2007, 2006 and 2005 Bordeaux

I can assure you that your correspondent traveled to Bordeaux with his usual open mind to taste the 2007s in late March and early April. Yes, I had heard the reports about a thoroughly miserable summer that had many chateau owners in a state of depression at the end of August—and then a miraculous turn in the weather that enabled those who still had reasonably healthy fruit hanging to delay their harvest and pick with ripeness levels that they never could have hoped for just a few weeks earlier. What I found most intriguing were reports that the 2007 growing season featured an unusually long 130 to 140 days between the flowering and the harvest, considerably more than the typical 110 to 120 days. This longer hang time had to result in atypical intensity and complexity of flavor, didn’t it? Well, not really.

The 2007 growing season and harvest. A mostly mild winter and a rainy February and early March ensured an early budbreak, which in turn predicted a very early harvest. However, very cool weather in late March and the first week of April dragged out the budbreak, especially for the cabernet, setting the stage for very irregular ripening of the fruit.

With plenty of water in the soil, vine growth exploded when the weather turned warm at the end of the first week of April. Temperatures quickly mounted and the month ultimately brought almost summer-like conditions, with record temperatures and little rainfall. It turned out to be the best month of weather for Bordeaux until September. May then turned cooler and more moist, and the flowering began in the middle of the month, or about two weeks ahead of normal. A stormy period during the last week of the month slowed down this process, and then up-and-down weather in early June dragged it out still further, triggering coulure in later-ripening vines and exacerbating the irregular ripeness of the fruit. By this point, it was clear that the crop would be of an average size at best.

The combination of a wet late winter followed by a hot April followed by an irregular and humid May triggered a massive outbreak of mildew (not to mention oidium and snails, which were considerably easier to deal with). Worse still, the mildew began in the clusters, where it was difficult to identify at the outset, and then spread to the leaves. Many estates would spend the next four months constantly battling this malady. Once established, mildew could be impossible to eliminate, and châteaux that did not spray repeatedly at exactly the required times often lost sizable portions of their crop.

From the second half of June through the end of August, the summer was a sad affair: cool and dreary, with little sunshine and on-and-off rain throughout, even if precipitation totals for those months were only average to moderately above average by recent standards. The veraison began early, in mid-July, but, like the flowering, was dragged out over a much longer-than-usual time span, extending well into August. Many estates, including those that had previously thinned their crops and eliminated bunches that had been dried up by mildew, now carried out a green harvest to remove the bunches that were last to go through veraison, in the hopes of reducing the range of fruit ripeness at harvest-time. As a rule, those estates that did not continue to reduce crop levels through the summer were unable to get their fruit ripe enough by the end.

By mid-August, the gloomy conditions had resulted in the beginnings of rot, and heavier rainfall between the 20th and 29th only made matters worse. While rainfall amounts differed by appellation, most areas received at least three inches of rain during this period, normally in the form of a couple of major storms. Grapes swelled and split, and rot took hold. At this point, most growers were on the verge of writing off this difficult year. But then the weather cleared on August 30, and, miraculously, September and early October turned mostly sunny and dry (by some accounts, September had the lowest total rainfall since 1985). With a dry northeast breeze dominating, rot problems disappeared, damaged grape skins became less of an issue, and many châteaux were able to let their fruit hang for better ripeness. In the end, the luckiest among them were able to pick at leisure, while others had no choice but to bring in their fruit before it was really ready. Small estates on the Right Bank were able to pick with great precision, while some larger châteaux in the Médoc reported the longest harvests in their history. And precision was necessary to making good wines, as fruit harvested too early lacked phenolic ripeness, while merlot picked too late lacked verve and personality.

The 2007 vinifications and wines. In the end, grape sugars were average to higher-than-average, and thus few estates chaptalized. (More than a few winemakers told me that chaptalization was not an option, because it is neither necessary nor legal when grape sugars are above 13%.) But many used saignée, or bleeding of the must, to eliminate excess water in the grapes, or more high-tech methods for concentrating their musts, such as reverse osmosis and the Entropie method (vacuum evaporation). The talented and increasingly popular consulting winemaker Stéphane Derenoncourt summarized the vinification challenge in 2007: “It was a year that required some saignée, and by doing a soft vinification it was possible to make sexy wines. The problem is that today too many people here want powerful wines. But it’s impossible to vinify to make powerful wines if there’s nothing behind them.”

