Bordeaux’s Real Vintage Of The Century – So Far

bordeaux 2004 overlooked vintage People & Places Articles
  • Thursday 8 February 2007

With 2003 overhyped, and 2005 overpriced, the classic, overlooked 2004 offers stunning value. A smug steven spurrier bought widely.

With 2003 overhyped, and 2005 overpriced, the classic, overlooked 2004 offers stunning value. A smug steven spurrier bought widely.

I always buy claret en primeur: it is a habit and it is simple to do as, having tasted a few hundred barrel samples during the gruelling week allotted to journalists in early April the following year, gleaning information from my colleagues to match or conflict with my own opinions, a shopping list virtually writes itself. When prices come out, this list changes in quality and quantity, mostly downwards in both categories. 2004 was, for me, the exception, for not only did I buy much more than usual, but also the proportion of classed growths to crus bourgeois or second wines was far higher and even included two first growths, a class of wine I have never previously purchased en primeur and do not expect to again. Nor do I expect the quality/price ratio provided by the 2004s to be matched by subsequent vintages, and it is only approached in previous vintages by the severely underrated 2001. 

The description most heard of the 2004s during the early tastings was ‘classic’ and this has been fully justified now the wines are in bottle. In Decanter June 2005 I wrote: ‘For Charles Chevallier of Domaines Lafite-Rothschild “classic” might carry a whiff of “old fashioned and austere”. Not a bit of it, for from both banks the wines are among the most lively, fruity and fresh-tasting that Bordeaux has ever produced. Plus, they have higher natural tannins than the 2003s, so while vineyard fruit dominates, making them attractive for medium-term drinking for the consumer, they will have a long enough life for the collector.’

2004 was a very large vintage, the largest since 1996, just topping 60hl/ha across the Bordeaux region, compared with 58hl/ha for 2000 and 45hl/ha for the heatwave 2003, with a huge sortie that had to be addressed by green harvesting. It was also very dry, with a real risk of drought before a cold and rainy August compromised ripening until warm weather returned in September. Those châteaux unable to afford to green harvest never saw their grapes properly ripen and this was mostly, sadly and inevitably, in the lower appellations. Grapes in properly tended vineyards benefited from the sunny conditions in September (average temperatures 19.2?C compared with 19.5?C in 2000) and the first half of October (an average of 21.2?C compared with 2000’s 14.1?C), to achieve true ripeness. The Right Bank said it was a Merlot vintage, while on the Left Bank the Cabernets were superb, so both were happy.

Certainly the en primeur tasters were happy with the barrel samples (though not as ecstatic as we were over the 2005s) for each commune showed clearly in character (unlike the impressive but often overripe 2003s) with a distinct lack of ‘international-style’ wines. The wines were both very Bordeaux and very modern. Now in bottle, they have retained their fresh, clearly defined fruit and the tannins are smoothing out. I could not attend the Union des Grands Crus tasting last October, but here is Jancis Robinson MW’s view: ‘The best 2004s are just so delicious, even if they may not have the intensity of 2005… showing lively, red fruit characters, and are very definitely best drunk with food.’

That 2004 is a boon vintage for the wine drinker, there is no doubt, but it may just fail to get the quality recognition that I, personally, feel it deserves. Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners, the UK’s largest vendor of fine claret, says: ‘as a drinkers’ rather than a collectors’ vintage, we expect prices to remain pretty static until the wines are being drunk up. It will always be overshadowed by 2003 and 2005, but it is a good, classic year, a bit like 2001.’ Adam Brett-Smith of Corney & Barrow goes further: ‘2004 is a really nice vintage but doesn’t have the mantle of greatness. Yet expectations are low and these will be exceeded on drinking. 2005 has everything 2004 has times 15; 2003 has nothing 2004 has, but it has everything in exaggeration. “Classic” and “typical” are not descriptions I admire in Bordeaux vintages, for all the great vintages of the past – 1945, 1947, 1953, 1959, 1961, 1982, 1989, 1990 – are not typical of the marginal growing climate. The only trump card that 2004 has is its price, yet 2001s are also undervalued, and this was a much more homogeneous growing season than 2004, even 2000. Comparisons between 2004 and 2001 will be most interesting. 2004’s only problem is it doesn’t have a hook to hang them on.’

