2001, 2000 and 1999 Bordeaux

Tasting wines built to last several decades a scant six months after they were grapes is a difficult task even for professionals. To get an idea of the challenge facing the early taster, think of the blind men trying to describe the elephant, and then imagine the elephant in motion. This year's Union des Grands Crus tastings, during which the new 2001 vintage was presented to the press and trade at the end of March, was influenced by a number of variables. First was the brilliant weather, the best conditions for this event in recent memory. Low humidity, very cool mornings and comfortably sunny afternoons were the rule, and as a result the young 2001s displayed lovely aromatic purity and verve. (According to those who had begun tasting earlier, the wines had not shown as well the previous week, when conditions were less favorable.)
In my experience, however, high pressure often favors aromatic precision and perfume while suppressing mid-palate texture, and possibly for this reason I overheard numerous tasters at the Union des Grands Crus events complaining that many wines were austere and tannic. (It should be remembered that Bordeaux tasters under the age of 40 are generally allergic to firm tannins under any circumstances, and are often suspicious of wines they don't feel will be immediately pleasant to drink.)

At the same time, however, the 2001s were even less evolved than they typically are at this time of year. The 2001 harvest was late to begin with, and many estates also reported that the malolactic fermentations went slower than usual. As a result, numerous wines had only recently been assembled, and many were still disjointed in late March.

All this is to say that the Bordeaux chateau proprietors present their new offerings before these wines are ready for prime time, and that the 2001s were even trickier to taste than usual. Because I went to Bordeaux to retaste the 2000s and, where possible, the finished 1999s, in addition to sampling the young 2001s, I tried to taste the most important wines at each chateau (as well as in a few group tastings on the right bank). I then used the "official" Union des Grands Crus tastings to fill in some gaps as well as to taste certain 2001s a second time.

The 2001 growing season. An extraordinarily wet late fall and winter set the stage for a growing season in which vines would have easy access to water, even during summer dry spells. The 2001 flowering took place in early June, a few days later than in the previous two vintages, but under good conditions. The summer began well, with very warm conditions in late June and early July; many chateaux performed an early crop-thinning as well as a de-leafing (effeuillage) on the east-facing (or morning-sun) side of the vines to aerate their grapes and get more sun on the fruit. (The chateaux generally hold off pulling leaves on the hotter afternoon side of the vines until late August, for fear that scorching high-summer sun might literally burn unprotected grapes.)

The middle third of July was miserably cold and rainy and the grapes began to swell. Nothing positive occurred in the vines during that period, and the estates began to push anticipated harvest dates back. Then the last week of July witnessed a blast of heat that helped thicken the grape skins. August was mostly dry but temperatures vacillated wildly; these temperature swings went a long way toward determining the style of the vintage. For starters, the grapes did not concentrate and shrink as they had during the consistently hot and dry August of 2000. The veraison was also protracted, causing greater irregularity of ripeness between and even within bunches; the top estates responded by carrying out a second green harvest (vendange en vert), removing the less-ripe bunches. The temperature see-saw of August also resulted in a more gradual ripening process, a pattern that continued during the cool weather of September. Not surprisingly, most estates continued to push back their projected harvest dates.

Perhaps the most important difference between 2000 and 2001 was that 2000 benefitted from a nearly unbroken two months of hot, dry weather from early August to late September. This toughened the skins, reduced the size of the grapes, and resulted in very ripe, opulent, dense wines. In 2001, September was unusually cool but also mostly dry, with a slow build-up of sugars occurring more from photosynthesis (the days were mostly sunny) than from outright heat.

Although precipitation in September was well below average, the most significant period of rain came at an awkward time. Just as some Medoc estates (and many on the right bank) were preparing to harvest their merlot, the region received rain on the evening of September 22nd and morning of the 23rd. Precipitation amounts varied from 15 millimeters in Pauillac to 45 in Pomerol and about 50 in parts of the Graves. Estates that had planned to start harvesting on the 24th often delayed picking by a day or two, but in the end the rain was less dire than forecasted and the soil dried quickly. As the harvest got underway in earnest, there was a less meaningful period of rain on September 28 and 29, with Pauillac receiving as much as 20 millimeters of water, while Graves got just 7 and Pomerol 2.

