The Eleven Year Decade
Wednesday, 19 November 2014 by Stephen Browett
How long is a decade? Well, 10 years of course. But an interesting question is "how do you count it"? Nought to nine, or one to ten? It's an important question because, for me, the 2010 vintage in Bordeaux fits in nicely as the final year of the first decade of the 21st Century. In my opinion (having tasted wine from just about every vintage of the 20th Century and several from the 19th century) this is the greatest decade in the history of Bordeaux wine.
If you look at previous decades we were lucky to get 3 good vintages every ten years and at least the same number of bad vintages. In the 1990's, we have 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1997 that are really poor. In the 1980's so were 1980, 1984 and 1987. The 1970's was a bit of a disaster with 1972, 1973, 1974 and 1977 all terrible and in the sixties 1969 was bad, but 1963, 1965 and 1968 were abysmal. The first vintage of Lafite that I ever tasted was the 1968 (this would have been in about 1982) and the wine was thin and bitter, and looked like rosé, even then. I can't imagine how awful it must be today. My early years in the wine trade were spent peddling dreadful vintages that stockholders were desperately trying to dump. I remember a Berry Brothers price list in the mid 1980's still being full of 1972's and buying top classed growth 1973's for a fiver a bottle from now long-gone merchants such as Christopher's, Saccone & Speed and Hedges & Butler.
Anyway back to the "noughties". As far as Bordeaux wine is concerned this decade really starts in 2000 with the millennium vintage and concludes with the magnificent 2010 so for my purposes it's just going to have to be an eleven vintage decade. How are these vintages showing as they approach maturity?
2000 - A much heralded year, even before a grape was picked, simply because of the "millennium factor". This just had to be a great vintage and fortunately it was. At the time, this was by far the most successful vintage ever for Farr Vintners en primeur even if some customers were shocked by the First Growths being sold at £1950 per case on release (when the 1999's had been £780). The wines tasted great en primeur and the high quality and three zeros ensured huge sales. Nobody would have believed you if you had predicted that 3 even greater vintages would follow in the next 10 years. The top wines were stubbornly unready for a good 10 years and even now they have not reached their peak of maturity. A bottle of Pichon Baron tasted yesterday was still youthful and promising rather than delivering all the goods.
2001 - This is a vintage that has always been in the shadows of 2000 (just like 1983 was after 1982 or 1962 after 1961). Yet, for me it's a lovely vintage full of excellent wines. A real wine-drinker's vintage (rather than a wine-collector's vintage) and a few Chateaux actually made better wines than they did in 2000. One great advantage of the 2001's is that they are all drinking at their peak right now and remain fairly reasonably priced. Of course, the best time to buy these was en primeur as they were released with little fanfare. The First Growths were £900 a case and even top second growths like the fabulous Pichon Baron 2001 were under £300.
2002 - Often regarded (along with 2004 and 2007) as the weakest vintage of the decade but it's certainly not an "off" vintage and most of the wines are very pleasant and drinking well today. Every wine from 2002 is ready to drink now and only very minor ones are past their best. If this vintage had been produced in the 1990's it would have been seen as being the 4th best of the decade after 1990, 1995 and 1996. We put on a comprehensive tasting of the 2002's a few years ago and there is a report here
When this vintage was released en primeur First Growths were available at £680 a dozen. Those were the days.
2003 - This was the year of the "canicule" and wow, it was hot. There were all sorts of records set that summer including the highest recorded temperature ever in the Medoc - 48 degrees centigrade. The resultant wines are atypical and, in blind tastings, I always struggle to identify a 2003 Bordeaux even as being French. Many of the Merlot based wines of the right bank are actually pretty poor in my opinion and I would say that it's actually the worst vintage of the decade in Pomerol. But, on the other hand, the Cabernet Sauvignon based wines of the left bank (particularly in St Julien, Pauillac and St Estephe) can be fabulously rich and ripe, albeit without any real tannic "grip". It's a vintage in which the wines have opulent fruit but little backbone or structure. Very sexy, for sure, and often gorgeous to drink now, but no 2003 Bordeaux will taste better in the future than it does today.
Here's our report from a 2003 tasting that we held in 2010.
