Every great claret evolves in its own inimitable fashion, and deciding when to open your bottles can be tricky. Bordeaux expert Sebastian Payne MW assesses the drinkability of the great vintages between 1995 and 2005...

Sebastian Payne MW

I find vintage charts maddening. A broad brush mark out of 7 or 10 scarcely begins to explain differences in style between châteaux or why vintages vary in different parts of Bordeaux. In reality, each year has some wines that are more forward, some more backward. Date of picking, grape mix, terroir and competence and resources of each team play their part.

Timing is not everything, but it counts. Here I want to discuss the maturity of good vintages from 1995 to 2005 at leading châteaux level, choosing years that needed a full 10 years-plus to develop the complexity of bouquet and flavour that makes claret’s reputation.

To illustrate the style and relative maturity of these years, I have recently revisited some of my favourite properties. Each has its individual style, the hallmark of great Bordeaux.

After the very successful 1980s, the 1990s were relatively difficult for Bordeaux. Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande is not alone in having made much better wine in ’82, ’83, ’85, ’86 and ’89 than it did the following decade. Growers were hit by frost in ’91, then lots of rain in ’92, ’93 and ’94. They needed ’95 and ’96 to be good, and both vintages were, indeed, well worth laying down. Many châteaux I love, including Latour, Léoville-Poyferré and Rauzan-Ségla, to take just three examples, admit they would have made better wine in similar circumstances today by more precise vineyard management and greater selection. The lovely quality of 1999 Latour or 2002 Léoville Poyferré proves this point.

Readiness to drink and style preference influence us all. More people now choose to drink even top clarets in their first abundance of fruit, at the expense of missing aspects of complexity great terroirs reveal only with ageing. This works completely with vintages like 2007 (I am enjoying Domaine de Chevalier hugely at home this year) and almost certainly 2011, ’12 and ’13 will also be enjoyable early in the same way. Years like ’05, ’00, ’96 and the best of ’04 need much longer.

There will be always a divide between those who value richness, body, weight and tannic structure and those who prize finesse, bouquet and length. When 1995 and 1996 are compared, preferences become clear. The quality all great wines share is good balance. Pull those corks and see for yourself.

Click below to read the drinkability of the great vintages between 1995 and 2005...

Written by Sebastian Payne MW

Bordeaux drinking windows: 1995 – 2005

Full-flavoured, grippy wines, most successful on the Right Bank and for the best northern Médoc properties

A hot dry June and an August heatwave, followed by heavy rain in mid-September, led to healthy, full-bodied wines with noticeable tannic structure that was not always fully ripe. They needed longish keeping and some, like Palmer, Rauzan- Ségla, Haut-Brion and Montrose, are still not yet at their best. The wines tend to be fuller but less elegant and complex than in 1996. The best of the northern Médoc like Lafite-Rothschild are rich and velvety – Latour will always be grippy. Pichon Longueville Baron is very Pauillac and old-fashioned. Tannins impose in Léoville- Poyferré. Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande has a charming touch of freshness but also slight greenness found in other Cabernet-based wines picked before fully ripe. Palmer is flamboyant.

On the Right Bank, the best wines are splendid now. It was a Merlot year for Cheval Blanc, rich, powerful and still improving. The spicy, full-bodied Trotanoy is beautiful and will last. Soft and silky Angélus is harmonious now. Vieux Château Certan needs three years more. Other wines have charm, but some are diluted with low acidity and should be drunk now.

Elegant, classy Cabernet-based wines, but often not fully ripe

With no sustained heat apart from a few days in July, and rain in late August and the second half of September after a spell of good weather, the wines turned out as inconsistent as the climate. The best, Cabernet-based, have length of flavour, purity and a Bordeaux elegance, but the tannins were often not phenolically ripe because of the lack of sun. Drinkers who value fullness and Merlot weight will prefer 1995. Those who want elegance will choose 1996. Ducru-Beaucaillou, Lafite-Rothschild, Montrose and Léoville-LasCases show real class and balance and are still improving. Palmer, the last year with Cabernet Franc, is expressive, fresh and silky, as is Rauzan-Ségla. Latour is classy but could have been better with more selection, as could both Pichons.

Merlot-based wines often lack complexity and the successes on the Right Bank benefit from the fresh elegance of Cabernet Franc. Angélus needs five years more. Cheval Blanc is delicious now and will last. Vieux Château Certan is at its best, with Merlot charm.

Great wines in Pomerol and Pessac-Léognan, but more austere Médoc

Pomerol and Pessac-Léognan were at a distinct advantage because their grapes ripened earliest. An exceptionally hot August influenced the character of the top wines. The overall rainfall, however, was three times the 30-year average and there was a deluge from 23 September.

Cheval Blanc is magnificent with a long future. Trotanoy’s dark, rich, dusky fruit is full of life and needs five years more, as does Vieux Château Certan. Angélus is silky, a favourite of owner Hubert de Boüard. Decant three hours before drinking or keep, he advises. The finest Merlot ever at Haut- Bailly, says managing director Véronique Sanders. Pure silk. Keep Haut-Brion longer.

