1999, 1998 and 1997 Bordeaux

As a result of the furious tempete of last December 27, which cut a swath of devastation through the forests of the Medoc region, Bordeaux was still looking a little ragged around the edges on my recent early spring tour. Other forces outside human control were also weighing on the minds of chateau proprietors, including a rainy September of '99 that had turned a promising harvest into an arduous one, and the growing sense that declining stock markets in the U.S. and Europe would further affect purchases of what are, at least at the level of the top chateaux, luxury items rather than everyday necessities. Everywhere I went, Bordeaux pricing was a topic of conversation, with proprietors still attempting to control the damage they had brought on themselves by opening the '97s at unsupportably high levels. Pricing is the one variable the chateaux can control, but it will be a particularly tricky decision for the '99s, an extremely variable vintage that is unlikely to gain the cachet of a "collectible" year but which nevertheless has produced many pleasant surprises.

The 1999 growing season. The budding went quickly, and it was immediately apparent that the potential for overproduction would be great, even where the vines had been pruned short. Most of May in the Bordeaux region was warm and humid, and by early June most estates had had to spray against mildew, oidium and grey rot. The flowering took place at the end of May and beginning of June under hot, dry conditions, although the slightly later cabernet flowering (sauvignon and franc) was drawn out somewhat by rain.

The rest of June and the first half of July were warm and dry, but not excessively hot. There were a few minor periods of rain and one significant one, on July 11 and 12, which largely spared the northern Medoc. The most conscientious growers did significant crop-thinning to eliminate the less-ripe fruit and aerate the bunches.

Then late July and most of August were cool and damp, and vineyards with heavy crop levels were once again vulnerable to oidium, mildew and grey rot. The veraison took place in early August for the merlots but was more drawn out for the cabernets in the middle of the month. The weather continued showery through August 19, and pessimism ran rampant. But then the sun returned, and, with a few notable and localized exceptions, remained out for more than three weeks, with temperatures well above average through the period, before taking a decided and sustained turn for the worse on September 12. The berries quickly concentrated, the maturing process accelerated, and sugars climbed. This extended period of very warm weather produced solid alcoholic degrees and went a long way toward ripening the skins, with the result that tannins in '99 are rarely green. But if August made the must, then the September rains surely made a mess of what could have been an outstanding year.

A storm on August 26 spared the Medoc but dropped an inch or more of rain on much of the right bank and the Entre-Deux-Mers. (The storm also triggered an early outbreak of botrytis in Sauternes, but the grapes were not yet ripe and most of the affected fruit was pulled from the vines and discarded.) Then, on September 5, a devastating hailstorm began over the town of Libourne, clobbered several dozen properties along the road east to St. Emilion (vineyards such as L'Angelus, Matras and the two Beausejours were particularly hard-hit, but many others were affected), and then veered off towards Montagne and expired. Most chateaux hit by the hail sought and received special permission to harvest early and brought their fruit in quickly in the following few days, in most cases well short of optimal maturity.

The early word on the vintage was that the Medoc would be favored, as there was a bit less rainfall here during the summer, and the storms of August 26 and September 5 spared the Medoc as well as the Graves. And whereas the majority of the merlot on the right bank was just approaching ripeness when the heavy rains of the autumn equinox arrived, the cabernet sauvignon did not have to be picked until a week later, when the rains had lost some of their punch. But, in fact, generalizations are impossible in '99: repeated crop reduction, painstaking triage at the harvest, careful extraction during vinification, and ruthless elimination of weaker lots were all critical to succeeding in '99.

In theory, the fruit that was harvested at least reasonably ripe before the worst of the rains should have been best. But some early merlot, especially in the Medoc, lacked flavor development and backbone even if sugar levels were high, and in any event very little merlot (and no cabernet) was picked before rain fell on September 12 and 13. The next two days were dry, but then it rained virtually every day into early October, with particularly heavy precipitation on the 20th. Some estates on the Pomerol plateau and the St. Emilion graves had physiologically ripe merlot in time to harvest a good portion of their fruit before the damaging rains over the period of the equinox. Beautiful weather returned on October 5 and the next week was spectacularly sunny and cool, but by then it was too late to be of much help for the region's dry wines.

The 1999 wines. Generally speaking, the young '99s show rather silky textures and low acidity, and their tannins are for the most part ripe and rich. They display the characteristics of warm-year wines whose grape sugars, acids and concentration of flavor were to varying degrees diluted by badly timed rainfall. Some distinctly lack middle-palate material. Where wines diluted by rain were not gently extracted, their tannins can come across as dry and dominant, even if they are not really underripe. Only the exceptional wines appear to have the concentration and grip to reward longer-term aging.

