A guide to Bordeaux vintages. See also UGC Bordeaux 2016 in bottle for tasting notes from the London trade tasting shown here. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Red bordeaux keeps on surprising those of us who care about it, even if we may be dwindling in number. Bordeaux on a wine list in Brooklyn or Shoreditch is a rare beast indeed, but there are hundreds of thousands of wooden cases of red bordeaux sitting in private cellars and wine-storage facilities all over the world waiting for the perfect moment to sell the wine on or, more appetisingly, pull the cork.
My correspondence, and this thread on our members' forum, suggests that many wine collectors appreciate opinion on which vintages are currently drinking well, given that Bordeaux makes some of the longest-lived reds (and sweet whites) of all, and in considerable volumes.
According to the tally of tasting notes on JancisRobinson.com, I taste well over a thousand wines from Bordeaux every year, many but by no means all of them fairly young.
The latest vintage shown off in quantity by the Bordeaux establishment, the Union des Grands Crus, classed growths and their like, was the most recent to go into bottle, 2016. When I tasted them in London a couple of weeks ago (see Bordeaux 2016 in bottle), I could not help but be struck by how much more accessible young red bordeaux is nowadays.
Even the Brits will have to abandon the old 10-year rule whereby bordeaux is judged broachable only when 10 years old. (Most other nations, especially the French, are in the habit of drinking their wine much younger.)
Whenever I taste a wine, I try to suggest a drinking window alongside my tasting note and the score that modern wine enthusiasts have, for better or worse, come to expect. At this UGC showing of almost 140 2016s, I found myself suggesting drink dates from as soon as 2020 in the case of many a Pomerol and St-Émilion (on the right bank of the Gironde), and even for the unambitious Ch Croizet Bages on the left bank in Pauillac, whose wines are supposed to be particularly long-lived.
And it's not as though 2016 is a vintage low in the wine preservative tannin; underneath all that bright fruit, the 2016s have no shortage of structure (as we call chewiness) and should last a nice long time as well as being approachable relatively young. I take my hat off to the skill of Bordeaux's best winemakers (and academic oenologists). The wines made in this second decade of the 21st century suggest that the problem of how to make red bordeaux that will drink well both young and old has been solved. Presumably identifying homogeneous parcels of vines, picking them at just the right ripeness and handling the results extremely carefully, taking care not to over-extract tannins and other phenolic compounds, is the key.
Like wines made elsewhere, typical red bordeaux has become much fresher and less freighted by alcohol and oak. Everything has been dialled down to showcase the vineyard rather than the cellar technique.
This is a welcome development from the last decade of the last century in particular, and the early years of this century in many cases, when wines tended to be much more concentrated, even exaggerated, especially so in St-Émilion. They were too often made from grapes pushed to the limits of ripeness from which every last ounce of tannin and colour was extracted, sometimes even concentrated by special machine, and the result matured in toasty oak barrels which often left their tasteable mark on the wine.
I'm not so confident that all of them will make old bones. This was evident, for instance, in many a St-Émilion in a comprehensive tasting of Bordeaux 2005s last year. But even in St-Émilion, wines are generally much fresher nowadays, as was evident in the 2016 tasting last month.
I may well be wrong – and certainly wine has a habit of surprising us – but I suspect that, depending on how heavily their makers, or at least proprietors, fell for the religion of (excessive) ripeness, wines made in vintages from the early 1990s to the mid to late 2000s may turn out to have shorter active lives than wines made from the vintages immediately before and after this period.
I had a chance the other day to taste a representative selection of smart Bordeaux from the last good vintage before this period, 1990. This was a particularly warm year and the wines, while hedonistically velvety in their charming youth, were not expected to last very long. But of the 11 in this tasting, only the relatively lowly Chasse Spleen seemed anything like nearing the end of its active life and Forts de Latour, the second wine of first growth Ch Latour (certified organic last month, incidentally) and Vieux Château Certan were still extremely youthful (see 1990 bordeaux – how are they now?).
Of course more modest red Bordeaux can usually be drunk much younger than classed growths – a plus point – but don't last nearly as long, which is part of the reason they are so much cheaper. They tend to be grown on less propitious terrain, which, in the old, pre global warming, days would struggle to ripen grapes fully in cooler and/or wetter years. But in particularly ripe years such as 2016, 2015 and, especially, 2009, these wines can be hugely attractive bargains that drink well and seductively relatively early. As summers become warmer, the prospects are good for these so-called petits châteaux, many of them labelled cru bourgeois.
My website colleagues, Masters of Wine Julia Harding and Richard Hemming, dutifully tasted their way through 156 2016 crus bourgeois recently and were also impressed by the vintage. But while many of these wines seemed already drinkable, their suggested drinking windows were sometimes as short as five years and rarely as long as 10 years, whereas mine for the classed growth 2016s (a notch or two above the poor old bourgeois) tended to stretch well into the 2030s and sometimes longer.
Below is a list of the most successful vintages of red Bordeaux from the 1980s onwards whose wines I suggest may already be approachable (which is why, for example, 2015 and 2016 do not feature). These suggestions apply to wines of classed growth level and equivalents.
Less ambitious wines, and smart wines from less successful vintages, can be drunk much sooner. The vintages have been arranged in, very approximate, order of readiness, with the most evolved first.
And of course if you have a really venerable wine collection you may just be tackling your 1961s, 1959s and 1945s….
Bordeaux vintages to choose to drink now
(in order of attack)
1998 (especially right bank)
2014 (but probably not if you're British)
There are nearly 22,000 Bordeaux tasting notes in our tasting notes database.