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What makes a good Bordeaux vintage?

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Sebastian Payne MW Sebastian Payne MW / 23 January 2020

Vintage variation in Bordeaux is less marked than in the past, thanks to advances in winemaking – but that's not the whole picture. Sebastian Payne MW considers the factors that help to make certain years greater than others, and asks whether the definition of a 'good vintage' has changed over time

The late Denis Dubourdieu, former winemaker, professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux and recipient of the Decanter hall of Fame award in 2016, said there were five conditions that make a perfect vintage for red Bordeaux. One and two: early, rapid flowering and fruit-set during weather that is sufficiently warm and dry to ensure pollination and predisposal towards simultaneous ripening; this gives the potential for a timely crop of evenly ripened grapes. Three: the gradual onset of water stress thanks to a warm, dry month of July in order to slow down and then put a definitive stop to vine growth during véraison (colour change). Four: full ripening of the various grape varieties thanks to dry and warm (but not excessively so) weather in the months of august and september. Five: fine, dry and medium-warm weather during harvest, making it possible to pick at full ripeness without running the risk of dilution or rot. Two recent vintages that ticked all five of these boxes were 2005 and 2015. The 2010 vintage came close, though flowering in merlot was not ideal due to slightly cool, wet weather in June that caused coulure (missing berries in a bunch due to poor flowering), millerandage (unevenly sized berries and uneven ripening within the bunch) and low yields, but summer and autumn were perfect; dry, but not too hot.

Sunset over a vineyard in Bordeaux, France
Sunset over a vineyard in Bordeaux, France

While Dubourdieu's conditions are sound, they do not show the whole picture. For more than 30 years, I have been part of a group of wine professionals, meeting in January each year to blind taste all Bordeaux crus classés and equivalents. After tasting the 2015 vintage in bottle, we recently reached a consensus on the ranking of the vintages from 2000 to 2015 in terms of quality (see box). It was generally felt that 2016 will make the top three or four, but we have yet to judge it in the same way. Age has proved 1949, 1953, 1959, 1961 and 1982 to be great claret vintages, so years such as 2000 and 2005 are yet to show their full potential. Nevertheless, our group put 2010 top and rated 2009 equal to 2005. Interestingly, 2010 did not fulfil Dubourdieu's criteria. The uneven set of that year required a great deal of care in the vineyards, highlighting the inadequacy of vintage charts, and proving that the people factor can be more important than the weather.

Sebastian Payne MW - The Wine Society
Sebastian Payne MW - The Wine Society

Range of factors

Merlot normally ripens earlier than cabernet, so vintage results can differ. For example, 1964, 1975 and 1998 were great years for right bank merlot and less good for the Médoc; whereas Médoc won in 1996 and 2002. a truly good vintage occurs when all grapes ripen to perfection, even in less favourable districts.

Meanwhile, a challenging revelation of blind tastings is finding that one's judgements on a particular vintage often do not reflect the market price of a wine. Brand reputation, scarcity of a château's wine and general economic conditions when wines are put on the market all play their part. A vintage's reputation reflects the price, but not the quality, of all its wines.

Let us remember too that 1982 and 1990 were large crops. Several famous names made up to twice as much Grand Vin as they do today. In 1990, Bruno Prats wanted a limit of 9t/ha (tonnes per hectare) on yields for St-Estèphe. In 2018, a classed growth might declare 4-4.5t/ha. as a buyer and a wine drinker, I agree with producers who reckon a good vintage is one that gives a good yield as well as high quality.

Climate & terroir

What is also clear is that the hit-rate of good or decent years has been high in the past two decades, compared with the very uneven record of the 1960s and 1970s. The weather has certainly been warmer. In Bordeaux vineyards, which historically lay towards the northern limit for successful ripening of its two main grape varieties, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, climate change has been largely beneficial.

Serious heat spikes in the summer, when temperatures go above 36°C for days (most memorably in 2003, when nights brought no relief either), bring problems, as do more frequent hailstorms.

More positively, growers have not had to cope with a run of years of dire weather as they did in 1956, 1957 and 1958 or 1960, 1963 and 1965. Many are also better equipped to cope when poor weather comes. Leading châteaux are richer than they were 30 years ago and able to invest in smart cellar kit, while growers everywhere can benefit from a better understanding of viticulture and more accurate weather-forecasting. What varieties to plant where, and on what rootstock, are crucial long-term decisions.