I think it is time to drink up most Médocs, though Palmer, with 52% Merlot, is a great success. Ducru-Beaucaillou and Rauzan-Ségla have elegance: lovely with chicken and mushrooms now. The ’99 is better than the ’98 at Latour and Léoville-Poyferré. The rain arrived a week too early for many Médocs and the Cabernets were fluid or not fully ripe.

A great year which needed and still needs time

2000 produced many superb wines to match millennium expectations and consequently 20% to 40% price increases, but perhaps it is not quite the vintage some markets expected. More classic Bordeaux than blockbuster, the wines needed time. Spring was humid, July was cool but it was hot and dry from early August until mid-September, and most harvested ripe grapes in excellent conditions for the first time since 1990. Styles differ depending on whether producers prized subtlety and length of flavour or extracted more to add power.

For most of my favourite châteaux you should drink 2001 now and keep 2000 five years longer. Latour is Frédéric Engerer’s ‘all-time favourite’, classic Latour, resonant with aromatic persistence. Pichon Longueville Baron benefited from stricter selection for the grand vin. Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande has a touch of greenness; keep and hope. Ducru-Beaucaillou is wonderful but not nearly at its best. Palmer has wonderful salivating fruit. Rauzan-Ségla shows power and structure, like a better-made 1986. Haut-Bailly has exceptional maturity of fruit. Montrose is good but youthful.

Cheval Blanc is lovely now, exotic like 1990 with cashmere texture. Angélus will be better still in five years. All the varieties came good in a successful Vieux Château Certan, which also needs five years. Trotanoy is a 20-year wine with splendid attack and depth and freshness too. Haut-Brion is outstanding. For those lucky enough to own such wines, try a bottle now but keep others to drink in the future.

The ideal vintage to drink in 2014

The climate was not that promising. After a cold, rainy July, August blew hot and cold, September began coolish and was followed by rain later in the month and early October. Berries were larger than in 1998 or 2000, so wines have less concentration.

Remarkably, however, the best wines have great balance with expressive bouquet and lovely voluptuous texture on the palate, because Merlot ripened well. Cabernet Sauvignon, still 50% of the Médoc, had more difficulty except in the best terroirs.

Cheval Blanc is perfect now, a benchmark like the 1971. Director Pierre Lurton chose it as his Easter wine to drink with his large family. Vieux Château Certan has been delicious all its life, with lovely Merlot quality as in 1998 plus great Cabernet Franc. Trotanoy is wonderfully seductive in its first phase of maturity. Angélus too. Latour is gorgeous now with great charm and an untypically ‘creamy’ palate. Haut-Brion is equally attractive, with mellow tannin. Ducru-Beaucaillou is fresh, elegant, scented and open. Full of charm, this is the first year Léoville-Poyferré included Petit Verdot. A very seductive Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, while Pichon Longueville Baron has the cedar box bouquet of good mature claret. Both Palmer and Haut Bailly are à point, but Montrose and Rauzan- Ségla are less successful and should be drunk up.

A huge crop with good surprises to drink now

Potentially the most abundant claret vintage of all time, this was the latest harvest since 1988. Léoville-Poyferré’s owner, Didier Cuvelier said it was the one year when all his vats were completely full. Heavy rain in July and August swelled the grapes. Even with green harvesting and crop thinning, most producers made the maximum allowed. Paradoxically, there are some real successes to remind us that good wine can be made in generous quantities. Balance is what matters.

Enjoy Haut-Bailly, Léoville-Poyferré and Trotanoy now. The two Pichons and dark, succulent Palmer are still in the first phase of maturity and getting better. Comtesse was a particular success. It is time to open your first bottle of Latour, just re-released, if you are lucky enough to own some. The Cabernet Franc element in Cheval Blanc, Angélus and Vieux Château Certan means that all will be better still in three or four years’ time. The Vieux Château Certan Cabernet Franc gives long, characterful flavour as in 1988 and 2000. Haut Brion and Montrose, both great successes in different styles, need longer.

Power, freshness, balance – but be patient

An historically dry growing season with high temperatures all year long producing healthy grapes of extraordinary concentration and intense, mind-blowing aromas. For Latour’s Engerer, this was the only zero-stress vintage he has ever made.

The great Médocs should be tucked away for eight or 10 years more and promise long life beyond. Some, like Ducru-Beaucaillou, are so fresh, fragrant and beautifully balanced, they are lovely to drink now. Angélus is too, but will deliver much more still in 10 to 15 years. Cheval Blanc is gorgeous but needs five years and will be still great in 2050. All my chosen favourite châteaux made outstanding wine this year, though some, like Léoville-Poyferré, believe their 2010 will eventually prove superior. For Vieux Château Certan, the style is closer to 1985 than 1998. Trotanoy too has an amazing freshness as well as power. Palmer tastes gorgeous now but will close. Be patient.

If other 2005s have a fault, it is that some will have too much concentration, fruit acidity and alcohol, which might make them always unyielding, like a modern 1975. But overall this is a great claret year at many price levels and one to be treasured.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Bordeaux drinking windows: 1995 - 2005
Page 1 of 2 - Show Full List