1998, 1997 and 1996 Bordeaux

Last spring, the 1997 Bordeaux vintage opened at price levels far in excess of wine quality, and the silence from the claret-drinking world was deafening. Today, however, as the Asian economies stabilize, and as the European and American markets return from their year off from buying, there is considerably more interest in the '98s, which I tasted in depth in late March and early April. While prices are still very high, this is a vintage with greater potential than '97, especially on the right bank, where the wines are consistently good and sometimes outstanding.

The growing season. The most important features of the 1998 growing season were the reasonably even flowering, the extremely hot, dry August, and the September rains that made the harvesting of the cabernets an adventure. The '97/'98 winter was very wet and warmer than normal. Budding began in late March, and then finished rapidly in a warm spell toward the end of the month. Much of April was cold and rainy, and a crop that had begun a week ahead of the norm was now two weeks behind schedule. Then the last three weeks of May were warm and dry. The flowering began late in the month (it generally occurred quickly on the right bank) and finished under changeable conditions in early June. But there was little coulure, and the crop enjoyed a far more uniform start to the season than that of 1997, a year that featured extremely uneven ripening from start to finish.

June was warm and fairly dry, and the vineyard cycle had by now caught up to that of such recent years as '94, '95 and '96. July saw average temperatures and much less sunshine than usual, but lower-than-average precipitation. Then high pressure brought an extended heat wave lasting from August 5 virtually until the first of September. The most extreme heat occurred from August 7 through 11, when afternoon temperatures approached 100 degrees With little cloud cover, fruit not protected by foliage was exposed to sunburn. Under such conditions, grapes can literally be scorched on one side; normally they dry and shrivel, and must be eliminated when green harvesting is done, or even later, on the sorting table. This period of extreme heat brought down overall crop levels by 5% to 10%. In some vineyards, the heat hastened the veraison, while in other spots the vines showed signs of water stress. More important, the blast of August sun and heat resulted in smaller berries with thick skins and a concentration of tannins and anthocyanins. Even so, by the end of August grape sugars were still rather low and acidity levels high.

The harvest. The first half of September brought a series of rainy spells alternating with sunny weather. Virtually every Bordeaux insider I spoke with told me that this precipitation helped revive the vines. Thanks to the thick skins of the grapes and cool ambient temperatures, the fruit remained healthy and there were few signs of dilution. The period of September 16 through 26 then offered near-ideal conditions: hot, sunny days and cool nights. Then an inch or more of rain fell on the 27th, and the best of the harvest weather was over. The 28th, 29th and 30th offered decent picking conditions, but heavy rain (as much as two inches in some areas) fell again on October 1. October 2 through 9 were cool and damp, but with little precipitation. Substantial rainfall from the 10th through 12th effectively ended the red wine harvest. Still, until the very end there was little problem with rot due to the cool temperatures and tough grape skins.

Success everywhere depended on picking dates. The earlier-ripening merlot was clearly favored by harvest conditions this year; many properties on both sides of the Gironde describe their merlot crop of '98 as exceptional. The merlot harvest in the Graves generally occurred early under ideal conditions, and in Pomerol the merlot harvest began at most estates between the 21st and 23rd and finished in a week or less. In St. Emilion, though, the fruit was not yet completely ripe, and harvesting generally began a few days later. But little cabernet sauvignon or cabernet franc was harvested anywhere before the rainstorm of September 27. And after October 1, the fruit that remained-essentially cabernet sauvignon and franc--generally had to be picked quickly, whether or not the skins had achieved complete phenolic ripeness. Yet the diluting effect of the rains was not extreme--partly because much of the late September rain fell in two major storms, but also because much of the worst rain came late in the growing cycle, when less water from the soil is pumped into the grapes. But most proprietors in the Medoc admitted that the cabernet sauvignon was at least several days short of optimum maturity, and the quality of the cabernet franc varied widely. Although the merlots were rich in grape sugars, often reaching 13%, potential alcohol levels for cabernet sauvignon were generally in the low-to-average range.

The wines. Bordeaux overall crop level in '98 was average by recent standards, and lower in Pomerol and St. Emilion, which were more affected by the August heat (some properties on the Pomerol plateau also lost a portion of their production as a result of hail on July 1). Generally speaking, though, a higher percentage of the total crop will go into each estate's grand vin than in '97, so quantities of most wines will be reasonably good.

