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Bordeaux 2005: stats are all that’s left

It’s a numbers game in Bordeaux this week – the producers have run out of superlatives and are turning to statistics to get their point across.

The world’s wine hacks are inundated with figures and indices – measures of sugar and alcohol, tannin and acid. Ancient cellarmen’s memories are invoked to give credence to the claim that this is the best vintage in living memory.

Paul Pontallier at Margaux first described the gossamer airiness of his wines, and then turned to the IPT tannin index. Quantity of tannins is measured on the total polyphenol index (IPT). ‘In 2000 it was 70, in 2003 it was 73. This year it is 78. Just to put that in perspective, in 1982 it was between 62 and 63.’

Pontallier said the Merlot alcohol levels were the highest that had been seen in 100 years – ‘it went up to levels unheard of.’ However he made clear that the higher-alcohol Merlot was only used for the second wine, Pavillon Rouge.

Margaux itself is a powerful, though balanced wine. It was ‘no special effort,’ he said, ‘to make the biggest, most concentrated wine. It is even more concentrated than the 2003.’ Steven Spurrier said, ‘It is wonderful, seductive. It is final proof of an appellation of distinction.’

Pontallier was also at pains to point out there are limits to alcohol levels. For the Margaux terroir, there would never be a truly great wine at 13.5% or above. ‘For me, high alcohol is a real enemy of fine wine.’ With the spectre of global warming in mind he added, ‘Ideally nature will stop here.’

At Chateau Teyssier in St Emilion, Jonathan Maltus was picking Merlot at 15.5% alcohol – two degrees higher than normal, and Philippe Blanc at Chateau Beychevelle said, ‘the Merlot has never reached levels as high as this. Many batches were coming in at 14.2 or 14.3.’ The normal level is 13.5 degrees.

If sugar and alcohol are high, tannin measurements are equally unusual. Mouton-Rothschild’s director Herve Berland said various parcels had ‘enormous’ IPT of ‘more than 100’.

Berland stressed that IPT measures quantity not quality. This year of course, as in everything, quality is excellent. ‘The tannins are ripe, well put-together, and clear.’

There are properties at which the levels of acidity, tannin and alcohol are high but not astronomical. At Pichon Lalande, technical manager Thomas Do-Chi-Nam recognised ‘quite high acidity’ but made clear that 2005 is actually bringing the levels back to normal. ‘In previous years – especially 2003 – acidity has been too low.’

What every producer is hoping for, as always, is balance, and it seems this year that the elements have come together to create this equilibrium. The wines are not big in the sense of over-extracted – successive critics across the region attest to this – but they are ‘voluptuous, and silky’ as Jean-Guillaume Prats described his Cos d’Estournel.

This is true of wines in all regions of the left bank, from St Estephe to the Graves and Sauternes. But many critics are sounding notes of caution when it comes to the right bank.

One tasting in particular, the new grouping of the Cercle du Rive Droit – some 120 wines primarily from St Emilion, Pomerol and satellites – has come as a relative disappointment. Tasters consider some the wines not up to the general standard – ‘some are overextracted, overly oaked, even showing some green notes,’ one prominent critic said.

additional reporting by Panos Kakaviatos

Written by Adam Lechmere in Bordeaux

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