growths (defined as 100%) for the same vintage’. The book, a fine complement to Stephen Brook’s The Complete Bordeaux with its topical château profiles, offers Bordeauxphiles a 292-page wallow in the minutiae of what is still the world’s dominant, and certainly most mercantile, fine-wine region, however difficult the Bordelais have found it to sell their 2007s and 2008s. (If, as it has so often been said, August makes the wine, the 2009 bordeaux should be exceptionally sun-kissed.)

But what of previous vintages of red bordeaux? Which of them should we be drinking now? Claret drinkers have different tastes and I should state mine. Some prefer their wines luscious, fruity and youthful; others want at least the suggestion of decayed complexity before pulling a cork. I (of course) think my taste is exactly in the middle of that spectrum. Going backwards in time, the youngest vintage that, in my view, should even be considered drinkable is 2004. Many lesser wines from the exceptional 2005 vintage are already capable of giving great pleasure, but there is so much stuffing in these wines (and tannin, and fruit) that I believe even most petits châteaux (those not ‘classified’ or classé) would probably taste more interesting in at least a couple of years’ time.

The less grand 2004s, on the other hand, are just coming into their own. This was not a particularly concentrated vintage but the good examples have nice freshness (even if those made from less ripe fruit can have a streak of greenness). I would start to drink 2004 petits châteaux now and wait at least three or four years for lesser classed growths and another five or six for the grander 2004s, which could just turn out to be so much better than their general reputation. (See tasting notes on 2004s)

The 2003s on the other hand are quite a different kettle of fish. With a small handful of exceptions that may make extremely fine old bones, most seem to me to be well on to their plateau of drinkability, so to speak. This was the heatwave vintage, after all, when sugars were high, acids were low, and in many cases the grapes were not on the vine long enough to build up much in the way of complex phenolics. Drink ‘em young, while there is still some semblance of freshness in the poor, shrivelled fruit. (See some tasting notes on 2003s)

It has been three years since I looked at a serious number of 2002s together but I will be doing so at a tasting organised by fine wine traders Farr Vintners in early October after which I shall report back. This is one of those vintages that still manages to look good value, and it will be interesting to see which, if any, manage to rise above this vintage’s rather stodgy character. In my general tastings, 2002s have rarely made a particularly favourable impression, and seem to be ageing relatively fast.

The 2001s, on the other hand, have been looking better and better, and many of even the grander ones are starting to give an enormous amount of pleasure.They are not big wines but many have a very attractive polish to them and, especially on the right bank in St-Émilion and Pomerol, can often be more rewarding than the 2000s, which were so successful on the left bank in the Médoc and Graves. (See here, here and here for some older tasting notes on 2001s)

Now, at last, we come to a vintage that really is starting to give enormous pleasure.The 2000s are in general super charming. Many petits châteaux will already have been drunk with delight but the second wines and less exalted left-bank classed growths are just starting to leave their tannic charge behind in the form of sediment and are providing really succulent drinking today. This should, I hope, be a vintage that will prove really rewarding for the next 10 years or so, with the less ambitious wines absolutely ready to drink already. Both second wine and even grand vin of Ch Margaux seem relatively evolved and approachable. The 2000s may not be quite as dense as the 2005s, but they have a touch of the ripeness of 1990 with more structure – an appealing combination. (See my recent tasting notes on 2000s at Windsor as well as some tasted in Hong Kong and other older tasting notes.

Because this is the vintage that is exactly 10 years old, traditionally the point at which superior red bordeaux is supposed to be broachable, Farr’s rivals Bordeaux Index organised a major horizontal look at all the significant 1999s a couple of months ago. As I reported here, this is a vintage that is just about ready. If you have a case, I’d check a bottle soonish to ensure it is not one of those 1999s with tannins that threaten to outlast the rather light fruit. Only the first growths and a handful of the more ambitious others are worth many more years in the cellar, and the most successful Graves and, especially, Pomerols are looking lovely now.

The right bank and Graves also performed particularly well in 1998 and these wines would make perfect choices to open now, as do the 1996s and the, generally rather less successful, 1995s. I would hope to have drunk most 1994s and certainly all wines from the previous three vintages. I am still enjoying wines from the glorious triumvirate of 1988-1990 and such 1982s as I can justify opening. The 1986s have at last opened up while the 1985s have followed the 1983s on to the downhill slope. Amazingly, however, some of those super-tough 1975s are really pretty impressive, albeit from another era of Bordeaux, as charted in detail by Mr Lewin.

For thousands of tasting notes on bordeaux, see here.