The 1998 vintage appears to be most consistently successful in Pomerol, where a sizable percentage of thoroughly ripe but not overripe merlot was harvested under close-to-ideal conditions. Many chateau proprietors believe that their '98s are even better than their excellent '95s. One of the most noteworthy results of my early tastings is the high number of Pomerol estates that have made lush, ripe, concentrated wines in '98. But it must be noted that there is a sameness to many of these wines, a certain lack of individuality. Some Pomerols from less-favored sites are a bit monolithic, even heavy; they seem to cry out for a bit more cabernet franc or sauvignon to give them verve and nuance. If these wines gain in structure and grip as they lose some of their baby fat during elevage, they may well merit scores at the top end of my projected ranges. But this is by no means clear today. St. Emilion generally picked cabernet franc after the September 27 rain, but here, too, there are numerous successes-and not just among the usual suspects.

Many tasters at the early Union des Grands Crus events appeared to be unimpressed with the level of quality found in St. Estephe, Pauillac and St. Julien-although I should point out that many of the most important properties do not participate in these tastings. In fact, too many Medoc wines do not appear to have the flesh and ripeness to support their tougher tannins. They come across as austere today, and it remains to be seen if they will harmonize during elevage. Many Medoc estates have included a higher-than-normal percentage of merlot in their blends, no doubt to give their wines more mid-palate sweetness to stand up to the austere cabernet tannins-and to make their young wines more palatable to a new generation of wine drinkers more likely to seek instant gratification and less likely to understand wines that are tough in their youth. True, it appears in the early going that 1998 clearly favored the right bank. But I found numerous high spots in the Medoc, with some of the finest terroirs having provided well-balanced raw materials. Due to their sizable tannic structures, though, even the successes of the vintage are likely to require extended bottle aging.

The Graves, which harvested earlier, has done very well. I generally taste, wherever possible, at the individual properties rather than attending the large group tastings held for journalists and the wine trade: tasting conditions are optimal without the crush, and I'm able to interview proprietors or winemakers at length. So I did not have the opportunity to sample many lesser wines from appellations like the Graves and Margaux. But the early word is that both areas showed more consistent quality than the northern Medoc. The dry white wines of Pessac-Leognan were harvested mostly during the first half of September, under decent conditions, and show firm acidities and lively aromatics. And 1998 appears to be the third consecutive well-above-average year for Sauternes and Barsac. (I will publish a report on Bordeaux's sweet wines, with detailed notes on the '97s and '96s, in the next issue. But I will hold off on offering notes on the '98s until next spring.)

Techniques for concentrating the juice. More than ever before, chateau managers and technical directors used a couple of high-tech devices to concentrate their grape juice following the '98 harvest. Reverse osmosis (osmose inverse), originally used to purify sea water, has been in increasing vogue in recent years: through this technique, the juice is propelled at high pressure through a membrane to leave as much of the solids as possible on one side and some of the water on the other. Vacuum evaporation (evaporation sous vide, widely referred to in Bordeaux as the Entropie method) is a more recent invention that requires a device several times as expensive as the one used to perform reverse osmosis. The wine is heated in a vacuum chamber, and at a relatively low temperature (between 20 and 30 degrees Centigrade) a portion of the water content is evaporated. Those who prefer this technique say that, unlike reverse osmosis, it does not require mechanical force to be exerted on the juice.

Both methods of concentrating the juice have the effect of increasing the potential alcohol of the wine by eliminating water. As these techniques are performed with only a portion of the harvest, the net effect on the typical wine is to increase its alcoholic degree by about one percent. (By law, a chateau is not allowed to reduce its crop by more than 15%.) In theory at least, estates that use one or the other of these techniques do not have the right to chaptalize.

Proponents of reverse osmosis and vacuum evaporation argue that 1998 was the ideal vintage for applying these techniques: the main challenge was to eliminate excess water, and due to the absence of rot there was little chance that unhealthy skins would taint the juice. But critics say that both these methods concentrate all the key components of the grape. If the wine is too tannic or otherwise out of whack to begin with, they argue, eliminating water will only exacerbate these imbalances. Most other extractive vinification methods posed the same potential pitfall in 1998.