Filling out the cellar

Happy as I am with my purchases of so many 2004s, I don’t need a hook for them, just space in the cellar. Pricewise, logic would have suggested that the massive increases of the 2005s would have dragged the 2004s with them to some extent, but logic did not come into the 2005 campaign. Hervé Aymond, partner in Singapore-based Corndale Consultants, went seriously into the en primeur market with the 2000s, selling classed growths across southeast Asia. In 2005 he took massive, unwanted allocations of first growth 2004s and sold them all, and reckons that 60% of the first growth 2005s have ended up in Asia. He sees the Asian market in full expansion, but says that, ‘cellars are now bursting with the outstanding 2005s and Bordeaux needs a reality check, as New World wines are just as attractive to these buyers.’ Adam Brett-Smith is less hopeful: ‘Bordeaux climbed a very steep mountain with the 2005s and it will be very difficult for them to go down to the bottom again.’ Pierre-Antoine Casteja of Joanne, one of the very largest buyers on the Bordeaux market, stressed the value for money of the 2004s, yet said that ‘with the 2005s, we have found many more markets in Eastern Europe and Asia, where we can find more and more amateurs of great Bordeaux wines.’

The conclusion is plain: the market for investment-grade Bordeaux has finally become truly international and the prices will be what these new markets are prepared to pay. According to John Salvi MW, whose almost five decades of experience of La Place de Bordeaux give his opinion some weight, the 2006s will not come down to current 2004 prices, ‘but the real surprise will be how the vendors can persuade us to buy a vintage where such galloping rot in the Médoc saw Mouton fielding 500 pickers to harvest in just 10 days,’ Decanter readers will learn of the quality of the 2006s from April, though prices will have to wait until Vinexpo in June. In the meantime, my advice is to buy some 2004s: you won’t regret it.

David Peppercorn MW's Best Buys of 2004

The UGC tasting provides the first opportunity to compare a large cross-section of leading wines after bottling. After the en primeur tastings I wrote that these wines were a pleasure to taste and offered good value for money, on both sides of the river, for enjoyment in the medium term. I think that the fact that this selection does not feature most of my original top wines from both sides of the river says something about the quality in depth which the vintage offers.

In April 2005, my evaluation was that this was a year of consistently pleasing wines. It seemed akin to 2002 in the Médoc and the best year since 2001 on the Right Bank. However, the market proved very lukewarm and the wines did not sell terribly well, despite being well priced. 

Now we can see the vintage post-2005, so the value is clearer. We can also see how the wines have evolved now they are recovering from bottling.

My overwhelming impression is that these are pleasure-giving wines for drinking. The market has decided they are not investment wines, which means they are also value wines for the consumer looking for charming, characterful wines to drink in the next few years. And look at the prices!

Dessert wine lovers should take a special look at Sauternes. With limited demand and so many good vintages in recent years, there is a firm cap on prices, and the 2004s now seem even better than expected. There should be some good buys around here. All prices for the following wines are in bond.

St-Estèphe

Château Cos-Labory HHHH 17.5pts/20

I often find this cru hard to judge en primeur, with tough tannins, but this wine now shows quality tannins and lovely fruit – a big step up. £10.25; F&R

Château Lafon-Rochet HHHH 16.5/20

Rich, chunky fruit and tannins with balance; a bit solid and four-square but good value. £11.33–12.41; F&R, IiW, Rol

Château Phélan-Ségur HHHH 16.5/20

Lovely scent of violets, long flavour, richness with fine tannins; very good. £11.66–15.91; F&R, J&B, N&P

Pauillac

Château Pichon-Longueville-Lalande HHHH 18pts/20

Has great length, charm and class on the nose and real elegance.

