2000, 1999 and 1998 Bordeaux

What if Bordeaux threw a millennium party and the sun didn't show up? In early July of 2000, that was the horrifying thought going through the minds of chateau proprietors in the region. "As of mid-July, 2000 was shaping up as one of the worst years of the century," Philippe Dhalluin, director of Chateau Branaire, told me at the end of March. A mild winter and warm, wet spring had led to the worst outbreak of mildew in the region in decades. Following a heat wave in mid-June, the weather in July was again mostly depressing. But then, at the end of the month, a near-miracle occurred, as a high pressure system spread over much of Western Europe and remained in place through late September. Bordeaux would have its celebration after all.

The 2000 growing season. The humid, showery weather in April and continuing warm conditions in early May triggered one of the worst outbreaks of mildew in Bordeaux since the mid-1950s. Many chateau owners and vineyard managers described the first couple of months of the growing season as a constant battle against encroaching fungus, and during late April and early May the vineyards were too damp to get the tractors in. Although the flowering generally went well in late May and early June (with some coulure and millerandage in the merlot), the weather remained inconsistent. June began with downpours on the 3rd and 4th, but a hot spell during the third week of the month helped to check the spread of mildew. Still, as the summer sun and warmth failed to materialize during July, the vintage was shaping up as potentially mediocre.

But beginning in late July, the region was blessed with two hot, dry months. The grapes began to gain in sugar and shrink in size and their skins began to thicken. Vineyards planted in hotter spots and on porous, well-drained soils began to suffer from lack of water (hydric stress). The right bank, which had more rain than the Medoc in late July, received even less in August, and the gravelly and looser sandy soils of Pomerol and St. Emilion suffered. Clay and chalk soils on the St. Emilion cotes generally benefitted from their water-retentive capability. Some hot periods in early September further thickened the skins and drove grape sugars higher, and the weather remained dry.

The merlot harvest began in mid-September under sunny conditions, and much of Bordeaux merlot was picked by the 28th. A period of rain from the 29th through October 1st essentially marked the transition between the merlot and cabernet harvest. After that, growers had 10 or 11 dry days to bring in their thoroughly ripe cabernet sauvignon and franc. Heavy rain fell on October 11, and from then on the weather rapidly deteriorated.

The 2000 wines. The thick-skinned grapes were generally brought in in very good condition. With crop levels generally of average size (and distinctly lower than those of '99) and grape sugars on the high side, the Bordelais made sparing use of their various techniques to concentrate the must: if saignee [the process of running off some pale juice from a vat of red grapes prior to fermentation] was done, it tended to be on the order of only 5% or 10%, and more high-tech methods of removing water from the musts in order to raise the level of potential alcohol, such as reverse osmosis and entropy, were similarly employed with a light touch.

The most concentrated wines of 2000 have the sheer density of material and tannic support to be very long-lived. Nearly across the board, the indices of total polyphenols [a group of compounds that includes anthocyanins (which are responsible for the red pigment in a young wine), tannins and various esters] in the grapes were at record levels in 2000. Happily, most of these wines have average or lower-than-average levels of acidity. Those with pronounced acidity may ultimately prove problematic. I am reminded of legendary enologist's Emile Peynaud's "suppleness index" and of his assertion that the richer a red wine is in tannins, the lower its acidity should be. The combination of high tannin content and high acidity, Peynaud observed, produces the hardest and most astringent wines.

In terms of quality across all the major appellations of the region, and of the number of potentially excellent to outstanding red wines produced, 2000 appears to be the strongest Bordeaux vintage since 1990, though with much less evidence of roasted overripeness (surmaturite) than that earlier year. At the level of individual appellations, however, 2000 is not necessarily the best vintage of the last ten years. The cabernet-based wines of the Medoc were among my early favorites. These wines have the noble floral aromas of '96, but are not quite so penetrating or pristine as the earlier vintage. The fleshier 2000 merlot, and generally lower levels of malic acidity, give these cabernet-based wines softer, silkier middle-palate textures than the '96s, but their very high tannin levels suggest that they will be long-lived. Only time will tell if the best 2000s from the Northern Medoc will equal the '96s in sheer class. St. Julien and Pauillac have done very well, and conditions appear to have been favorable in Margaux, for the second year in a row. Of particular note in 2000 is the widespread success of Medoc wines of lesser pedigree: these wines generally possess more density and riper flavors than their '98 and '96 counterparts.

