The Annual Red Bordeaux Report

Now that every blogger and his brother are on the Net with tasting notes on each new Bordeaux vintage virtually before the wines have finished their malolactic fermentations, one wistfully recalls the days when château proprietors actually attempted to set their prices based on wine quality and economic conditions rather than waiting to see the early scores of influential wine writers for fear of leaving money on the table. The hubbub over the 2005 vintage had already started by the time the last grapes were picked, and a record turnout of press and trade for this spring's Union des Grands Crus tastings ensured that prices for Bordeaux's top collectible wines would be astronomical. It has not helped matters that the early response of tasters to the young 2005s has been almost universally positive.

The good news is that 2005 has produced a larger number of successful wines—reds, dry whites and sweet whites—than ever before, as well as a substantial number of wines that are likely to be cellar classics. In a nutshell, 2005 was a drought year without extreme heat: a very warm and dry summer with cool nights that helped the grapes maintain sound levels of acidity. Although rainfall totals for the 12 months ending in October of 2005 were down a sharp 40% to 60% from the long-term average depending on the sector, the effect of drought on the vines was far less destructive than it had been in 2003, when the combination of searing heat and very dry conditions resulted in widespread shutdown of the vines. Because the 2005 growing season had been dry from the outset—actually far drier than normal dating back to 2003—the vines had had time to adapt to these conditions, in many instances by sending their roots deeper in search of more humid soil. As I made my rounds in April, I got the impression that many of the château personnel I tasted with felt that they would never again witness growing conditions so nearly perfect. As Christian Moueix summarized: "I've had two easy vintages in terms of weather in 36 years: 1982 and 2005. You got the feeling this year that nothing wrong could happen."

Over and over, using slight variations on the same theme, château proprietors, maîtres de chai and consulting winemakers told me that they have never before experienced a vintage that offered this combination of thorough ripeness (alcohol levels in the wines often reach record levels) and vibrancy of flavors and aromas. The 2005 vintage appears to have produced outstanding red wines in all major appellations, as well as superb dry whites and sweet whites, although in April it was awfully early to be reaching conclusions on the latter category. The red wines are concentrated, tannic and fresh, with plenty of aromatic complexity. Depending on the sector, total rainfall during the growing season of 2005 was one-half to two-thirds less than that of a normal year, and precipitation totals were down significantly from the average in every month but April, when rainfall was slightly above average. Although the sun reigned supreme in 2005, overall temperatures were just a bit higher than normal through the growing season, and almost exactly average during the months of August and September.

The 2005 growing season. A dry, cold winter resulted in a late budbreak, despite a warm spell in late March. The budding took place mostly in the first half of April, and was stretched out by some rain, thus putting the growth of the vines even farther behind the recent average. But very warm weather during the last few days of April and early May jump-started growth of the vine vegetation and the appearance of the first grape bunches. There were actually a greater number of bunches than normal, as the vines were continuing to snap back from short crops of 2002 and 2003, but the individual berries were small. May continued warm and dry, and a heatwave at the end of the month triggered a quick flowering that was finished in the first third of June. Some coulure and millerandage, especially in the merlot, resulted in the loss of some grapes, and with looser clusters and fewer grapes, later crop-thinning work became less important. The dry June eventually finished with near-record average temperatures but the vines remained green and healthy.

July stayed very warm and very dry, but without the temperature extremes that the locals had feared. St. Emilion had some rain—and even a bit of hail—on July 2, and the Northern Médoc got a soaking rain on the 28th. Following the late July rain, the veraison took place quickly and was finished by the middle of August. The right bank and Graves region had significant rainfall on August 17, and then the Médoc received some much-needed light rain on the 25th. But although the local rivers were at lower levels than they had been even in previous drought years like 1976 and 1947, the vines never really shut down; as a rule, only younger vines on lighter, sandy soils showed clear signs of hydric stress. All through August, cool nights helped the grapes retain acidity.

Haut-Brion picked some sauvignon blanc as early as August 24, and most of the dry white grapes came in during the first half of September. Some showers fell on the night of August 31, and some additional rainfall occurred between September 8 and 13. There were a few drops of rain on the 16th and some scattered storms on Sunday, the 25th, but none of the serious rains that so often occur around the time of the autumnal equinox. Although 2005 was an extremely dry year overall, the little rain that fell tended to come exactly at the right times, with the periods of moderate precipitation in September providing the final nudge to finish the ripening of both the merlot and the cabernets.