£35–48.69; Ant, BBR, N&P

Château Pichon-Longueville-Baron HHHH 17.5

Lovely balance and fine fruit, good for the medium term. £27.50–40; Ant, BBR, N&P

Château Pontet-Canet HHHH 17.5

Very impressive with fine tannins and depth of fruit allied to real power; this is classic Pauillac, needs five to seven years. £19.58–30.58; Aly, Ant, BBR, BdI, F&R, Far, HBa, IiW, MFW, N&P

Château Grand-Puy-Ducasse HHHH 17

A big improvement from this under-performer, good fruit and richness with fine tannins. £9.57–11.75; F&R, HBa

Château Lynch-Bages HHHH 17

Very thick textures, good ripeness but rather chunky, solid tannins just now. £20.33–30; Ant, BdI, BOt, IiW, MFW

Château Clerc-Milon HHHH 16.5

Has more breed than d’Armailhac, long flavour with firm finish; just showing a shade dry at present. £14.08–16; Bd

Château d’Armailhac HHH 16.5

Nice scent, thick-textured and full-bodied, just lacks some class but good and can evolve in bottle. 16

£11.66–12.33; BWI, F&R, J&B

Château Batailley HHH 16

Full bodied and quite chunky, good solid Pauillac – lacks a little class. £11.50; BBR

St-Julien

Château Léoville-Barton HHHHH 19/20

A big jump in quality; supple tannins and depth of fruit – great class. £22.08–41.75; Ant, BOt, J&B, MFW, N&P, WPl

Château Beychevelle HHHH 17.5

Real St-Julien fruit, the hallmark of Beychevelle with an almost Burgundian richness on the nose; lots of verve and attack and blackcurrant fruit.

£14–16.25; BdI, Bib, BOt, F&R, J&B

Château Langoa-Barton HHHH 17.5

Thick-textured with toasty blackberry notes; will need four to five years-plus to show its paces – a great success.

£15.16–17.50; BBR, F&R, Far, MFW, N&P, WPl

Château Léoville-Poyferré HHHH 17.5

Lovely fruit quality but still tight, with a firm finish, fresh, sleek fruit; will need time. £17.08–20.83; Ant, BdI, BOt, IiW

Château Talbot HHHH 17.5

Lovely scent of sweet violets, then firmer than expected; fine balance and fruit. £14.16–15.83; Aly, BOt, IiW, MFW, N&P

Château Lagrange HHHH 17

Nice body with fresh fruit and depth, very vibrant and attractively balanced. £13.50; BOt, F&R

Château Branaire HHH 16

Charming scent and fruit but some extraction and oaky tannins on finish. £14.58–26; Aly, Ant, BBR, F&R, N&P

Château Gruaud-Larose HHH 15.5

Very scented and violety but short and dry at finish; may fill out again in bottle. £16.58–25; Ant, BBR, BCo, Bib, F&R, IiW

Margaux

Château Brane-Cantenac HHHH 17.5/20

Lovely cassis richness and glycerol with typical Margaux breed.

£14.90–15.75; BOt, F&R, IiW, J&B

Château Giscours HHHH 17.5

The renaissance of Giscours continues; there is very full-bodied, delicious fruit with more weight than du Tertre and some lovely cedar wood notes; classic and very fine. £21; Ant, BBR, J&B

Château Durfort-Vivens HHHH 17

Beautiful fruit and opulence, balance and real Margaux breed; very fine. £11.41; F&R

Château Malescot-St-Exupéry HHHH 17

Glorious, scented fruit, balance and fine quality tannins, elegance; very good in the medium term. £15.41–18.75; BOt, F&R, IiW

Château du Tertre HHHH 16.5

Lovely scented fruit and freshness, chocolatey, very attractive for earlyish drinking. £10.83–17.65; F&R, N&P

Pessac-Léognan

Château de Fieuzal HHHH 17/20

Lovely perfume, succulent ripe

fruit, delicious for earlyish drinking;

very hedonistic. £11.75; F&R

Château Larrivet-Haut-Brion HHHH 17

Delicious, sumptuous fruit; has body and richness, very attractive. This cru continues its upward curve and must be a candidate for the new classification. £12.25; F&R

Château Malartic-Lagravière HHHH 17

Lovely fruit quality and richness, fine wine. £13.75; F&R

Domaine de Chevalier HHHH 16.5

Beautiful fruit and balance, fresh and full-flavoured, blackcurrants – has real class. £15; F&R

St-Emilion

Ch Troplong-Mondot HHHHH 18.5/20

Gorgeous perfume with length, power and structure plus lovely fruit; a wine with real ‘presence’ which will need time. £10.75–30.75; Ant, BdI, F&R, IiW, J&B, N&P