2004 - If the 2003's have a bit too much ripeness and not enough structure then 2004 is the other way round. This is not a show-off year like its predecessor and very much a vintage for those who like old-fashioned claret with a dry edge. They are nice wines that will always be a little lean but that's not a bad thing in my book. I love a 2003 now and again but you wouldn't want every Bordeaux you drank to be made in that style. We re-tasted the 2004's earlier this year as they approached their 10th birthday. They were decent without being spectacular. They are still available at reasonable prices and there is no hurry to drink them up as they will keep well. Read a recent "10 years on" report here.
2005 - A great vintage for sure and some critics reckon that it's one of the greatest of all time. But...these wines are tough, solid and unyielding. They should become spectacular with time but right now they are still pretty tannic and hard to taste. We have decided not to taste them "10 years on" in 2015 as originally planned, but to give them a few more years in bottle as most of the wines of the top Chateaux are in a rather dumb phase of their lives. I was fortunate to taste 100 wines of this vintage in 2009 (before they retreated into their shells) and if they blossom at around age 15, as I expect that they will, they will be truly great wines with real Bordeaux class and character.
2006 - It was a tough act to follow 2005 and this vintage is, of course, less good. The wines are typical Bordeaux with medium-weight fruit and good structure. I'd say that it's like 2004 but a bit better (although not as ready to drink right now). We tasted a range of 2006's in Hong Kong earlier this year and I think that the top wines will be drinking well at 10 years of age so maybe give them a little longer. Read our 2006 Bordeaux Tasting in Hong Kong blog here.
2007 - Often seen as the weakest vintage of the decade, I would disagree with that. For me the wines are often better than those of 2002 and 2004 and sometimes above 2008. This is a really "consumer-friendly" vintage without pretensions to greatness. The wines have good medium-weight fruit with well-rounded tannins and at 7 years of age they are drinking really nicely. Chateau Gloria 2007 is possibly Farr Vintners biggest selling Bordeaux wine of all time and a firm favourite here. This vintage offers wines that are fairly priced and ideal for drinking now and over the next few years.
2008 - This is a somewhat controversial vintage as we were rather unimpressed with it en primeur, feeling that the wines were a bit too lean and angular and lacking in flesh. The en primeur campaign looked like being a bit of a damp squib until Robert Parker released his review to gasps of astonishment in the Farr Vintners office. He clearly over-estimated the wines - dramatically so in many cases - and has been back-tracking ever since. In fact, nearly every single 2008 Bordeaux has ended up with a lower Parker score in bottle than it did in barrel. It's a decent, solid vintage with wines that have quite firm structure. It's no better than 2001 in my opinion and only just above 2006. It's clearly well behind the two vintages that followed it. Here's my view from our first "in the bottle tasting" of the 2008s
2009 - Undoubtedly a great vintage. For some critics this is potentially the greatest vintage of all time and it's certainly a wonderfully consistent years with fantastic quality at all price levels. Robert Parker gives 19 wines 100 points! Read his report here . Even second (and third) wines are lovely. Described by the Bordelais as a "deck chair vintage" because everything was perfect in the vineyards. Viticulturists just had to sit back and watch their vines produce grapes of perfect ripeness. I suppose that some would argue that the resultant wines are a little too sexy but that is a view that I find hard to agree with. For me this vintage is the new 1959 or 1982. The wines will be relatively approachable in their youth but will age effortlessly. You can't find a poor 2009 Bordeaux. It really is a perfect vintage. I was so excited about it when we tasted the wines in bottle in January 2013 that I wrote 7 blogs! :
2010 - We conclude the decade (or possibly start the next one) with another fantastic vintage. Released at even higher prices than the 2009's, the 2010's were much heralded on release and it is without doubt a monumental vintage that is closer to style (but maybe even better than) 2005 than it is to 2009. These are classic wines of great structure, class and depth. Unlike 2009 they will need a long time in bottle to show their true colours and even at the lower levels they are pretty tight and unyielding. At the top level the wine are awesome.
My report on the Southwold tasting is here (where I suggested that this "vin de garde" vintage is a modern day version of 1961)
We, and our children and grand-children, will look back on 2000-2010 as a golden period for the wines of Bordeaux and nothing produced since (so far) will rival the fantastic vintages of 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010. Four "vintages of the century" in eleven years is quite an achievement.
As a postscript to this blog, I asked the 15 members of the Southwold tasting group to rank these eleven vintages in order of quality. These were the scores :-