Bordeaux pricing. The Bordeaux establishment, with a few notable exceptions, shot itself in the foot by wildly overpricing the '97 vintage. Even after it should have been apparent that many important client countries in Asia were cash-poor owing to economic crises, that the 1997 crop of wines was not exceptional, and that the world Bordeaux market was already beginning to rebel against excessively high prices (Bordeaux prices had gone up sharply for the '95s, then more steeply still for the '96s), 1997 en primeur prices opened at record levels. In essence, a pleasant, accessible vintage perfectly suited to early sale on restaurant wine lists was priced like a rare and ageworthy collectible. But even where chateaux managed to unload most of their '97 production onto negociants afraid to risk their longer-term buying relationships, very little wine has sold through to the ultimate consumer.

The Bordeaux establishment thus had a difficult decision to make on 1998 pricing, as it was clear that they needed to cut prices on a crop of wines that many proprietors believed was stronger than that of the previous year. Cos d'Estournel was an early pricing leader, opening its '98 in late March at a level 25% below that of the '97. Ultimately, most Medoc and Graves properties opened at 10% to 25% lower than the previous year, with the important Medoc first growths opening 14% lower. In many cases, good chunks of total production were offered at the opening price-in contrast to some recent years (like 1996), in which small slices changed hands at the opening price and then subsequent tranches came out sharply higher in response to strong worldwide demand.

Clearly, the Bordeaux establishment has taken a constructive step by cutting prices, but my own early feeling is that prices for most larger-production wines of the Medoc are not justified by the quality of the wines. Bordeaux's first growths, as good as most of them are in 1998, seem awfully expensive by historical standards for young claret.

The right bank is something of a different case. Here production levels are much lower (micro-cuvees of 200 to 1,000 cases are increasingly prevalent, and these wines are priced more on rarity than quality), and the 1998 vintage is more widely successful. In many cases it may well prove to be outstanding. Price reductions here have been more moderate, and some especially successful estates have actually taken modest increases. The most highly touted 1998 right-bank wines are likely to garner strong buying interest. I would not be at all surprised to see speculators drive prices of some of the top limited bottlings sharply higher.

1997 and 1996 revisited. Nineteen ninety-seven, as a vintage, has provided many extremely pleasant wines. Following a rollercoaster of a growing season, wildly inconsistent ripeness, and a protracted harvest, most chateaux declassified much of their weaker material (many proprietors used this financial sacrifice as partial justification for taking price hikes in '97). Some '97s are simply wimpy, and some are too obviously characterized by uneven ripening (with green and roasted flavors existing in uneasy juxtaposition). Numerous wines have lost a good deal of their freshness during their second year in barriques (many wines are being bottled earlier than usual due to the vintage's delicacy and tendency toward quick evolution).

But many '97s will offer substantial early pleasure. The best wines are ripe, gently structured and true to their sites. Had they been priced appropriately, they would have made perfect, painless introductions to Bordeaux for a new generation of wine drinkers around the world. In many instances, especially in the Medoc, I found myself scoring the '97s at or not far behind the levels of the young '98s. Even though the '98s are generally more serious wines that are likely to have longer life spans, some of the '97s simply offer more pleasing balance. But the '97s, with relatively few exceptions, are not wines for extended cellaring. Until and unless prices come down by 30% to 50%, the '97s will represent poor value.

In addition to my tastings of '98s and '97s from barrel during my tour of the Bordeaux region in late March and early April, I also attempted to taste as many bottled Medoc and Graves wines as possible from the 1996 vintage. This was a classic year for cabernet sauvignon, easily the best since 1990. The top wines from the northern Medoc are outstanding. These wines are now extremely expensive in the retail marketplace, but the best of them will be cellar treasures.

As always, I have provided ranges for unfinished wines: my notes and projected scores should be regarded as preliminary in nature for the '98s. As in recent years, I spent a disproportionate percentage of my time in St. Emilion and Pomerol, where exciting new estates and new bottlings have sprouted like cepes in recent years. The relatively small scale of production on the right bank also allows previously underperforming properties to improve wine quality literally overnight. Price ranges listed for '96s come from a handful of major retailers (in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and California) who are offering these wines; note that prices vary widely depending not just on normal mark-up formulas but on when, and how, retailers purchased these wines.