Even if the vintage in theory favored cabernet sauvignon, I still found many more interesting wines on the right bank, especially in St. Emilion. This huge appellation is home to hundreds of estates, many of them quite small, and has been a spawning ground for interesting new bottlings in recent years. Each year numerous new vins de garage spring virtually from nowhere (many are micro-cuvees from tiny plots or favored areas within larger holdings), and some of these are impressive indeed. The key is the small scale of grape-growing and winemaking and the willingness of proprietors and their consulting winemakers to adopt new and sometimes radical techniques-whereas change in the Medoc tends to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. In addition to being more easily able to green harvest and to carry out subsequent crop-thinning and leaf-pulling, these micro-estates can harvest their best vines more precisely, often bringing in their entire crop in a brief one- or two-day window of clement weather. In rainy years, this gives them a substantial advantage over large estates in the Medoc, which harvest over a period of weeks rather than days.

Producers who want to make an immediate splash with their new limited bottlings may make more use of the wine's lees, in some instances stirring the lees until late winter. They may skip a racking or three, often using micro-oxygenation to avoid tiring the wine. They almost invariably do the malolactic fermentation in barriques, which certainly gives the wines early appeal. And they use the sexiest barrels money can buy, because in today's market they can get a sufficient price for their wine to cover their investment. Elevage of this kind is generally less hard on the wine than the more industrial-scale production still practiced by most of the largest estates of the Medoc. While many of these limited new cuvees merit their high prices, others are merely overextracted juice from unexceptional sites. Relatively few of them have yet established track records for graceful, eventful development in bottle. But without question the high prices often asked for these new wines have greatly complicated the process of price-setting for the crus classes of the Medoc.

Although there are numerous successful wines on the right bank in '99, and a handful of outstanding ones, the vintage is still extremely uneven in quality. I was particularly disappointed in a number of Pomerols I tasted at the beginning of April. Many of these wines lack flavor development and stuffing, and come across as rather generic; others are overextracted and dry.

In the Medoc, St. Estephe to the north and Margaux to the south received less precipitation in July than Pauillac or St. Julien. But while the Margaux appellation has produced a high average quality this year, St. Estephe is more of a mixed bag, especially at chateaux sited on heavier, less well-drained soils. The Medoc first growths, due largely to strict selection, have done very well. However, 1999 is not a good year for Bordeaux's lesser petits chateaux and generic wines, as the combination of excessive yields and September rain has widely resulted in thin wines with meager flavors. The top wines of the Graves are also very promising, but I tasted several far less successful examples.

Crop levels in '99 were about 5% higher than in '98, but the top chateaux eliminated excess water through saignee, and an increasing number took advantage of more high-tech methods of concentrating their musts, such as reverse osmosis and entropy. But eliminating water has the effect of raising potential alcohol levels, and because much of their fruit was already high in sugar, many chateaux took a relatively light hand with the concentrators. Ultimately, most chateaux will bottle less grand vin than in '98 as they continue to raise their standards in an increasingly competitive environment.

Traditionalists who do not use osmose inverse or entropy to concentrate their musts are not convinced that such high-tech methods can produce outstanding wine with the balance for longer-term aging. The outspoken Denis Durantou of L'Eglise-Clinet, for example, was critical of some of the larger estates of the Medoc: "A lot of growers reserved their concentrating machines in August while they stayed at their summer homes in Arcachon, while the more conscientious growers were giving up their vacations to cut crop loads. "Today, Durantou added, the giant reverse osmosis devices can concentrate 300 hectoliters per day for a cost of barely 6,000 francs. And the entropy machines, which used to be huge and cost 1,000,000 francs, have come down in price; smaller devices available for a fraction of that amount have put this technique within the budgets of smaller properties.

A word on Sauternes. From all reports, 1999 was the fourth consecutive successful region for Bordeaux's sweet wines, with the warm, humid conditions around the equinox triggering an outbreak of botrytis. Much of the fruit was harvested under less-than-ideal conditions over the following two weeks, but many properties, especially in Barsac, benefitted from a final trie under dry, cool conditions in October. I find these wines virtually impossible to assess with any accuracy the spring after the vintage (many are not yet assembled), and thus I will hold off on offering notes until I taste them in depth next spring. However, I will publish a report on the '98s and '97s in the next issue.

A second look at 1998. This was a superb year for the right bank, where a high percentage of the merlot was harvested ripe under a ten-day window of nearly ideal conditions. Many proprietors and winemakers in Pomerol and St. Emilion told me this spring that '98 has turned out to be the finest vintage for their properties since 1990. The best wines offer thoroughly expressed aromas, excellent intensity and depth of flavor, impressive persistence and the structure to age. Of special note are the Mouiex wines: Petrus and Trotanoy, in particular, are among the superstars of the vintage. It is also a very good year in the Graves, for both red and white wines.

