Expensive but Exceptional

Expensive but Exceptional

Newly available in wine shops, Bordeaux 2005 is considered by critics to be among the very best vintages ever. Prices for the top wines are sky high, but the critics have hit the bull’s-eye-at least if long tasting lines I encountered both in New York and in Düsseldorf, Germany, this year are any indication.

An association of some 150 high-end Bordeaux wines, the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux traverses the globe each year to present its latest vintage. “We have never seen such a high demand for these tastings,” said UGCB representative Nicolas Mestre about the 2005 from-the-bottle tastings.

Why this vintage? Perfect weather during the harvest season allowed vintners time to pick only optimal grapes. Fresh nights reduced the effect of dry stress-which marred a hyped-up vintage like 2003, for example-and balanced the naturally high alcohol content from the long ripening season. As a result, the wines convey both flavor concentration and freshness. Also rare in 2005: Almost all wine types did well. As the reader may know, Bordeaux wines primarily blend Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, although some regions favor Merlot and others favor Cabernet Sauvignon, and various vineyards also add Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and/or Malbec grapes to their mix. Often, a given vintage will work better for the Merlot-driven wines (1998) or for those led by Cabernet Sauvignon (2002), but all the 2005 Bordeaux vintages shine-including the sweet white wines of Sauternes.

Located in southwestern France, Bordeaux’s territory comprises some 100,000 hectares (about 247,000 acres) of vines yielding 80 to 130 million gallons of wine a year, divided into 57 appellations d’origine controllée (AOCs). Some great ones-like Pauillac or St-Emilion, made from very specific plots of vines-can cost anywhere from $15 to $1,000 per bottle. More common wines-like $6 to $8 bottles of Bordeaux AOC or Bordeaux Supérieur-can be made from grapes grown anywhere within that vast region. (Bordeaux produces as much wine as all of Germany, for example.)

Few low-end Bordeaux wines are associated with castles, but if you read mis en bouteille au château on the label, the wine was made from a specific plot of land (estate grown), even though the “château” could be a shack. Most of my tastings cover only the top 5 percent of Bordeaux from the best AOCs, and include all UGCB member châteaux.

Because Bordeaux’s climate can be difficult, vintages matter enormously. We are not talking about the central plains in Chile, where the weather is almost always good enough, year in and year out, to avoid disease in the vineyard and yield very ripe if not necessarily very complex fruit. Ultra-ripe fruit is the cliché of New World wine-a cliché because microclimates in New World regions can and do result in wines of both high quality and good aging potential. But when the weather cooperates, as it did so well in 2005, nowhere else in the world do Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot reach such heights as in Bordeaux. The result: wines with richness but also structure, backbone and freshness.

For insight on the 2005 vintage, I interviewed many a vintner-some of whom had absolutely no incentive to hype the vintage-and all said they had never seen such a fine year. Take for example Yves Bertrand in the Graves region (not the famous Pessac-Léognan appellation in the northern Graves, home to such great wines as Haut Brion and Pape Clément, but to the south). Bertrand was on his way to his native Canada to retire from the wine business, after working for more than 25 years at Château de Gaillat, near Langon. Sales of the 2005 were of no concern to him, since he was no longer with the château. “I do not think I have ever seen such fine weather for Bordeaux,” he said. The same goes for famous winemakers like recently retired Jean-Claude Berrouet, who since 1964 has been making Pétrus, the most expensive Bordeaux in the Merlot-dominated appellation of Pomerol. “A truly extraordinary vintage,” he said of his wine, which sells briskly every year regardless of vintage quality.

But the devil is in the details. Some winemakers also noted a controversial side to 2005: widely varied dates of harvest, resulting in what some deem “overly concentrated” wines.

“Because the skins were very thick,” said Berrouet, “some thought that in waiting for the harvest there would be an improvement of the skins, but by waiting, they reached alcohol levels that are too high.”

Not so, says Gérard Perse of another famous property, Château Pavie, in nearby St-Emilion. After consultation with world-famous winemaker Michel Rolland, Perse did not finish picking until October 7-a good three weeks after Pétrus-and claims that the crop reached peak maturity, with alcohol levels at about 14.2 percent, for his Merlot.

At Pétrus, the Merlot grapes contained less alcohol, about 13.5 percent. “Some people say that Pétrus started too early, but we seek fruit and freshness,” Berrouet explained. “The taste of prunes does not interest us.”

In the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Médoc, Anthony Barton of Château Léoville Barton bluntly explained the significance of picking dates in 2005: “The fashion has been to harvest late, but some people went absolutely berserk this year.”

Many of the wines caught in the controversy fetch prices of at least $60 per bottle, sometimes reaching $1,000. The current euro/dollar exchange rate is not helping matters, so many U.S. readers will not consider buying the wines in any case.

But 2005 Bordeaux is too good to pass up. My advice for budget-conscious consumers comes from the French wine adage “Grande année, petit vin; petite année, grand vin.” In other words, seek out lesser-known wines in 2005 with high quality-to-price ratios, because it was nearly impossible to make bad wine in that vintage. Some off-the-cuff recommendations in the $15 to $35 range include these châteaux: Falfas, Reignac, Poujeaux, Gigault Cuvée Viva, Siran, Beaumont, Cantemerle, Lanessan, Dauzac, Corbin, Corbin Michotte, St-Georges, Villa Bel-Air, Carbonnieux, Rahoul and Chantegrive.

If money is less of an object-and if you want to really treat yourself to fabulous wines that also merit at least 10 years in your cellar-my top recommendations include the obvious and ridiculously expensive Pétrus, Latour, Margaux and Mouton, but you can also find relatively good quality-to-price ratios in the (slightly) less expensive category: Branaire Ducru, Léoville Barton and Langoa Barton, Pichon Longueville Baron, Grand Puy Lacoste, Brane Cantenac, Rauzan-Segla, Palmer, Haut Bailly, Malartic Lagravière, La Conseillante, La Fleur Pétrus, Latour à Pomerol, Gazin, Canon, Figeac, Troplong Mondot, Belair, Angélus and Trotte Vieille. Top Sauternes, aside from the obvious Yquem, include Raymond Lafon, Suduiraut, Climens and Coutet.

Panos Kakaviatos writes for wine publications such as Wines & Vines and Decanter. Visit his website.

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