Château Rauzan-Ségla, back at the top of its game in Bordeaux
Château Rauzan-Ségla, back at the top of its game in Bordeaux

For John Kolasa, who did so much good work for the Wertheimer brothers (the billionaire owners of luxury brand Chanel) in putting Châteaux Canon and Rauzan-Ségla back in their rightful place among the top wines of their appellations, the answer is simple. 'It's only with good grapes that you can make good wine. In my first year at Canon I made two wines – one from healthy grapes and the other from sick, neglected vines. The difference made me begin to uproot and replant the vineyard in 1998. It is painful to uproot vines, but I knew it was well worth it.' The quality of the delicious Canon 2009 proves he was right, and both Canon and Rauzan-Ségla seem to improve every year.

Kolasa adds: 'a great vintage wine is made by terroir and very good weather conditions in that year. If a winemaker tries to compensate for what is missing, it wears off with time and you end up disappointed. Too much emphasis on the "beauty contest" of en primeur does not help. You can put the make-up on (wood, extraction, etc), but that never lasts. The magic of good terroir is obviously confirmed in "off" vintages.' The quality of many Pauillac and St-Julien classed growths in 2002 shows this.

Attention to detail

For Nicolas Glumineau at Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, the key to making good wine is precision. Plant the right grape variety with the right rootstock on soil best suited to it; pick each lot at optimum ripeness; and vinify parcels separately until it is time for the all-important blend and selection of the grand vin. Intelligent vineyard management is one reason why Château Pichon Comtesse's neighbour Château Pichon Baron has re-asserted its position at the top of Pauillac second growths since Christian seely and his team took charge for aXa in 2001.

Following the devastating frosts of 1956 many vineyards had to be replanted. Nurseries found it hard to manage the demand and many vineyards received sub-standard vines on the wrong rootstock, which growers over-fertilised. Alexandre Thienpont at Vieux Château Certan told me that he still has healthy, productive vines planted in 1932, but had to replant those planted in 1965. So good wine – if not good vintages – depends on many facets aside from weather.

Château Pichon Baron has re-asserted its position at the top of Pauillac second growths
Château Pichon Baron has re-asserted its position at the top of Pauillac second growths

Good management

Dubourdieu believed that there was no reason why a properly managed estate could not make good, if not great wines every year. He proved this with a memorable tasting of his red wines from the Premières Côtes family estate Château Reynon in April 2015. His strength was to take as much care of his red grape vines as he'd needed when he took on the Barsac estate at Doisy-Daëne. Making several passages through his vineyard, he picked each part at optimum ripeness (never overripe).

The absolute stars of Dubourdieu's 15-vintage tasting were, perhaps predictably, the 2005, which showed the flashy brilliance of wines of that vintage – the 'éclat', a bouquet that jumped from the glass and wonderful bright fruit – and the 2010, which was made from small bunches and berries that characterised that year, and had the wow factor: beautiful perfume, middle palate and long flavour. But the Reynon 2001 – a vintage unfairly in the shadow of millennium year 2000 – was a beautiful wine, better than many in Pomerol. However, I also noted how much pleasure Reynon 2004 and 2007 were giving, reminding me that many wine drinkers actually prefer such accessible years to the 'great' ones, which have a more intense flavour and for which you need more patience.

Some years show their worth from the outset. One such was 1982, although the market was initially strapped for cash. I was lucky that 1985 – the first year I was responsible for buying large quantities of claret – was successful at all levels in Bordeaux, with healthy grapes producing wines of great charm and ripe merlot accessibility. By contrast, the hugely tannic and less well-balanced 1986 was appallingly difficult to taste young and, with the exception of a few great cabernet wines, I have never liked it as much as the 1985. The 2005 vintage smelt amazingly wonderful from the moment the juice ran out of the vats after fermentation, but the intensity of fruit, acidity, tannin and power meant that it is a vintage that will continue to reward patience.

Frost in Bordeaux vineyards
Frost in Bordeaux vineyards

All-round appeal

A truly good Bordeaux vintage is surely a year that works beautifully for all of us: growers at the grand and lesser addresses alike, and drinkers with fat or thin wallets. a year when the wines smell good in the cellar at their birth and taste lovely when they're young, middle-aged and old.

One of the joys, however, for both claret buyers and drinkers, is finding lovely wines in less-heralded years. Reynon 2001, St Pierre 2012, Langoa Barton 1999 and Ducru Beaucaillou 2003, to name but a few. The list is long and not confined to famous names – and discovering wines to add to that list has been one of the great pleasures of my job as a wine buyer.

In my opinion Bordeaux's best wines have finesse. Today, there are many wines whose claim to fame is their power.

This article originally appeared in Decanter magazine's Bordeaux supplement, June 2019

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