Last month’s tastings of the stellar 2005 Bordeaux were notable for the triumph of lesser known estates. Decanter editor GUY WOODWARD assesses the implications.
Shortly after Decanter’s recent Bordeaux 2005 panel tastings (March 2008), consultant editor Steven Spurrier confided in me his surprise at the results. ‘Both the cru bourgeois and St-Emilion tastings were confirmation of the great quality of the 2005 vintage,’ he said, ‘but in neither did the highest classified wines come out in front.’ Both tastings were certainly extremely positive – eight awards for St-Emilion, six for the cru bourgeois, and a total of 40 four-star wines. But, as Spurrier observed, ‘we didn’t select a single cru bourgeois exceptionnel for a Decanter Award and only one – and certainly not the highest thought-of – of the premiers grands crus classés in St-Emilion.’ What does this tell us about the wines, the vintage, or, indeed, the tasters? The first thing to note is that when supposedly ‘lesser’ estates score consistently high marks, one is looking at a stellar vintage.
On every occasion on which the 2005 clarets have been tasted, all the signs are that this is indeed an exceptional year, with wines showing well across the board. And as Spurrier constantly reminds me, one should ‘buy the top wines in lesser vintages, and the lesser wines in top vintages’. His policy was borne out here, with the humbler, less expensive estates proving the equal of – and in many cases surpassing – the star names.
All the 2005 wines were tasted blind, meaning tasters were unaware, in the St- Emilion tasting, for example, of whether the wine they were tasting was a humble grand cru, a grand cru classé or a starry premier grand cru classé. This is contrary to the format at other tastings, including en primeur, where the top estates decline to take part in the generic (blind) tastings, thus necessitating a separate visit on the part of tasters, and making blind tasting impossible. Our tasters are experienced enough not to be swayed by the status of the wine they are tasting, but is there – subconsciously – a preconceived expectation of quality when you know you’re tasting a rarefied wine? If so, it would be absent from our panel tasting, putting all the wines on a level footing.
Even so, taking the St-Emilion tasting, surely the supposedly greater estates should have come out on top? Think again of the quality of the vintage. ‘The 2005 wines were of a very high standard and I was not alone in finding it hard to judge which were the best of the best,’ said Hugo Rose MW. ‘Quality is very much closer together than prices in 2005,’ added Jancis Robinson MW. Rose raises another issue, though: ‘It’s partly a question of a wine’s development. It’s hard to spot outright quality when, on either side [of a ‘closed’ wine], others are so gregarious or exotic.’ Tasters were assessing wines on their likely quality in the long haul – after all, no one is drinking the 2005s today. But this obviously involves a degree of crystal ball-gazing, a task which Spurrier claims is made easier if you know the heritage of the château in question (it is for this reason that he elects not to taste blind during the en primeur tastings).
All in the balance
‘I found this a very difficult tasting as I was trying to assess potential rather than performance,’ admits Stephen Brook, Decanter contributing editor. ‘I was trying to assess if the balance was really there, and whether the wines had enough acidity – things that after 10 years will make a serious difference. It was a bit like reading tea-leaves. For me, it was more difficult than a normal tasting of young Bordeaux because of the power of the 2005s; they were so rich and concentrated. But because they were so youthful and so recently bottled, I found it terribly difficult to read the [future of the] wines.’ Tasting young claret is a difficult exercise, and far from an exact science – which is why Decanter favours panel tastings rather than the verdicts of individuals, so as to achieve broad consensus rather than individual preferences. But is the age of the wines the reason so many of the ‘great’ names performed below their status? Decanter revisits a vintage several times over the course of its lifetime, but in Spurrier’s view, ‘we were tasting the wines too young – three to six months after bottling, and this was exacerbated by the fact that the “lesser” wines would probably have been bottled a few months ahead of the more “important” wines, and would therefore have had more time to settle in.’
Decanter always tastes Bordeaux vintages at this time – two and a half years on from en primeur – as this is the first opportunity to taste the final blend, in bottle (barrel samples tasted en primeur are often changed in terms of the final proportions of varieties used). This timing also gives the wines more chance to ‘settle’ than is the case at the official Union des Grands Crus tastings held in the autumn. Nicola Arcedeckne-Butler MW agrees that timing is an issue: ‘More subtle wines don’t stand a chance against “show. wines” – those which undergo malolactic fermentation in barrel, warm run-off into barrel etc – all influences which disappear by the time the wine has been in bottle for two or three years.’
This school of thought raises an altogether different issue – that of wines being more ‘taster-friendly’. As Richard Bampfield MW observes: ‘There is a certain style of wine that tends to shine at tastings, and, however hard one tries to reward the elegance and subtlety of top wines, it is hard for them to get the top marks. Really top Bordeaux often needs several years to start expressing itself. It is asking a lot of such wines to be showing well at just two years old.’ Stephen Browett feels – despite tasters looking for potential, longevity and likely development in the wines – it is ‘inevitable in blind tastings such as this [that] depth and concentration outscore subtlety and finesse’. Even Aubert de Villaine, guardian of Burgundy’s legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, claims that ‘all great crus, from whatever region, take time to reveal their layers of complexity’. In the past, Decanter tasters have been critical of heavily extracted, blockbuster wines made in a modern style.
Yet here it was those same wines which came out on top. ‘Plainly we have gone for fruit and accessibility rather than depth of tannins and potential ageing,’ said Spurrier. ‘In this group of wines, all the wines had wonderful colours, lots of fruit, lots of oak. Modern? Certainly. Extraction? Absolutely. Concentration? Absolutely. I was very impressed with the way they had taken advantage of the ripeness of the year.’ The modern-style Château Angélus was one of only two premiers grands crus classés to score four or five stars, suggesting again that while tasters may claim they are sceptical about a more modern style, their marks tell a different story. Yet Brook said that if he could fault the St-Emilions, it was for lack of elegance. ‘I hardly ever used the word “finesse” or “refined” – it was all “power” and “richness” – but that’s the character of 2005, so I can happily live with that.’ Robinson added that it is usual in St- Emilion for there to be ‘more obviously “modern” wines and more obviously “traditional” styles,’ but says these distinctions were ‘less marked than usual because of the strong vintage character’. Browett concluded that ‘the big thing about this tasting is that you can’t tell the £6,000-a-case wine from the £600-acase wine, which is great for consumers.’
But is it? One can certainly understand consumers’ confusion when wines that retail at £6,000 a case are rated inferior to wines that sell for a tenth of the price. Of course, the same tasting repeated in 10 years’ time may yield very different results. Ultimately, though, perhaps it depends on your perspective: You’re hosting a dinner party. Would you prefer to bring out a rare bottle of a starry name rated a modest three stars by a panel of experts, or a case of an obscure grand cru boasting five stars, but whose anonymous label may leave your guests looking nonplussed?
Written by Guy Woodward