Bordeaux drinking windows: timed to perfection

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  • Thursday 14 August 2014

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

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...


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