Sunday, April 30, 2006

Is 2005 the Perfect Vintage?

A friend recently sent me an email that contained Robert Parker's comments about the 2005 Bordeaux vintage that is being raved about the world over. All of this 'raving' increases the hype and the prices. However I do like his comment that it is premature to say that this vintage will rival some of the others. Here is the full text of his comments.

"There is a man going around taking names, and he decides who to free and who to blame, everybody won't be treated all the same, when the man comes around" ... Johnny Cash

This may be the shortest introduction I have ever written to a Bordeaux vintage report. Virtually everybody has already described the nearly ideal weather conditions, and the fact that Bordeaux has produced something very special in 2005. At present, comparisons with other vintages are cheap talk designed to inflate prices, especially comparisons of 2005 to 1949, 1959, 1982, and 1990.

One thing I am sure of after twenty-eight years of tasting Bordeaux wines every March is that 2005 can not be compared to any previous vintage in my experience. Why?

One can safely generalize that many 2005 red Bordeaux possess (1) the highest tannin levels ever measured, (2) the highest dry extracts and concentration ever measured, (3) the highest natural alcohol levels ever measured, and, an anomaly, (4) surprisingly fresh, lively acid levels and reasonably modest pH's. What does all this mean, and how did it happen?

The short answer is that the growing season was extraordinarily dry. It was also warm, but unlike most summers, scorching heat waves never occurred. Consequently, the vineyards, if slightly stressed from the drought-like conditions, were never brutalized by torrid heat. There was some rain in August. About an inch fell in Pomerol, St.-Emilion, and Graves on August 17th, and there was a light rainfall in the Médoc on August 25th. September was not quite as perfect as the pundits claimed, but it was close to ideal, and, by Bordeaux standards, very dry. Some showers arrived on September 8th, and heavier rain moved through the region on the 25th. Following that date there was a window of extraordinary weather that lasted until October 12th. Even after that date, the weather remained balmy and reasonably dry. All of this meant no one was in a hurry to harvest. The cool nights and warm days preserved unprecedented levels of acidity in the finest wines of the vintage, which are characterized by massive richness and structure.

During my March tasting trip, there were days when I had the same excitement/jubilation that I remember experiencing when I tasted the 1982s in March, 1983. On several days tasting the northern Médocs, I was less enthusiastic and wondered if 2005 was even the equal of 2003 or 2000? Of course, this vintage is completely different in style from 1982, perhaps less so on the right bank, where so many incredibly sumptuous, ripe, intense, heady wines were produced. In the Médoc, 1982's weakness was the appellation of Margaux, which, ironically, is one of the greatest strengths of 2005.

In fact, I have never tasted better Margauxs than the 2005s. Overall, 2005 is unquestionably a remarkable as well as consistent vintage. However, there are several sobering issues with some 2005s.

The incredibly high tannin levels, especially noticeable in the northern Médoc communes of St.-Julien, Pauillac, and St.-Estèphe, appear to be adequately balanced by massive concentration and fruit. That's a good sign. But I remain convinced that the northern Médocs will shut down after bottling, and will require many years of cellaring until everything comes back into focus and harmony. While these wines will possess 30-50 years of longevity, they will not have the early appeal possessed by the 1982s and 1990s.

Do not let anyone suggest that many of the renowned northern Médoc classified growths will be drinkable in the next decade, unless you are a masochist with an addiction for tannin. Moreover, I prefer numerous 2003 northern Médocs over their 2005 counterparts. And of course, let's not forget the brilliance of 2000 in the northern Médoc, or for that matter, 1996. Elsewhere, the sweetness of the tannins counterbalanced by the fruit's extraordinary opulence and richness will make the wines more accessible, and their evolution should follow a faster timetable than the northern Médocs. In short, for Margaux, Graves, Pomerol, and St.-Emilion, this is a singular vintage of compelling greatness. Moreover, most of these wines will also possess 25-30 years of longevity.

It is no easy task to give readers a point of reference for this vintage. To reiterate, I have never tasted so many extraordinarily rich, concentrated, massive wines so high in tannin and extract, yet with such precision, definition, and freshness. It is clearly a singular vintage that should evolve into one of the great vintages of Bordeaux. However, it seems premature and risky to conclude so soon that the finest wines of 2005 are superior to the best of 2003, especially the northern Médocs, or the best wines of 2000, 1998 (for Pomerol and St.-Emilion), 1990, or the most profound 1989s and 1982s. Only time will prove the true quality of 2005 but it is beginning life as an extraordinary as well as remarkably consistent vintage. If there is any year even remotely similar, it is 2000 because of the overall consistency, the high number of superb offerings, and the fact that there are so many good minor wines. My instincts suggest the greatest 2005s of Pomerol, St.-Emilion, Graves, and Margaux are marginally superior to 2000, yet I remain cautious about the northern Médocs, which should turn out beautifully, but require enormous patience and be very long lived.

Astonishingly, 2005 is also a terrific vintage for Bordeaux's dry whites. They are powerful, with good acidity as well as superb concentration and depth. Additionally, from my limited tastings of the Barsac/Sauternes, it appears those regions have enjoyed another extraordinary vintage. The wines I tasted were not far off the magical 2001s.

Given the unprecedented degree of hype surrounding 2005, everyone is concerned about prices. It is safe to assume that the first growths, super-seconds, and a few other limited production cuvées that are in great demand will be priced in the stratosphere, yet as Bordeaux history has demonstrated, those prices will appear inexpensive 10-20 years from now. However, there is so much good wine in 2005, even from less than prestigious châteaux that are not exactly the darlings of speculators, that there will be an ocean of very high quality wine available at reasonable prices. As long as readers/consumers do not chase the points or labels, they will have plenty of impeccably high quality wine to drink from this vintage. Readers should not forget that an acclaimed vintage such as 2005, especially one receiving the kind of attention we have seen, creates fabulous buying opportunities from other vintages that must be displaced by the wine trade to raise sufficient funds to pay for the 2005s. In fact, there has never been a better time to buy Bordeaux with the 2004s getting ready to be bottled, the 2003s, and plenty of 2002s and 2001s remaining in the marketplace. Despite the doom and gloom cynics who would like to see Bordeaux prices return to those of the late sixties, the world has changed, and Bordeaux remains the most cherished and respected wine in the world for longevity and elegance. This is not the worst of all times to buy Bordeaux, but quite the contrary ... it is the best of times to be purchasing Bordeaux and to be a wine lover.

I tasted the wines between March 16 - 26. With the exception of the first growths and a handful of others, most were tasted 2, 3, sometimes 4 separate times. I should point out that malolactics for some of the St.-Emilions were relatively late, and some of those wines were just at the end of their malolactic fermentations. Given how well they performed, that is a positive sign since I would expect the wines to flesh out even more after the completion of their malolactic fermentations. None of my tastings were done blind.

- Robert Parker Jr. 24th April, 2006


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