As a rule, the 2007s have deep, healthy colors; reasonably clean fruit; supple textures; average to below-average acidity and highish pHs; and reasonably ripe tannins. At the level of the better properties, there’s little or no obvious vegetal character to the wines, although many Médoc wines certainly show the fresh herb, tobacco leaf and cedar qualities I associate with moderately ripe wines from this region. The better young 2007s are tasty and attractive, if not particularly complex or deep. On the minus side, there are too many undernourished 2007s—wines with a distinct dip in the middle and little in the way of structure or persistence. Many of these lesser wines do come across as green, including some from estates that can usually be relied on to produce good wine. Only the exceptional 2007s have much in the way of natural stuffing or force. Wines that have been overly concentrated, or that simply lack mid-palate material, can come off as dry on the back, even where measurable tannin levels are not high. Very few 2007s will require more than four or five years of bottle aging, and a high percentage of them should be drinkable virtually upon release. However, the more successful examples should certainly give pleasure over the next 8 to 12 years, with the most serious wines capable of 15 to 20 years of life in bottle.

No one can offer a definitive explanation for why the season’s extended “hang time” did not produce more intense and complex wines, but a few of the comments I heard seem quite plausible. “The synthesis of phenolic compounds starts just after the flowering, but we had very little sun then,” said Thomas Duroux, manager of Château Palmer. “We could eventually get the tannins and the aromas ripe in September, and the green elements burned off as the fruit got ripe, but we couldn’t really get structure. Still, the reasonably well balanced ‘07s will improve, and gain in complexity, with age.” Frédéric Engerer, estate manager of Latour, noted that the key synthesis of flavor occurs in July, but in 2007 July was mostly sullen and overcast, with little sun. “So we never got real development of flavor,” said Engerer. “And we can never completely recoup this shortage of sun in September.” Agreed Christian Moueix: “The wines lack the spark of the sun.”

Paul Pontallier, director of Château Margaux, told me that “the important things really start in August, but we never got the two or three weeks of good weather that we need during that period.” And numerous insiders mentioned that with constant precipitation virtually through the final days of August, the energy of the vines continually went into growing the foliage rather than ripening the grapes. Three to five weeks of clement weather at the end, they agreed, was not enough to gain back what had been lost during the miserable summer. In sum, the unusual length of the growing season may have been necessary simply to get enough ripeness to make decent wine, but it was rarely sufficient to produce real complexity, depth and structure. Said Jean-Luc Thunevin: “2007 has a degenerative maturity: too many wines lack brilliance.” Two thousand four, he adds, was the opposite: “It had flavor but lacked maturity.”

One adjective that was conspicuous by its absence in the overwhelming majority of my 2007 notes was “minerally.” This spring I found far less minerality in the 2007s than I did in the 2006s last year, and my experience has been that if minerality is not apparent early on it’s unlikely ever to be an important element of a wine. One possible explanation: with constant moisture available to the vines, the roots were not forced to go as deep in search of water in 2007, and thus were less likely to tap into the mineral reserves of the soil. Of course, older vines with deeper root systems should have been far better positioned to deliver real soil character.

As to high spots in 2007, it’s difficult to generalize. I tasted some very good Pomerols made from merlot harvested on the early side, as well as numerous successful cabernet franc-based wines from later-ripening “colder” soils in St. Emilion and its satellite appellations. But there are also plenty of dull, chunky, overextracted wines from St. Emilion and environs. I have left most of these out of my coverage, and I have similarly omitted mention of many wines from the Médoc that are unlikely to rate scores of 86 points or higher by the time they are bottled.

