Take a look back to the 1970s and you can see that things were not all going Bordeaux’s way. There were some fairly shocking vintages, the wines now long dead (I accept there are always exceptions to such ‘rules’, but as a generalisation this stands). Few vintages really excite any interest; I have tasted some 1975s, quite a few years ago now, and found them hard and ungiving. I have tasted fewer wines from 1970, and thought they were better, although they were certainly far from magnificant. The 1978 vintage also produced some decent wines although, perhaps strangely considering it is the most recent, my experience with 1978 is very limited indeed. In addition, the region was rocked by the Cruse scandal when vin de table was creatively ‘reclassified’ and sold off as Bordeaux (i.e. upgraded to the status of the appellation, thereby increasing in value, but obviously ripping off consumers). And, if you’re a Parker follower, you would be inclined to say all the wines were rubbish anyway, the châteaux coasting on their laurels rather than providing true quality, none of which came along until the guru of Baltimore shook the Bordelais by the lapels.
Look to the past decade, however, and it seems like things are really going Bordeaux’s way. The wines are better; I realise that’s a slightly dangerous statement to make, as I know there has been a change in style as well as quality, and I know there are some who see the modern wines as over-fruited, cropped too late, over-oaked, over-rich, inappropriately forced through early malolactic, too sweet and so on. And they hanker for the more savoury wines of the 1950s and 1960s; I understand this position, although I think I prefer the way we have things now. The hit rate is much higher. In fact, in dissecting the vintages of the past decade, I would do the opposite to what I did with the 1970s above; there I picked out two or three decent vintages which were distinct from the dross. But in the vintages since 2000 (I’m being quite liberal in how I interpret the word ‘decade’) there are only two or three questionable vintages among others which range from good to superlative.
Why the wines are so much better cannot in my opinion be laid at the feet of one event or individual. The climate is more favourable (although that can’t last forever), there is a more robust approach to viticulture in many vineyards, the processes of winemaking is better understood, wineries are cleaner and better funded thanks to the influx of big-business proprietors, there has been impetus for change and better wine-making (and more profit-making) following astute appraisals from Parker and other critics, and with improved economic prosperity (which remains true despite the recent/current depression in many economies) markets have grown, and new markets are opening up. China remains hungry for Bordeaux despite also becoming aware of Burgundy and the Rhône, and Brazil rather than the oft-touted India may well be the next big market. Little wonder that prices have risen; you could say it was inevitable, regardless of how unpalatable the numbers might appear to cash-strapped consumers (that includes me by the way).
With such broad success it is perhaps worth teasing apart which vintages are merely good, excellent or legendary. Reports from Bordeaux are likely to be very positive these days, at least that’s the case if you’re a fan of the wines (as I am). Only in vintages such as 2011 and 2007 will the criticism outweigh the praise. It can therefore be difficult to figure out what the true ‘worth’ of a vintage is, and where our interest (and cash) should be directed. With that in mind I thought it might be worth putting down a few thoughts on my five favourite vintages of recent years, and where my preferences lie. The following vintages are ranked acccording to my personal preference. These words pertain solely to the red wines, not the dry or sweet white wines. There are several caveats; first, I didn’t taste all the vintages at the same stage in their evolution. More recent vintages were tasted en primeur, but earlier vintages were tasted in their youth (at two or four years of age) or even into maturity. Secondly, my assessments are based purely on aesthetics, and I don’t take prices (which will obviously drive purchasing decisions as much as quality) into account.
Bordeaux 2005: I think, despite the hyperbole from some quarters about the 2009 and 2010 vintages, this is probably my favourite from recent years. There is ripeness, balance, structure and composure from many of the wines. I haven’t tasted any for some time, but have some in the cellar for future assessments.
Bordeaux 2010: This is a difficult one, as in some communes I prefer 2009 to 2010, and both have flaws to their beauty. In particular, both have given us some problematic wines on the right bank which feel over-extracted, hot and alcoholic. Nevertheless the structure and composition (on the left bank especially) in 2010 appeals more to my palate than the seductive hedonism of 2009 I think. High prices for the second vintage in a row meant I didn’t buy, but there is yet time. I have an extensive report coming very soon.
Bordeaux 2009: A luscious vintage which feels like cream on the palate. That isn’t to everybody’s taste, obviously, but it dings the hedonistic dong, if you see what I mean. Some wines, again on the right bank, come out very alcoholic and extracted. Elsewhere there is a better sense of balance. Happily I have quite a lot of this vintage tucked away for future tastings, so we should see whether they pan out to be as good as expected.
Bordeaux 2000: This is an interesting vintage; certainly a good one, but recent tastings lead me to question the greatness that was attributed early on. The wines are ready or nearly ready in some cases, but a surprising number show a distinctive green streak – very prominent in some wines – which is surprising given the rave reviews the vintage received early on (I didn’t taste it en primeur). I should be able to publish a review of the vintage some time in the next six months.
Bordeaux 2008: Perhaps some would see this as an obvious inclusion, as it has been highly rated by some, but for me it just scrapes in. It was a relatively weak growing season, cool and wet like 2007, but saved by an Indian summer. The right bank is much better than the left, which shows the nature of the vintage more plainly. I feel that a comparative tasting of 2008 and 2006 or 2001 might throw up a few surprises, but I don’t have the money to put on either event….
Beyond my top five vintages, things start to get a little hazy. I think I would probably go for 2001, 2006, 2004, 2002, 2003 and 2007 in that order. I do wonder, with a strong performance on the right bank, and decent wines on the left bank, whether 2001 shouldn’t be above 2008. But I haven’t tasted the wines for so long, I couldn’t say. I have plenty of 2001s in the cellar, but almost all Sauternes. Maybe it is time to see if I can uncover any reds?