Bordeaux and the Story of Vintages

Attributes of the greatest Bordeaux vintages



So, I’m sure you’ve all heard about how exceptional the 2009 vintages are in Bordeaux. Well, I’m here to tell you that while that is true, you may still not want to buy those wines! Crazy? Well, quite possibly, but if we take an honest look at the vintages of Bordeaux, why we drink them, and how they are assessed by the general media, you might end up thinking I’m crazy like a fox!

OK, before you think I am completely off the deep end, let me just say that vintages like 2009, 2005, and 2000 are clearly special. The wines produced in these years represent some of the finest Bordeaux has to offer. But when I say "finest", what is it I actually mean? Let’s take a moment to explore attributes of the greatest Bordeaux vintages.
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So, what do the experts look for while proclaiming the greatness of a Bordeaux vintage? As much as we would like to think that there is some absolute constant to these sorts of assessments, it’s still a gut call. The reason that vintages like 2009, 2005 and 2000 share near universal acclaim, though, is due to the richness of the wines that weather conditions allowed each of those years.

Wine professionals, and especially Bordeaux professionals, find more to like when there is, well, more to the wines. Bordeaux historically had difficulty producing fully ripe fruit in many years. The reason the wines of Bordeaux can be so special is simply that the combination of soil, weather and grape varieties allows for a certain amount of stress on the vines. That stress can produce exceptional complexities in the resulting wines. This is really what Bordeaux is all about. It’s easy to produce fruit-packed, opulent Cabernets in Napa Valley, but Bordeaux excels at producing wines with balance and complexity.

So, while Bordeaux historically has been a land of difficult vintages and elegant complex wines, vintages like 2009, 2005 and 2000 have benefited from near-ideal weather conditions. The results? Wines that are opulent by Bordeaux standards: rich yet balanced, though with more tannins and higher alcohol than other, more traditional Bordeaux vintages. Wines that are more age-worthy too, but for someone looking to pick up a bottle for dinner tonight that’s not much of a factor, and generally only serves to make a vintage’s wine more expensive anyway.

This is where the advice I eluded to earlier comes in to play. If you’re going to compare Bordeaux to warmer climate regions, then these fruit-packed vintages are going to be more similar, and perhaps one could even call them better. If, on the other hand, you turn to Bordeaux especially because the wines are elegant, lighter, more complex and easier to pair with food, well then you might want to take a look at some other, less acclaimed vintages first!

There are basically three types of vintages that aren’t considered the “greatest” vintages in Bordeaux. The first is what I would call a classic vintage: less intense but more elegant than the 2009, 2005 and 2000 trio, but in many ways more typical of classic Bordeaux. Vintages such as 2001 (a hugely underappreciated vintage in my opinion) and 2002 (talk about a vintage that offers superb values!), not to mention 2004, all deliver classic Bordeaux. The wines are balanced with that combination of fruit, soil and spice that you can only find in Bordeaux. Making them even better is the fact that they are not the “vintages of the century,” making them easier to find and less expensive! But here’s the truth these wines are every bit as good as the wines from the more famous vintages, and equally age-worthy. In truth, they are simply different in style.

Other vintages, like 1999, 2006 and 2007 on the other hand, tended to produce even lighter wines. While these wines have to capacity to improve in the cellar over the near term, they are ideally suited to earlier consumption. These are wines that the English may have once referred to as Luncheon Claret, back in the days when a glass or two of wine was commonplace at lunch! 

The truth is, though, that these wines were perfect for lunch because of the moderate alcohol levels and wonderful flexibility in pairing with food. That sounds like the kinds of wines I have to actively seek out today! What a wonderful concept: an elegant, balanced wine suitable for drinking with any meal. 

The last style of vintage is one that we encounter with less and less frequency. It’s the vintage that is inconsistent, to put it politely. Looking back over the past 20 years or so, you have to go back to the dismal trio of vintages 1991, 1992, and 1993 to find the real clunker vintages. 

In truth, with today’s string of fine vintages it would be easy to dismiss a vintage like 1991 to oblivion. It’s just too easy to recommend a vintage like 1999 instead! Fortunately, we are in the midst of an unprecedented string of good or better Bordeaux vintages, so choosing a Bordeaux wine is easier than ever! We may be smack in the middle of a golden age for Bordeaux. Only time will tell. While we are awaiting that judgment, take advantage of this embarrassment of riches and get to know Bordeaux. You might discover that you prefer the more elegant vintages. I certainly do and have met many a wily collector who shares my thoughts!

For more information on Bordeaux vintages, please see: Bordeaux's Great Vintages.

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