September ended up with precipitation down about 40% from normal and temperatures in line with the long-term average. As a very general rule, most of the merlot was picked during the second half of September, while the cabernets came in during the last few days of September and first third of October, under cool and dry conditions. (A heat-wave in late October triggered morning fog in Sauternes, providing nearly ideal conditions for the final tries; I will have more comments on Bordeaux's sweet wines in the next issue.)

The 2005 vinifications and wines. The growing season was ideal, but that is not to say that the wines are perfect. Although Mother Nature was a peach in 2005, the Human Factor could be a bitch. Two critical variables were the selection of harvest dates and vinification strategies. With warm and mostly dry September conditions, the estates could pick at their leisure, rather than being forced by incipient rot or ominous weather forecasts to bring in their fruit before full ripeness. As always, some estates picked too early while others waited too long. A few Bordeaux insiders emphasized that merlot, with its relatively narrow window of ideal ripeness, could quickly lose its freshness of aromas if it were left to hang on the vines too long. On the other hand, cabernet sauvignon harvested too early might have insufficient skin ripeness and tough, or even green, tannins. A number of well-capitalized châteaux actually stopped picking between the end of the merlot and the beginning of the cabernets, even though they often had to pay their harvesters or risk losing them. But those who could not afford this expensive strategy often delayed starting the merlot for a few days and then went straight to the cabernets afterward.

And then there was the matter of vinification. Due to the moderate crop levels, the small size of the berries, and the huge grape sugars, very few estates needed to chaptalize, to use reverse osmosis or other technology-driven methods of concentrating the must, or even to bleed off a percentage of their juice (saignée). But the high-sugar musts, especially where the seed tannins were not totally ripe, often required gentle extraction. By all accounts, tannins and color came quickly, and many winemakers made a point to get most of their extraction at the beginning of the fermentation—through pre-fermentation cold soaks or the use of pump-overs and déléstages (a process whereby the juice is drained from the tank, then poured back over the solids)—before the musts rose in alcoholic degree, at which point extraction of the pips could introduce a bitter element into the wines. With the grapes rich in sugar, extract and total polyphenols, most properties were sensible enough to practice gentle fermentations in the hope of making wines with some degree of elegance. But some wines are chunky or even coarse, with high alcohol resulting in dry finishes, especially where the alcohol is combined with strong acidity and big tannins.

The malolactic fermentations started quickly but then frequently took longer than usual to finish. ( It should be noted that many very early reports on the young 2005s include tasting notes on wines that had not finished their malolactic fermentations.) Even by the second week of April, I ran across a few wines that still had a bit of unconverted malic acidity or had just finished their secondary fermentations.

The dry whites of 2005 are mostly rather powerful, but also fresh and aromatic, often with firm acidity. Many of the wines I tasted in April were still quite tight and hiding their underlying richness, but they have the tightly coiled springs that suggest they will develop slowly and last for a long time.

In reds, the overall crop levels, due mostly to the small berries, were very reasonable in 2005—much lower than those of 2004 but normally higher than the drought-affected yields of 2003. Interestingly, most proprietors in the Médoc expressed the opinion that the vintage favored cabernet over merlot, while those on the right bank said that merlot was best. So it should not be hard to understand why most early tasters found great consistency of quality across the area's major appellations. The wines generally have the serious tannic structures and firm acids to be long-lived. I would expect the top classified growths of the Médoc, especially those in the northern appellations of St. Estèphe, Pauillac and St. Julien, to shut down in bottle and to require 10 to 15 years of patience before they approach peak drinkability. The first growths and a handful of other wines, carefully stored, will probably outlive most of us. The merlot-based wines of the right bank will almost certainly offer earlier accessibility: only the exceptionally backward examples will still be too young to attack by 2012 or so, but these wines, too, should be relatively long-lived. The late-ripening plateau east of the village of St. Emilion, home to such châteaux as Troplong-Mondot, La Mondotte and Pavie-Macquin, performed splendidly, as the "cool" clay and limestone soils minimized the effects of water stress, although the especially long hang times enjoyed by the fruit here resulted in numerous wines with alcohol in the very high 14% to 15% range. These wines were very slow to finish their malolactic fermentations, and they will probably also evolve slowly in barrel and bottle.

