The latter years of the 1990s made for an interesting market, the bullish Bordelais having raised prices for the dodgy 1997 vintage, riding a tide of optimism that started with the considerably more interesting 1995 and 1996 vintages. With time it became clear that quality and price were remarkably out of synch in the latter of those three vintages, and so with 1998 the pressure was on to drop prices. Especially so once critics had pointed out the less than charming nature of many of the wines in this vintage, particularly those from the communes of the left bank. Nevertheless, the relationship between quality and the prix de sortie in Bordeaux is a weak one, and buoyed by the news that the vintage was in fact very successful in the right bank communes of St Emilion and Pomerol, as well as south of Bordeaux in the Pessac-Léognan appellation, the Bordeaux proprietors saw no reason to significantly lower prices. On the left bank, even where the 1998 vintage saw a price cut on the over-hyped 1997 vintage, the numbers concerned were still often much higher than the better 1996 vintage. And so 1998 continued the seemingly inexorable upwards trend for wine pricing in Bordeaux.
To gauge the merit of the vintage it is of course necessary to taste the wines, and here I provide links to two tastings. The first looks at a dozen top wines from St Emilion, sampled at a tasting hosted by the Groupement de Premiers Grands Crus Classés de St Emilion at just six years of age. The second shows a broad but small selection of wines tasted at ten years old. But first, I also provide below a review of the vintage conditions that explains why 1998 was such a success on the right bank, and yet so questionable on the left.
To describe the weather as changeable is perhaps somewhat unhelpful, yet this is certainly an apt description for the conditions in the early months of the 1998 growing season. Spring opened with a flourish of March warmth which had the vines eager to burst forth, but any early optimism was soon tempered by cool and damp conditions in April which carried on into early May. By the end of the month, however, warm weather had returned once more, but not for long. During June the conditions reeled unsteadily from wet and miserable to hot and sunny, but as July approached it was the latter that dominated. Despite the unpredictable skies, the flowering occurred without undue upset, and the early optimism returned.