Each April, wine merchants, journalists and sundry other wine professionals descend on Bordeaux for a presentation of wines harvested from the previous year. Although the wine is young and has been specially bottled, it is assessed for its future potential as the system in Bordeaux is to sell and market their wine in the early summer even though delivery to customers may not be for a year or more. Thus, this year, it was the turn of Bordeaux 2007. Understanding a vintage such as 2007 is the key to understanding Bordeaux and the wines it makes today.
Bordeaux is not only one of the largest wine producing regions in the world, covering an area of just over 121,000 hectares, it is arguably the largest producer of high quality wines. Within Bordeaux itself there are a number of Appellations (57 in total) forming part of many famous regions: the Médoc where many of the most famous names are located: Château Mouton Rothschild (Pauillac), Château Lafite Rothschild (Pauillac), Château Latour (Pauillac), Château Margaux (Margaux), the Graves and Pessac-Léognan (for both its red and white wines) where Château Haut-Brion comes from, and Saint Emilion, and Sauternes (for their sweet wines).
The impact of modern technology and improved vineyard management has had a decisive effect on the quality of the production of the wine in Bordeaux over the last thirty years. Nowadays, winemakers have an arsenal of corrective measures they can take in their cellars to try and improve the overall quality of the harvest: stainless steel temperature-controlled vats; if the grapes are diluted they can bleed off some of the wine (saignée) or concentrate through reverse osmosis; a lack of structure may be compensated with appropriate oaking; unripe tannins mellowed by use of micro-bullage, a lack of concentration adjusted by a pre-fermentation cold soak or through adding press wine and so forth. Research and development has not stood still for vinification any more than it has for, say, car production. Winemakers are now more apt to believe in technological advances, and research, to improve the quality of the wine they produce and, more importantly, make wines which take account of changing patterns in consumer taste. A taste which has been defined largely by consumers in the United States and who are the main driver behind price-setting in Bordeaux, and although Britain remains a big market for the Bordelais, to some extent this is due to the overseas trading run out of the UK. The growth in US wine consumption and production in the 1970s motivated a growing and inquisitive wine-drinking population into trying wines they may have known only by reputation which resulted in a wine consumption boom in the 1980s. This new culture of wine enjoyment concentrated their focus on Bordeaux.
Unfortunately, there was also an unfortunate clamour for Châteaux to age their wines in new oak barrels, irrespective of whether the wine could support this, a trend which has only started to reverse in the last few years. This ‘technique’ which harmed so many wines during this period, was promoted by evangelical US wine critics, and it is a relief to find that recent vintages provide the first real signs of a move away from this unfortunate path. Over-oaking stems from the process of ‘élevage’ (raising the wine and maturing it in oak casks) which is a feature of winemaking difficult to master.
It is true that whilst the technological and sanitary aspects to winemaking have evolved considerably over the last few decades — imagine, even, the simple utility of spreadsheet software (first invented in 1978) as essential to vinification as the temperature-controlled stainless steel vat — so does the pressure to utilise interventionist techniques which attempt to correct errors and faults in the vineyard if not the vagaries produced by the weather and terroir. However, notwithstanding the general principle that wine quality has improved overall it is still not possible to draw the conclusion that a particular wine will now be better in the best years than in previous great vintages in the early part of the 19th century. Nor do post-harvest remedies exist which can replace attentive viticulture.
It was the work of some far-sighted oenologists in the 1950s and 1960s who started the process of examining the work done in the vineyard which laid the foundation for this evolution (if not revolution) in wine quality. This assessment in controlling the viticulture to obtain a riper more mature raw material contributed the most significant improvements. However, the definition of what this ripeness may be is elusive. Whilst scientific (chemical) methods have been established for assessing grape ripeness it is largely a subjective term — ‘the definition of optimum ripeness will vary as it depends upon the style of wine being made; the working definition of quality; variety; rootstock; site; interaction of variety, rootstock and site; seasonal specific factors; viticultural practices; and downstream processing events and goals.’ Not as clear cut as one might imagine.
Physiological ripening is an alternative to chemical assessment but is even more prone to different interpretations. It relies much more upon an individual’s assessment, therefore subjective, of the ripening indicators such as skin colour, pip maturity, taste and visual observation.
The rather esoteric determining factor to produce a good vintage comes down to one basic event — that the vine is put under sufficient water stress at the beginning of the summer to enable proper berry evolution. Vineyard techniques can promote what nature may withhold in a particular year. But there are also problems where there is differing maturation in the vineyard — not just the each vine but the bunches and even grapes on each vine. All the elements which make up the care in the vineyard produce changes in the plant which must be adapted to each vintage: trellising, leaf pulling, defoliating, green harvesting (dropping grape bunches), controlling the vigour of plants, yield management and toilletage (taking off the unripe grapes) are just some of the work done to produce a good wine — in good or bad years.
Yields are not necessarily an indication of the quality in the wine. There have been years when the yields have been very high and the wine excellent, years when they have been low and not very good. They will impact more on the profits of the business than consumer pleasure. Although, the significance of yield is more complicated than this. The quality of a vineyard’s output will depend on the final blend: the inclusion of perhaps different varietals in different proportions, grapes from different parcels contributing complexity, tastes, colours and aromas. Lower overall yields, which may be as a result of either dry or wet conditions are often likely to impact the final blend. Whereas low yield is often touted as being a positive factor it can be rather more negative. None of the Premiers Crus estates produced a great (red) wine this year and the yields are low. Also, take the example of Mouton Rothschild in 2007. They produced the smallest number of bottles of their Grand Vin since 1969 — only 150,000 bottles. They emptied thirty thousand litres which would normally go into their Grand Vin (selling price per bottle approximately Euros250) into their second wine, Petit Mouton (selling price per bottle approximately Euros50) at a loss in revenue of Euros9 million. Good news though for Le Petit Mouton which is outstanding this year benefiting from the terroir and excellent wine-making skills available at one of Bordeaux’s top estates. Château Margaux even produced their wine without their usual signature Petit Verdot varietal. Château Valendraud (Saint Emilion) made a wine with no Cabernet Franc in it, unthinkable for an estate whose proprietor has often complained of the ‘merlotisation’ of his region.
