While it may require a little detective work, there are stars to be found in Bordeaux in every year. Ian D'Agata shares his tips on which wines to enjoy from five often-overlooked vintages
Over the past 25 or so years, there is probably no subject I have been asked about more frequently than when to drink specific wines, which vintages are ‘must buys’, and which are best avoided. If only it were so easy. In fact, not just the vintage, but grape types and mix, picking dates, specific soils and microclimates, individual skill level and financial resources all play a role in determining just how successful any single wine might be. Thinking in terms of ‘great’ and ‘poor’ vintages alone is misleading, because there are many delicious wines made in off-vintages.
Choosing good Bordeaux wines in off-vintages requires a little homework. Knowing a little about a vintage’s weather pattern during the growth cycle (roughly, April through September) is crucial, and picking dates are important too. For example, 1964 was ruined by late season rains, but Lafon-Rochet made a memorable wine because it picked before the rains came.
The track record of individual châteaux is also important. Estates will go through tough spells and in those times, even wines from great years are average. Changes in ownership or the consultant winemaker greatly influence quality, as do any financial problems the estate might be facing. Estates on a roll will make above-average wines even in weather-challenged vintages. Clearly, it’s costly to make even acceptable wine in poor years. The threat of torrential downpours might require more pickers and overtime to help bring in grapes before the rains. That extra manpower is costly: wealthier estates have an advantage because they can take actions necessary to make the best wines possible without cutting corners.
The unheralded Bordeaux years of 2007, 2002, 1999, 1997 and 1994 are a case in point. Many wine lovers bypass these wines altogether, mainly because of negative publicity derived from these years being associated with ‘poor’ vintages. I think this is a pity, and many in Bordeaux agree.
Hélène Génin, Château Latour’s technical director, believes there are common points between the five vintages, such as early growth cycles, perturbed flowering and problems with fruitset and the uneven size of berries. ‘All required heavy green harvesting and careful triage of berries, so the wines resemble each other in some respects, although each vintage has its own personality.’ Despite tricky conditions, she says, ‘the wines are better than most people think’.
Nicolas Thienpont, technical director at Pavie Macquin, feels that 1997 and 2007 were both saved by late season sunshine, and finds the wines resemble each other most. Jean-Claude Berrouet of Pétrus and Eric Perrin of Carbonnieux feel 2002 is slightly underrated, characterised by lovely, gentle wines. Overall, I find most wines from these years to be either perfect for current drinking or shaping up to be delicious. Here I will discuss a few wines of leading châteaux from these vintages: ugly ducklings once, many have turned into beautiful swans.
Written by Ian D’Agata