Because of 2005's rare combination of high alcohol, huge but mostly ripe tannins, and pronounced inner-mouth energy and lift, it's hard to compare this crop of wines to any other vintage of the past generation. In my many visits to individual properties, magic numbers like 1928, 1945 and 1961 came up a few times, but this may simply be early hyperbole. Others mentioned more recent dry years such as 1989 and 1990, and a number of winemakers said they preferred the balance and length of the 2005s to the very good but somewhat overrated 2000s. For most châteaux, vintage 2005 provided the classic vibrant floral and mineral aromas that the more exotic 2003s lack. Certainly for Pomerol, St. Emilion and other right-bank satellite appellations, 2005 is the most promising vintage since 1998. Margaux has done very well in 2005, due to a combination of ideal weather conditions and general improvements in grape-growing and vinification in this appellation. And the cabernet in the northern Médoc is generally of exceptional quality, combining the solidity of 2000 with the ineffable aromatic character and purity of 1996. But it's far too early to know just where to place 2005 in the pantheon of the best years.

Interestingly, because I also tried to taste the bottled 2003s at the châteaux I visited, I found that in some instances I preferred the 2003s in the northern Médoc, especially in St. Estèphe. As I worked my way south through Pauillac the differences in quality between these two vintages became less clear—even if the styles of the wines are very different. By the time I got to St. Julien and, especially, the southern Médoc, the effects of the 2003 drought were more obvious, and the 2005s were for the most part clearly superior. On the right bank, however, and especially on the Pomerol plateau, 2005 is a far better vintage, although it must be noted that there are numerous highly successful St. Emilion 2003s from clay and limestone soils.

From what I've heard and read, most early tasters have concluded that 2005 is an excellent to outstanding vintage except where wines were too high in alcohol and/or overextracted—and they almost invariably point to the commune of St. Emilion and its satellites as the greatest offenders. After all, it is here that grape sugars were often highest in 2005, and it is here that the small size of most estates makes manipulation of the must and malolactic fermentation in barriques more feasible. Certainly, the huge number of properties in St. Emilion alone, many of them with very short track records, forces many proprietors and their consulting winemakers to compete for the attention of the international marketplace by building darker and more powerful wines. These wines are widely viewed as more modern in style and more technological. But to single out St. Emilion for criticism in 2005 is to sell short the appellation's top practitioners and to ignore the fact that many wines new to the marketplace come from superb terroir.

It's tempting to say that reviews of St. Emilion wines often tell you more about the taster than they do about the wines themselves. On the one hand, those critics looking for traditional dry, low-alcohol claret routinely underrate many St. Emilion wines because they consider them to be a bit too New World in style, with their deep colors, dense middle palates, higher alcohol and chewy tannins. But those who are constantly looking to hype the next emerging star often wildly overrate new wines that have no track records, suggesting that some wines from mediocre soil can be better than top classified growths of the Médoc. This premature enthusiasm frequently encourages unknown properties to raise their prices and sets up consumers for disappointment.

The bad news on pricing. At the level of the first growths, super-seconds and right-bank "collectibles," 2005 is shaping up as an exorbitantly expensive vintage. I suspect that even most readers of this publication will have to think twice about ponying up $5,000 to $6,000 a case for first growths, two years in advance of even getting the wines. For me at least, prices like that take most of the fun out of drinking Bordeaux. But the fact is that first-growth Bordeaux is an international collectible, a luxury product, more than it is a good drink. Most purchasers of these wines simply want to own them: for investment, for status, for fondling, for the feeling that they have purchased fine art. Regarding wines from Bordeaux's most fabled sites, price is barely a consideration.

Super-seconds and collectible right bank wines will also be priced at record levels in 2005. Bordeaux lovers who are more interested in having delicious wines to drink in the years and decades ahead would be better served by making careful futures purchases of less-expensive properties that have made unusually strong wines in 2005. And then of course there are the very good to excellent vintages of 2001, 2002 and 2004—years that will never be considered investment-grade. The 2001s are consistently lovely (often more satisfying than their 2000 counterparts at a fraction of the price), the best 2002s will be classic wines with considerable aging potential, and 2004 is another underrated vintage that in many instances will provide 80% of the drinking pleasure of 2005 at less than half the cost. And of course many 2003s are wildly overpriced for their quality. Bordeaux is only exorbitant for those who chase the same two dozen wines.

In my extensive tastings in early April, I focused on the 2005s but also sampled as many 2004s and 2003s as time, and the châteaux, would allow. (At a few large group tastings, for example, I limited my attention to the young 2005s and the bottled 2003s, simply to remain conscious.) Price ranges shown for 2003s come from a dozen or more major retailers across the country who have these wines on their shelves.