The three Pauillac first growths have performed very well, with Mouton an early candidate for wine of the vintage. There’s plenty of very good cabernet sauvignon in the Médoc but also quite a bit of mediocre merlot. Incidentally, a couple of chateau proprietors told me that the reason their cabernets were so much more successful than their merlots was simply that the former variety enjoyed an extra two weeks of sunshine prior to being harvested. Moreover, merlot has a much shorter window of prime ripeness before the grapes begin to lose their groove and go flat, and some insiders expressed the opinion that certain châteaux waited too long to pick this variety. There’s a plausible financial explanation for this. Once these châteaux get their large picking crews into full gear, they prefer to keep them going constantly rather than stopping and starting, as that would raise the risk that some pickers would leave in search of work elsewhere. Because the cabernet harvest was slated to begin so late, some châteaux clearly waited up to an extra week to begin their merlot, so that they could pass directly to the cabernet.

The white wines of Pessac-Léognan excelled in 2007. The best of them offer an exhilarating combination of density and sappy verve. These wines normally come from well-drained soils, and the sémillon and sauvignon blanc were generally picked fully ripe during near-ideal September weather. They suffered less from lack of sunshine than the reds did, although it remains to be seen whether they go into bottle with as much richness as the 2006s have. And Sauternes also looks to have had a splendid year thanks to widespread noble rot in October; I will offer coverage of these wines in the next issue.

Another word on 2006 and 2005. During my week on the Right Bank, I was repeatedly knocked out by the quality of the bottled 2005s, which in most cases towered above the 2006s and 2007s made here. But when I crossed over to the Médoc, especially in St. Julien and points north, I was also impressed by the clarity and classic cabernet sauvignon character and structure of a number of 2006s, even if they are less fleshy and sweet than the 2005s. I’d advise purchasing a number of these 2006s for your cellar (and they will need time!) were it not for today’s very high prices for top classified growths from this vintage.

With their impressive richness and glossy textures, many 2005s from the Médoc strike me as merlot-like in mouth feel, even where the merlot component is no larger than usual. Some Left Bank wines in 2005 even come across as a bit exotic in the early going, but this is in many cases deceptive, as powerful structure and substantial ripe tannins lie beneath the baby fat. The best of these wines are truly great, and even if some will always wear their vintage like a badge, this is a fabulous year for claret. The 2005s are more consistently outstanding than the 2000s, and more classic than the 2003s. There are plenty of superb wines from the 2000 vintage, and a relatively small group of monumental Médocs from 2003. But 2005 is clearly superior to either of these previous years, and the best wines have it all. As with the same year for red Burgundies, 2005 has provided the best young set of Bordeaux wines I’ve ever tasted.

The better 2005 classified growths of the northern Médoc will enjoy life spans of two to four decades, and it’s quite likely that many of these wines will shut down in bottle for a long time. The top wines of St. Emilion and Pomerol will also enjoy a long and glorious evolution in bottle.

Bordeaux pricing. Don’t expect me to defend the price-fixing (er, -setting) policies of the Bordeaux establishment. Some of these dudes and dudesses, and their multinational enablers, must be smoking whack at their Paris apartments and Arcachon beach houses if they think they can sell their 2007s at or close to the prices of their 2006s—as appeared to be the case as this issue went to press. With Bordeaux’s two most important en primeur markets, the U.S. and U.K., both suffering with currencies that are sharply lower against the Euro than they were a year ago and unlikely to show much, if any, interest in futures purchases, it’s hard to imagine that the châteaux and the négociants won’t have to finance this vintage for the next couple of years. While many châteaux may be flush with their windfall profits from vintage 2005 and are holding low inventories of wine, the négociants they work with may be far less willing to tie up their limited cash in the new crop of wines. (By all reports, some of these négociants are still holding a good bit of unsold 2006.) It’s possible that buyers in Russia and the Far East will pick up some of the slack, but this may be wishful thinking on the part of the châteaux. In any event, these markets do not generally have a history of paying for their wine in advance of delivery.

In an ideal world, prices for the 2007s—a vintage that is extremely unlikely ever to be considered “collectible”—would have been slashed dramatically, and a new generation of wine drinkers could have had the chance to get a taste of Bordeaux. Some smart and independent proprietors may yet take this approach. But many will make the same mistake they made when they attempted to sell the so-so 1997s at nearly the same prices as the far better ‘96s. Meanwhile, for long-time Bordeaux drinkers, there appears to be no reason to tie up cash in this vintage now.