What makes a good Bordeaux vintage?

good Bordeaux vintage, Châteaux Canon vineyards
Vineyards of Châteaux Canon

The late Denis Dubourdieu, former winemaker, professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux and recipient of the Decanter Hall of Fame Award in 2016, said there were five conditions that make a perfect vintage for red Bordeaux. One and two: early, rapid flowering and fruit-set during weather that is sufficiently warm and dry to ensure pollination and predisposal towards simultaneous ripening; this gives the potential for a timely crop of evenly ripened grapes. Three: the gradual onset of water stress thanks to a warm, dry month of July in order to slow down and then put a definitive stop to vine growth during véraison (colour change). Four: full ripening of the various grape varieties thanks to dry and warm (but not excessively so) weather in the months of August and September. Five: fine, dry and medium-warm weather during harvest, making it possible to pick at full ripeness without running the risk of dilution or rot.

Two recent vintages that ticked all five of these boxes were 2005 and 2015. The 2010 vintage came close, though flowering in Merlot was not ideal due to slightly cool, wet weather in June that caused coulure (missing berries in a bunch due to poor flowering), millerandage (unevenly sized berries and uneven ripening within the bunch) and low yields, but summer and autumn were perfect; dry, but not too hot.

While Dubourdieu’s conditions are sound, they do not show the whole picture. For more than 30 years, I have been part of a group of wine professionals, meeting in January each year to blind taste all Bordeaux crus classés and equivalents. After tasting the 2015 vintage in bottle, we recently reached a consensus on the ranking of the vintages from 2000 to 2015 in terms of quality. It was generally felt that 2016 will make the top three or four, but we have yet to judge it in the same way.

Age has proved 1949, 1953, 1959, 1961 and 1982 to be great claret vintages, so years such as 2000 and 2005 are yet to show their full potential. Nevertheless, our group put 2010 top and rated 2009 equal to 2005. Interestingly, 2010 did not fulfil Dubourdieu’s criteria. The uneven set of that year required a great deal of care in the vineyards, highlighting the inadequacy of vintage charts, and proving that the people factor can be more important than the weather.

Ranking of Bordeaux vintages – overall quality

(Southwold-on-Thames blind tasting group, January 2019)

1 2010
2 = 2009, 2005
4 2000
5 2015
6 2001
7 2014
8 2012
9 2008
10 2006
11 2003
12 2004
13 2007
14 2011
15 2002
16 2013

Range of factors

The fact that Bordeaux is such a large wine-growing region is another obvious limitation that vintage charts have to cope with. It can rain heavily in one area and not in another. Merlot normally ripens earlier than Cabernet, so vintage results can differ. For example, 1964, 1975 and 1998 were great years for Right Bank Merlot and less good for the Médoc; whereas Médoc won in 1996 and 2002. A truly good vintage occurs when all grapes ripen to perfection, even in less favourable districts.

Meanwhile, a challenging revelation of blind tastings is finding that one’s judgements on a particular vintage often do not reflect the market price of a wine. Brand reputation, scarcity of a château’s wine and general economic conditions when wines are put on the market all play their part. A vintage’s reputation reflects the price, but not the quality, of all its wines.

Let us remember too that 1982 and 1990 were large crops. Several famous names made up to twice as much grand vin as they do today. In 1990, Bruno Prats wanted a limit of 9t/ha (tonnes per hectare) on yields for St-Estèphe. In 2018, a classed growth might declare 4-4.5t/ha. As a buyer and a wine drinker, I agree with producers who reckon a good vintage is one that gives a good yield as well as high quality.

Climate & terroir

What is also clear is that the hit-rate of good or decent years has been high in the past two decades, compared with…

Source : https://www.decanter.com/learn/makes-good-bordeaux-vintage-416029/