Whilst the weather plays a vital role in a the quality of any vintage, it is hardly down to weather forecasting that a vigneron may decide his actions, as some have suggested. If the grapes aren’t ripe they can’t be picked, even if one believes it will rain next week. Although some vignerons may decide to pick early before the hunting season starts, but that’s another story.
Why were the whites in the Graves so good?
Successful dry white wines require grapes that are fruity, sugar-rich, sufficiently acid and low in tannins. All this may be easily achieved in limestone-rich areas, for example, where the vines’ water stress remains at moderate levels; and also when the summer is not too hot after véraison, such as in 2007. Generous in both sugar and acidity, these deeply aromatic Semillon and Sauvignon had not been seen since 1996. These varieties benefited from the cool summer temperatures, good conditions at maturation’s end (cool nights with warm afternoons), and ideal weather at harvest.
Why was Sauternes so successful?
The ideally-timed appearance of noble rot produced a great vintage in Sauternes and Barsac. September and October must have an alternating sequence of oceanic low-pressure systems bringing moisture to promote Botrytis, and relatively warm periods of high-pressure to concentrate grapes touched by the mould. The 2007 vintage offered these ideal conditions from the middle of September through to the end of October.
Saint Emilion, a Merlot dominant region, which suffered in the summer, were generally more successful because wine producers there have worked longer and harder than others on the sur-maturation of the grapes. They waited and with the improved and even ‘heavenly’ weather of September obtained some optimum fruit. However, Merlot suffered from its precocity being exposed to the worst of the weather in August. Some producers were unable to counteract the lack of proper maturation and there are many estates where the wine has the characteristic vegetal tastes of unripe grapes.
In Médoc they suffered the most which didn’t stop some from making terrific wines – Cos d’Estornel, for example. It’s also interesting to cite Château Ferrière in Margaux. They have 10 hectares of vineyard with vines which are, on average, 40 years old. The key to their success was that they work the press very carefully judging the grapes’ maturity from the grape pips. They had significant problems with mildew which they had to treat in the vineyard but, otherwise, their essentially non-interventionist stance runs contrary to the whole exposition about the effects of new technology.
2007 was a difficult year for producers by any yardstick. The domains which succeeded did so less by the use of modern vinification techniques and more by virtue of the work they made in the vineyard. It is deceptive to admire the brand new stainless steel vats and new oak barrels of a winery. The main cost is in the vineyard. Difficult years such as 2007 can add considerably to this where very precise work is required and harvesters may be required to be retained for much longer periods than usual adding to the wage bill.
Grape maturity is everything. Optimum ripeness must take into consideration the balance of acids and sugars present in the grape. Tannins become less austere when sugar and acid levels have exceeded their optimum maturity but there is thus a danger that phenolically ripe grapes might produce unbalanced wines with high alcohol, rather jammy aromas and lower acidity. But difficult years provide the best lessons and 2007 will doubtless have provided its fair share of homework.
There is a rather hackneyed old adage: “Those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.” More appropriate is to understand history and apply its lessons to the future. The Place de Bordeaux launched their high price offers for the 2007 vintage without any great fanfare, and there are few takers because prices were similar to those of last year, without any great discount for the disparity of quality in the last three vintages. Price levels are determined by the top estates and without any reference to the quality of the vintage or, indeed, the quality of the wine produced next door. If you travel to France on a regular basis you will probably find some terrific bargains late in 2009 in the supermarkets as the merchants will have to sell their wine somewhere and the ‘grands surfaces’ will have easy pickings. There are some very good wines from this vintage and they will continue to come down in price.
Wines we recommend (this is not intended as an exhaustive list):
Red | Excellent in 2007
Château Haut Bergey | Pessac-Leognan
Domaine de Chevalier | Pessac-Leognan
Château Langoa-Barton | St Julien
Château La Tour Carnet | Haut-Médoc
Château Trolong Mondot | St Emilion
Château Cos d’Estornel | St Estèphe
Château Leoville Poyferré | St Julien
Château Carbonnieux | Pessac-Leognan
Château Grand-Puy-Ducasse | Pauillac
Château Phélan Segur | St Estèphe
Château Ormes de Pez | St EstèpheChâteau Rahoul | Graves
Château Haut-Bailly | Pessac-Leognan
Château Clerc Milon | Pauillac
Château Pape Clement | Pessac-Leognan
le Petit Mouton de Mouton-Rothschild | Pauillac
Château Ferrière | Margaux
Château Guadet | St Emilion
Château Canon La Gaffelière | St Emilion
Château Smith Haut Lafitte | Graves
Château Branaire-Ducru | St Julien
Château Gazin | Pomerol
Château Leoville Barton | St Julien
White | Excellent in 2007
Sauternes, Barsac generally
Graves and in particular:
Château Haut-Brion | Pessac-Leognan
Domaine de Chevalier | Graves
White | Good in 2007
Château Ferrande | Graves
Château Smith Haut Lafitte | Pessac-Leognan
Château de Chantegrive | Graves
Château Haut Bergey | Pessac-Leognan
Château de France | Pessac-Leognan
Château Larrivet Haut-Brion | Pessac-Leognan
Château de Fieuzal | Pessac-Leognan
Château Pape Clement | Pessac-Leognan
Château Latour-Martillac | Pessac-Leognan