Château Trottevieille HHHHH 18.5

Lovely perfumed fruit and middle richness with great fruit quality and breed; what a difference Denis Dubourdieu has made! £29; Ant

Château Canon-la-Gaffellière HHHH 18

Very scented with rich, succulent fruit, lovely harmony, fine and very impressive. £22.50–33; Ant, F&R, MFW

Château Grand-Mayne HHHH 18

Scented, succulent rich fruit, lovely balance and harmony; very good indeed. £13; BdI

Château Canon HHHH 17.5/20

Thick, rich textures, closed on the nose, powerful and impressive, a long-distance runner for the vintage and may move up a point. £22.91–23.33; F&R, Far, J&B

Château Figeac HHHH 17.5

Fine fruit quality with a good finish and well-covered tannins; moderate richness. £27.33–38; Ant, BWI, F&R, J&B

Château Berliquet HHHH 17

Very scented fruit with length, breed and fine fruit flavours; a delicious wine. £23.16 (magnum); F&R

Clos Fourtet HHHH 17

Lovely pure fruit flavours and balance, very fresh and fine; needs time. £21.66–33; Ant, BBR, BdI, F&R, J&B, MFW, N&P

Château La Couspaude HHHH 17

Scented fruit and elegance, nice balance for medium-term enjoyment. £21.25; F&R

Château Larcis-Ducasse HHHH 17

Nicolas Thienpoint’s hard work here is paying dividends. This wine shows more fat and structure on top of the breed it always had; very promising. £20.25; F&R

Ch Balestard-La-Tonnelle HHHH 16.5

Since the en primeur tastings this wine has softened and filled out at the finish; has spicy, stylish fruit – fine. £11; F&R

Château Franc-Mayne HHH 16

Rich and compact, well-absorbed wood, and good fruit. N/A UK; +33 5 57 24 62 61

Pomerol

Château Petit-Village HHHH 18/20

Lovely fruit on the nose; length and succulence, sleek and delicious; earlyish drinking for great pleasure. £19; F&R

Château La Conseillante HHHH 17.5

Perfumed with lovely plummy fruit; just a shade dry at the finish but has great potential; very classic Pomerol.

£27.91–38; Ant, BBR, F&R, Far, J&B, N&P

Château Gazin HHHH 17

Very good rich fruit with a nice touch of firmness at the finish. £16–17; BdI, F&R

Château Clinet HHH 16

Blackcurrants nose and rich fruit palate, but then it trails away; may lengthen out with time. £23–24.16; BdI, BOt, F&R, J&B

Sauternes

Château Climens HHHHH 19/20

Marvellous! Such opulence and succulence; a real beauty.

£29.25–44; Ant, BWI, Evy, F&R

Château de Fargues HHHHH 18.5

(bottled March 2007). Terrific fruit flavours and richness, peachy – beautiful. N/A UK; +33 5 57 98 04 20

Château Suduiraut HHHHH 18.5

Unctuous; notes of caramel, very rich and fine – just superb! £26.25–32.26; Evy, F&R

Château La-Tour-Blanche HHHH 18

Has a lovely succulent, opulent texture and real breed. £17.58; Ant, F&R

Château Sigalas-Rabaud HHHH 18

Has a beautiful flavour and richness with fine fruit; unctuous. £17.91; F&R

Château de Rayne-Vigneau HHHH 17.5

Great perfume, fruit and length, breed and elegance. N/A UK; +33 5 56 11 29 00

Château Doisy-Daëne HHHH 17.5

Succulent, lemony notes, such elegance and breed. £13.83–18.44; Ant, Evy, F&R

Château de Malle HHHH 17

Lovely, creamy fruit, oranges; just a little less length. £15; BdI

Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey HHHH 17

Fine richness and fruit but less opulence than some others at present.

£16.50–21.72; BdI, Evy, F&R, N&P

Château Doisy-Védrines HHHH 16.5

More richness but less elegance than Doisy-Daëne. £12.91; MFW

Château Guiraud HHHH 16.5

Beautiful taste of mandarins, rich and fine. £20.91; F&R

For UK stockists, see p82.

Wine News

Wine News

Daily wine news - the latest breaking wine news from around the world