On the right bank, I marginally prefer the style of 1998 to that of 2000. There's a crystallized fruit character allied with brightness and grip that I find utterly compelling in the '98s. The Pomerol plateau and most early-ripening sites in St. Emilion are something of a mixed bag in 2000. A few growers on the Pomerol plateau told me that the grapes started to shrivel during the late stages of the drought, and to develop jammy flavors, which meant the growers had to harvest even though the skins were not completely ripe. With very few exceptions, the 1998 vintage here produced wines with more verve and sappiness than 2000. But in sites less affected by the drought-especially on "cooler," later-ripening soils that could concentrate their fruit through real ripening rather than by dehydration-many outstanding wines were made.

The potential fly in the ointment. "To make a truly outstanding vintage, we need three months of beautiful summer weather, not two," pointed out Christian Moueix, who also emphasized just how difficult the first half of the growing season had been. "We used helicopters to spray during the spring for the first time since 1988," he told me, "and we certainly could have used some rain at the end of August to get better-balanced wines, as in '98. There are too many wines that lack flesh and charm."

"The growing season, particularly because of the August drought, favored the development of tannins over anthocynanins on the right bank," noted enologist Stephane Derenoncourt. Tannins and anthocyanins are both phenolic compounds that develop in the grape skins with sunlight and photosynthesis, but tannins tend to be more astringent.] "As a result, the vintage has a tendency to lack personality." He added that this tendency was less pronounced in the later-ripening cabernets of the Medoc, as the vegetative cycle here was a bit more regular. Not surprisingly in light of this observation, many of the most promising right-bank wines are those with significant percentages of cabernet franc or sauvignon, which have added much-needed aromatic character, depth of flavor and backbone.

Stressed soils had a tendency to produce dry tannins. "There are some wines on the right bank with big structures but not a lot of middle," noted Stephan Von Neipperg, owner of Canon La Gaffeliere, Clos L'Oratoire, La Mondotte and L'Aiguilhe. Attempts to extract heavily from such fruit frequently exacerbated the already high tannin levels. "Bleeding the vats [saignee] is not generally a good idea when the skins are thick," noted Moueix. "When we tasted the grapes, they reminded us of 1975. The key for us was to do gentle macerations; short pumpovers helped us avoid getting tough tannins. And, of course, strong extraction was unnecessary: the deep colors in 2000 were a given."

The widespread mildew also had to have some effect on wines in the most beleaguered sites. Afflicted fruit would normally have shriveled up and fallen off the vines by the end of June, so there is little chance of wine flavors showing a taint. But mildew can retard the ripening curve of the fruit by degrading the leaves, which are necessary for photosynthesis. Spraying to forestall mildew can also slow ripening, and can cause the skins to thicken; this toughening of the skins was exaggerated by drought conditions later in the summer.

Although 2000 is the vintage of the new millennium, at least until next year, it is premature to call it great at this early stage, especially considering the fact that the 2000 crop of wines will evolve-and be analyzed, discussed and consumed-over the next 20 to 50 years.

Bordeaux pricing. The relatively few wines that had established opening prices as this issue went to press were up only marginally from 1999 levels. Although the top classified growths were talking about "moderate" price hikes at the time of my early spring tour of the Bordeaux region, they have talked the talk before and then taken major increases. There's no doubt that there will be strong worldwide demand for the 2000s: after all, a millenniun vintage comes around roughly once every thousand years. It is possible that the first growths will offer tiny first tranches at moderate levels, then let the market determine how they will price the next slice. It is also likely that many chateaux will hold back a portion of their production for their own wine libraries or for release much later at higher prices. But except for the top classified growths and limited-production wines of the right bank, Bordeaux pricing today is hardly excessive, and at the level of the unheralded names that have done well in 2000, there will be bargains galore.

My coverage of Bordeaux has focused on red wines; for most of the estates I visited, I have included new notes on '99s and, in many cases, the finished '98s. Following a string of very good to excellent vintages, the Sauternes region experienced a difficult year, as relatively little thoroughly botrytized fruit was harvested before the weather began to break down in October. (However, I will include a short report on the '99s and '98s, many of which are well worth your buying interest, in the next issue.) As always, I have provided ranges for unfinished wines: my notes and projected scores should be regarded as preliminary in nature for the 2000s. Price ranges listed for '98s come from a half-dozen major retailers across the country who are offering these wines; note that prices vary more widely than ever before, depending not just on normal mark-up formulas but on when and how retailers purchased these wines.