The trend over the past decade or so in Bordeaux (and around the globe) has been towards bigger, darker, fruitier wines. There have been many means to this end: Better clonal selection in the vineyards, lower yields, improved viticultural practices, cold soaking of fruit before fermentation, and mechanical intervention.
Much of this work allows one to extract the most from each vine and berry, but when the berries are not perfectly ripe, or even worse, not uniformly ripe, working this way can concentrate the flaws of the vintage as well as the fruit. In 2007 there were plenty of flaws, so it was incumbent upon producers to work in ways that minimized the expression of these flaws.
I was, quite frankly, surprised by what I tasted at the recent Weekend of Grands Amateurs tasting in Bordeaux.
The Right Bank aka The LibournaisThe Right Bank of Bordeaux, frequently thought of as the communes of Pomerol and St. Emilion, really covers quite a bit more ground. This is primarily Merlot country, with Cabernet Sauvignon rapidly being replaced by Cabernet Franc in the supporting role. The great terroirs of the region do extend through Pomerol and St. Emilion, and in particular are crowded on top of the famous limestone outcropping that has dominated the region for centuries, and contributed literally tons of stone to help build all the local villages.
While many of the best vineyards are based on these limestone rich soils, there are richer wines coming from heavier soil -- chief among them is Petrus -- that allow for a variety of styles in the region. It is Merlot country to be sure, but its true claim to fame must be its ability to illustrate the full range of expression of which Merlot is capable!
There were several wines that really showed quite poorly, which was no surprise, however there were plenty of wines that were delicious, and some of them came from less well-known estates. In an odd twist of fate, it was these less expensive estates (the Petits Chateaux of Bordeaux), who typically make a wine that is less dark, rich and dense than the more famous estates, who seemed to have excelled in 2007.
To a certain extent these estates made the wines they did because they had to; that is all they were able to do. Some estates were able to do more, were able to concentrate the fruit in the cellar, trying to make grand wines. They instead made wines that are not balanced, wines that speak more of winemaking than vintage.
While I can understand the desire to make better wines, I think there is a line we need to draw, and that line has been crossed again and again. Why do winemakers feel they need to make “grand” wines in every vintage? There are plenty of vintages which produce “grand” wines naturally -- why can’t we have a few vintages that simply produce pretty wines? Delicate wines? Easy to drink wines?
Well, now we can come back to the pricing of Bordeaux, an exercise in alienating customers, and driving production styles. You see, the Bordelais have historically made very little money selling wine. Sure, there are the few exceptions, and now I am talking of only the top several dozen estates (and over the last decade or two) but in general making and selling Bordeaux wine is a rather modest business.
The money historically has been in the reselling of Bordeaux wine, particularly in great vintages, and specifically after receiving a great score from Robert Parker. Bordeaux is an old business, so these details did not escape the Bordelais. It may have taken them rather a long time to fully capitalize on it, but they did, and do, understand that a great score from Parker (which used to be something on the order of better than 92ish but has now become a 96 or above) translated into bigger prices.
So what was a struggling wine producer to do? Well, the first step was to produce better wines, which requires a huge investment in both money and time. This was begun in earnest over two decades ago, and with the lead-time involved in winemaking began paying major dividends over the past decade. Fortunately for the Bordelais, they have been blessed with three, yes, three, vintages of the century in this past decade: 2000, 2005, and 2009!
With the coming of these spectacular vintages (and all kidding aside, 2000 is a grand vintage, 2005 is even better, and the early word on 2009 is that the peaks of that vintage may be even better still, though it will be a far less consistent vintage than 2005) come great scores from Robert Parker, amazing scores in many cases. The Bordelais were thrilled, and prices were going up, up and away.
Just a little aside on how Bordeaux of the highest quality is sold. Each spring there is the En Primeur, or futures campaign. This past year it was the turn of the 2009’s. The wines are previewed for the world's opinion makers: Wine buyers, critics, and influential collectors. The Bordelais then wait for the reviews to come out, primarily those of Robert Parker, before setting the prices. Chateau owners often compete with each other, outwaiting their neighbors so as to be able to price themselves at or above what others see as the market price for a particular quality of wine.
Once the chateaux fix their release price a small tranche, or slice, of wine is released into the market. This tranche then makes its way through the sales channels – importer, distributor, and retailer – until it is offered to the consumer. Historically there was a significant advantage to buying en primeur – you could save a lot of money!
In many great vintages in the not too distant past the value of the top wines of a vintage could increase dramatically between the initial en primeur offer in May of the year following a vintage, and its actual release date two years hence. By buying a wine 2 years before delivery you were not only guaranteed a specific wine in a specific format (bottle size), but you stood to make a pretty return on your investment!
Well, that may not prove to be the case with 2007, but some pretty delicious wines were still produced. I'll wrap up my thoughts on the 2007 vintage next week, along with my final installment of tasting notes, including many of the great wines of the Left Bank, but for today, it's time to move on to my notes on the wines of the Right Bank.