Temperatures finally heated up on September 30 and the first couple days of October, but there was then significant rain across the region on October 3, just as the cabernet harvest was getting into full swing, with most wine-growing areas getting 15 to 25 millimeters of precipitation. The following two weeks offered most dry and warm conditions for those who were in a position to take advantage of them. But fruit in many vineyards was showing signs of incipient rot by the second week of October and had to be picked quickly; in other spots, and especially if grape skins were fragile, the fruit began to deteriorate in less obvious ways. A number of estates harvested very late, sometimes into the third week of October, but late picking was not always beneficial, as the grapes began to dehydrate or lose acidity and freshness.

The 2001 wines. When I arrived in Bordeaux at the end of March, the accepted wisdom was that the merlot had generally outperformed the cabernet sauvignon, and that the right bank was thus likely to be more successful than the Medoc. That is not what I found. If 2000 was a vintage characterized by consistent ripeness and density of raw material across virtually all red wine appellations, 2001 produced a wide range of quality nearly everywhere, depending on such variables as steps taken to limit yields, harvesting strategies, selection in the vines and in the winery, and approaches to vinification -
especially the temperature and length of fermentation and the amount of extraction carried out. The crop size was generally average to above-average by current standards, and a bit lower than that of 2000, with a few chateaux reporting production down as much as 25%. The best-placed cabernets in the Medoc were structured, perfumed and fine, and sufficiently ripe and dense, while lesser cabernet was frequently lean and even green, requiring merlot to mask its mid-palate skinniness. Similarly, the best merlot was ripe and full, but merlot vines in less-favored sites produced juice that lacks structure, definition and thrust. More than one proprietor on the right bank described his cabernet franc as especially strong; others were less happy with this grape. (Some of the richest 2001s are from fruit harvested very late, but late picking also yielded wines with roasted, port-like aromas and a tendency toward heaviness.)

There are high points in every appellation in 2001; the most successful '01s, those with the middle-palate flesh to support their tannic spine, often appear to be finer, more sharply delineated and more classic than the corresponding 2000s, if not as opulent or obvious. While only a small minority of properties made 2001s that will surpass their 2000s, in a number of cases the new wines are not far behind those of the millennium vintage. But the vintage as a whole tends to be leaner than 2000, with sound acidity and firm, sometimes austere tannins. As always, balance is everything: the best examples have the mid-palate density to wear their tannins gracefully, while those that are a bit lean can come across as somewhat dry. These latter wines will most likely be for short-to-medium-term consumption. More than one chateau owner in the Medoc described the 2001s as resembling the 1998s, but in a more "modern" style (i.e., featuring more merlot and perhaps coming from fruit picked a bit later and riper). Some also compared the '01s to the often delicious '99s in quality; in fact, the less successful 2001s are less pliant and satisfying than the '99s, while the better examples have more obvious acid and tannin structure and greater potential longevity.

The 2000 vintage, in the words of Frederic Engerer, manager of Chateau Latour, was very forgiving of overextraction due to the density and strength of the raw materials. But 2001 was a vintage that most winemakers felt needed to be vinified for its fruit, not its tannic structure. With a few notable exceptions, maceration times tended to be shorter than those of the previous year for fear of getting hard tannins, and pump-overs of the must (remontages) and punch-downs of the cap (pigeages) tended to be less frequent and gentler. Still, some wines, especially from right-bank chateaux looking to make a strong impression on early tasters, seem overextracted, finishing with a faint bitter edge or a taste of marc that may have come from too much contact with the skins.

