The Top Clarets of 2006

Even though I had heard from a number of chateau owners and other Bordeaux insiders that the 2008 vintage was a lot better than early reports had indicated, it was hard to work up much enthusiasm to play the Bordeaux game and taste six-month-old wines from a vintage unlikely to attract much futures interest. Given the rapidly deflating economy, I decided this spring that it made little sense to spend two weeks in Bordeaux tasting 2008s and 2006s. I figured I would wait to taste these wines later on, or when consumers began to see them on store shelves. So I opted to ask my colleague Ian D’Agata, a long-time Bordeaux lover and a veteran of dozens of past tasting tours of the region, to provide an abbreviated report on the most promising wines of the 2008 vintage, as well as on some additional items that could offer interesting value to consumers willing to tie up their cash two years in advance of the wines’ delivery.

But I didn’t exactly take a vacation from Bordeaux this spring: I tasted nearly four hundred 2006s in New York, where I was able to spend more time with these wines than I normally would have had in the course of a whirlwind chateau tour of Bordeaux. It was a treat, and an education, to be able to follow these wines as they unfolded in the glass and in the recorked bottle.

As it turned out, the Bordeaux chateau proprietors showed the good sense to cut en primeur prices on the 2008s, in some cases rather dramatically, though whether lower futures prices generate serious consumer interest remains to be seen. At the moment, many importers and wine merchants are hesitating to commit to 2008s because they are already sitting on so much overpriced wine from 2007, 2006 and even 2005 and do not have the cash to invest in another vintage that may not quickly sell through to the end user. Then, too, consumers have their own liquidity concerns. Today, the 2006 clarets are a major blockage seriously threatening the health of the wine distribution system. That’s a shame, as 2006 is a very good vintage that has yielded a lot of superb wines.

What I wrote about this vintage after first tasting barrel samples extensively in the spring of 2007 seems no less true today: “It’s a classic year in which many very good to excellent wines have been made, and even some I would describe as outstanding. The best wines, especially those based on cabernet sauvignon, are built to enjoy a long life. While I tasted nothing this spring that appeared to offer the mid-palate richness and length to rate higher than 95 points, a few wines were on the cusp. Much will depend on whether wines that received a gentle extraction put on weight during élevage without losing their vibrant character.” In fact, although I tasted plenty of disappointing 2006s from bottle, including many that lack fruit intensity or show a dry edge to their tannins, the better examples of the vintage have turned out quite well. Many wines this spring seemed surprisingly accessible, even if they have the structure for a graceful evolution in bottle. (For more detail on the 2006 growing season and harvest, please refer to Issue 132.)

The best 2006s have plenty of natural alcohol and tannic support; they show a lovely combination of fresh fruit and soil character thanks to sound natural acidity, and they convey energy and definition. The better Right Bank wines, many of which are downright sexy today, should be good mid-term agers, while the top wines of the Médoc could certainly enjoy at least 15 to 20 years of positive evolution in bottle.

As was the case with 2001 and 2000, there are numerous 2006s that are more pleasing in the early going than the corresponding 2005s. Many of these wines may well give greater pleasure over the next 15 years or so. And drinkers of a more classic bent may actually prefer numerous 2006s to the riper and often high-alcohol 2005s. But the 2005s are generally deeper, richer, more structured and ageworthy wines—a fabulous vintage for collectors with patience.

As production in 2006 was on the low side, and the top chateaux had practiced painstaking selection to eliminate rotten and underripe berries, there was little incentive in the spring of 2007 to price these wines reasonably. At the time, the chateaux were swimming in profits from the 2005 vintage, and in the end they kept prices extremely high as they bet that demand from investment trusts and pension funds in Europe and burgeoning wine interest in Russia and the Far East would be strong. This turned out to be a major miscalculation: 2006s remain unsold at virtually every level of the distribution chain and are exerting great pressure on many wine merchants.

I have limited my coverage to wines I rated 88 points or higher. (Many additional items were reviewed separately on the IWC website in early April in a special feature entitled “Affordable Bordeaux.”) Importers and retailers who have not yet paid for these wines have been slow to bring them in. It is only a matter of time until they slash prices to cut their losses and move the wines through the pipeline. The prices shown in this issue come from a dozen or so retail merchants around the country who do significant Bordeaux business and who actually have these wines in stock today. As you will see, prices for a given item can range widely: one merchant, MacArthur Beverages in Washington, D.C., has already cut prices significantly to reduce inventory, and others will surely follow suit—particularly as importers and distributors chop prices. So here’s my advice on 2006: consider buying the best because you’ll be getting excellent wines—but wait a bit until sharp price reductions bring these wines into sync with today’s economy.