The vintage was less even, but perhaps overly maligned, in the Medoc, where numerous excellent to outstanding wines were made. Relatively little cabernet was brought in during the dryer portion of the harvest (September 16 through 26). And due in part to the extreme heat of August, the cabernet-based wines can be quite tannic and austere. But at the level of the top chateaux much of the weaker fruit has been declassified. The best of these wines have a tendency toward early austerity, but also possess the density to support their sometimes tough tannins. I liked a number of these wines last year, and most of them have rewarded my early optimism. These wines, too, should enjoy a slow evolution in bottle. At nearly every chateau visit I made in the Medoc at the end of March, I had the opportunity to taste the new '99 next to the '98. And very few '99s north of the Margaux appellation displayed the density or backbone-or length on the palate-of the '98s. Many '98s come across today as more youthfully unevolved than the '99s, even though they've spent an additional 12 months in barrel.

The 1997s in bottle. These are by and large extremely pleasant, supple wines with ripe, mostly soft tannins and considerable early appeal. The best of them possess good concentration and are true to their sites, even if they lack the density and thrust of top claret. The '97s are ideal wines for consumers to drink while waiting for more serious recent vintages to mature in bottle. They're perfect wines for restaurants to put on their lists today . . . except for the fact that most of them are wildly overpriced! I have included tasting notes on many of the most successful '97s from the Medoc and the Graves. A sizable percentage of these wines will ultimately be sold through supermarkets in France and elsewhere in Europe. However, I've also recently seen some new offerings in the U.S. at prices well below the original futures prices in the late spring of '98. Still, there are relatively few bargains to be found.

Bordeaux pricing. Will the proprietors of Bordeaux's classified growths get the message that their wines are too expensive? During my stay in the Medoc, many proprietors seemed inclined to reduce prices by 5% to 10%, but no one mentioned the possibility of sharper reductions. It remains to be seen whether prices on the most important crus classes of the Medoc will go down at all. (At press time, the '99s were opening anywhere from 10% lower than the '98s to 10% higher, although the major classified growths had not yet been heard from.) Christian Moueix, who is quick to say that his firm's '99s from the right bank are not nearly at the quality level of his '98s, cut prices by 5% to 10% in the properties his company owns, but noted that other chateaux he markets actually raised their prices. "We spent 20,000 hours of overtime work in our own vineyards this year," Moueix told me. "If you average that cost over all of our properties, the wines we're selling at 50 francs a bottle are actually being sold at a loss. But this doesn't matter at all to the guy who is going to drink the wine in Atlanta or Stockholm."

Token reductions of 5% to 10% will not help Bordeaux regain the market share the region has lost in recent years. Relatively few chateau proprietors in the Medoc seem aware of how many well-heeled wine lovers in the U.S., England and the rest of Europe, and Asia have abandoned Bordeaux in recent years, turning instead to the best red wines from Spain, Italy, California, the Rhone Valley and the Languedoc. "Here we tend to criticize our neighbors as if it somehow makes our wine better," noted Moueix, lamenting the parochial outlook of many of his colleagues in the region. "But our competition today is not the Medoc; it's California and South Africa and Chile."

As high as prices are at the top end, it must be said that there are a growing number of new or recently upgraded wines from less hallowed estates that, in vintages like '98 and '99, are not overpriced in today's world wine market. Many of these wines will look like bargains, for example, when they are tasted against expensive California cabernets and merlots, especially bottles from the difficult '98 vintage.

As always, I have provided ranges for unfinished wines: my notes and projected scores should be regarded as preliminary in nature for the '99s. I have omitted from my coverage literally dozens of additional wines that appeared unlikely to merit 85 points, chief among them crus bourgeois from the Medoc but also a number of well-known right bank properties whose wines performed unimpressively in my tastings. These wines will require retasting next spring, so there is certainly no reason to buy them now. Price ranges listed for '97s come from a handful of major retailers (in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and California) who are offering these wines; note that prices vary widely depending not just on normal mark-up formulas but on when and how retailers purchased these wines.

The Most Promising '99 Clarets Sampled from Barrel:
Margaux 92-95, Haut-Brion 92-94, Lafite-Rothschild 92-94, Latour 92-94, Le Pin 92-94, Pavie 92-94, Ausone 91-94, Marojallia 91-94, Leoville-Las Cases 91-93, Pavie-Decesse 91-93, Petrus 91-93, Valandraud 90-94, Lafleur 90-93, Mouton-Rothschild 90-93, Monbousquet 90-93, Pavie-Macquin 90-93, Quinault L'Enclos 90-93, Gracia 90-92, Cheval Blanc 89-92, Cos d'Estournel 89-92, Croix de Labrie 89-92, La Mission Haut-Brion 89-92, L'Evangile 89-92, Palmer 89-92, Le Tertre-Roteboeuf 89-92.