A word on the 2001 white wines. The dry whites were generally picked under very good conditions beginning as early as September 10. The sauvignon blanc is often freakishly rich and powerful, with a combination of strong fruit and firm balancing acidity that has given the best wines lovely aromatic lift and an unusually succulent quality. 2001 appears to have been a great vintage for Sauternes and Barsac, almost certainly the best for the region's sweet wines since the 1988-1990 trio. Much of the fruit came in during the warm, dry weather between October 4 and 16. (The rain at the beginning of the month had facilitated an onrush of pure botrytis on grapes already rich in sugar.) Although the March after the vintage is far too early to assess Bordeaux's sweet wines, the high quality and great richness of this vintage was already apparent on my recent visit. The typical Sauternes featured an ideal combination of moderate alcohol, high residual sugar and stronger-than-average acidity. Among the wines I tasted, my early favorites included Coutet, Doisy-Vedrines, Rabaud-Promis, Sigalas Rabaud, Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Rieussec, Suduiraut and Nairac, and I also liked Rayne-Vigneau and Doisy-Daene (L'Extravagant de Doisy-Daene, a five-barrel special lot with 280 grams per liter residual sugar, was practically off the charts!). I was not able to taste Climens. I will include notes on the very good 1999 Sauternes and Barsacs from bottle in Issue 103.

A second look at 2000. It is clear that the millennial vintage produced the most consistently high quality of red wine since 1990. The wines tend to be dense and full, with substantial palate impact and tannic clout; the best are likely to develop for 30 to 40 years or more. But many wines are turning increasingly exotic on the nose, with somewhat roasted aromas of crystallized fruits, fruit syrup or torrefaction. Lesser examples, including a number of right-bank items that have been highly praised by other critics, seem to me to be rather chunky and monolithic, if not overextracted and overly tannic.

Wines from this vintage will almost certainly hold their value due to the magic of "2000" on the label, but many wines strike me as grossly expensive for their quality. When a vintage is born with a silver spoon in its mouth, prices climb across the board, with the result that lesser wines become as expensive in the context of their chateaux as the best ones. Vintage 1982, to cite the most obvious analogy, produced 10 or 12 monumental wines and another 15 or 20 that are outstanding; but for clarets that are not quite so exalted, discerning collectors can buy better vintages at far lower prices. On this subject, in the next issue I will offer the results of an extraordinary tasting of 1982 Bordeaux in late April organized by the Los Angeles-based collector Bipin Desai. In addition to providing attendees with the opportunity to taste virtually every important '82, Desai also organized a trio of blind tastings in which 25 of the vintage's top wines were compared to two or three other stellar vintages made by the same chateaux since 1959. Although I was more than satisfied by the quality of the best '82s as a group, I only picked the '82 as the best vintage in 4 out of 25 chateau-by-chateau flights. The wine writers at this event favored 7 '82s while the rest of the participants, including wine trade and civilians, voted for the '82 6 times out of 25. More later.

Bordeaux pricing. Indications are that most 2001 Bordeaux will open at prices somewhat lower than those of 2000 but higher than those of 1999. It is also likely that first tranches will represent high percentages of the estates' production. In 2000, in contrast, chateau proprietors frequently offered tiny slices of their production at the outset, then offered more at sharply higher prices. The result was that many retailers did not bother to offer the wines until they had a decent quantity to sell, and by then they had to average their purchase prices and come out at very high levels. But while it is possible that opening prices for many 2001s will be meaningfully lower than those asked for the 2000s a year ago, the wines will still be very expensive. Bordeaux's chateau owners face the daunting challenge of convincing wine consumers around the world that 2001 is a vintage that they need to purchase en primeur. Short of cutting prices dramatically, it is hard to imagine that they will succeed. Most consumers will probably be better served by simply waiting for the wines to reach retailers' shelves.

In my Bordeaux coverage in this issue, price ranges listed for '99s come from a half-dozen major retailers across the country who are offering these wines. Ranges shown for en primeur purchases of 2000s are courtesy of the extensive data base of Bacchus Resource Management, which offers appraisal services covering a wide range of the world's most collectible wines (for more information, go to www.wineappraise.com).