2006, 2005 and 2004 Bordeaux

In light of the schizophrenic growing season and rain-plagued harvest, I found the 2006 vintage in Bordeaux to be a pleasant surprise on my annual early spring tour. It's a classic year in which many very good to excellent wines have been made, and even some I would describe as outstanding. The best wines, especially those based on cabernet sauvignon, are built to enjoy a long life. While I tasted nothing this spring that appeared to offer the mid-palate richness and length to rate higher than 95 points, a few wines were on the cusp. Much will depend on whether wines that received a gentle extraction put on weight during elevage without losing their vibrant character.

As recently as 15 years ago, a growing season like 2006 would have yielded a mostly mediocre set of wines, and most estates would either have vinified green fruit or been overwhelmed by rotten berries. But, at the level of today's financially sound chateaux at least, the work in the vineyards and at harvest time is far more precise today, multiple sorting tables have allowed properties to eliminate sub-par fruit, and vinification has become much more sophisticated. The high prices the best estates receive for their wines have enabled many chateaux to bottle only their best lots as their flagship wine. It should be noted, however, that the overwhelming majority of lesser properties cannot afford to make certain improvements in their vineyards, winery or barrel cellar, so the gap between rich and poor continues to grow.

Two thousand six is a heterogeneous vintage that resists generalizations. The keys to quality were the work in the vineyards, which not only was extremely labor-intensive but required a great deal of thought (and luck); the timing of the harvest; and the determination of which lots would go into a chateau's grand vin. I liked Pomerol for the silky texture and sweet middle palates of the best wines. Here much merlot was harvested early and ripe, before the September rains damaged the fruit. But with very few exceptions these wines are not in the same class as 2005, and they cannot be compared to the great '98s in sheer class, aromatic complexity and grip. St. Emilion and the right bank satellite appellations were less consistent, but plenty of good wines were made, especially on clay and limestone soils and on well-drained slopes. Many proprietors admitted that their cabernet franc began to deteriorate by the end of the rainy period in September and ultimately lacked intensity; on the other hand, well-heeled owners of some of the region's micro-estates can farm and harvest their vines with such precision that they routinely begin with fruit that is far superior to that of their neighbors.

This spring I started my tastings on the right bank, then moved over to Graves and the Medoc. It was in the Medoc, particularly in Pauillac and St. Julien, that I found the majority of my own personal vintage highlights, although here the best wines relied heavily on cabernet sauvignon, and the merlot was generally much less impressive. St. Estephe, which by some accounts received more rainfall in September than appellations farther south, was something of an underperformer in 2006; here, on the whole, I prefer 2004. There are plenty of successful wines from Margaux, where wine quality in general has improved in recent years. The same thing can be said about the wines of Graves and Pessac-Leognan, where there are numerous successes in 2006, beginning with Haut-Brion and La Mission. On the whole, though, the dry white wines here are even better in the context of the year: they offer compelling aromatic complexity and freshness allied to thorough ripeness, as most of the best of them were harvested before the brunt of the September rains (Haut-Brion began on August 29!). I will not offer notes on the 2006 Sauternes until next year, but there were few obvious standouts in my early tastings of these wines, as there was a lot of grey rot to weed out from the positive botrytis virtually from the beginning to the end of the harvest.

The 2006 growing season. Following a cold winter and considerable rainfall in March, the spring was extremely dry, with scarce precipitation in June, and the flowering took place mostly in ideal and very warm conditions, with some minor problems with coulure (poor fruit set) in the earliest-flowering merlot. From the outset, the potential size of the crop was average. July was then very hot and dry (the average temperature for the month reportedly ranked this as the hottest July since 1950), although a few light showers revived the vines and the process of veraison (the change in color of the berries) began slowly. At this point, conditions resembled those of 2005 and 2003, and the region anticipated an outstanding and somewhat early harvest. On the other hand, growers who pulled leaves early in the season risked having their grapes burned by the intense sunshine in July, as a heat wave settled in during the second half of the month. By the end of July, heat and some drought stress put an end to vine growth, so the energy of the plants could be concentrated on ripening the fruit, which is normally the formula for a successful crop of wines.

But then came a cool and overcast August (total rainfall for the month was actually lower than average), which drastically slowed down the ripening process and changed the ultimate character of the year's wines. The very warm July had already brought enough ripeness that the 2006 wines would rarely be characterized by herbal or vegetal tastes, but the lack of sun and the cooler nights in August enabled the grapes to retain healthy levels of acidity while at the same time limiting the potential mid-palate richness and breadth of the wines. The damp conditions caused the small berries to swell, and made them vulnerable to rot. In some cases, the veraison of the cabernet sauvignon was delayed until as late as August 10th due to the much cooler conditions that month, and this set the stage for irregular ripeness in many vineyards.

The weather suddenly turned hot and sunny again during the first ten days of September, but with humid, warm nights. With the threat of rot constant and rain forecasted to begin on the 11th, the most conscientious growers continued to pull leaves. But as always, this needed to be carefully done: with too much leaf pulling, the plants' photosynthetic capabilities could be compromised, and exposed grapes could be burned by the sun, weakening their skins. But without some trimming-back of the foliage to aerate the clusters, the fruit would be even more susceptible to rot once precipitation and high humidity returned. By the 10th of September, much of the fruit had re-concentrated, and the vintage once again was demonstrating exceptional potential, but the harvest of red grapes had not yet begun.

Then, just when it was time to start bringing in the earliest merlot in Pomerol the rains began, and they essentially fell on and off for the next two weeks. Overall, most regions received 100 to 150 millimeters of rain in September, not much above the long-term average, but all of the rain was concentrated in the September 11 through 25 period. Rainfall totals were quite variable from one appellation to the next, but no region was spared. During the breaks in the precipitation, some warm afternoons encouraged the spread of rot. The fruit in many vineyards had been quite fragile due to the up-and-down season, and to the swelling of the grape skins during the damp month of August, and once rot gained a foothold it often spread quickly.

More than one chateau proprietor told me it was essential to pick opportunistically and with great flexibility. Often the plan of attack set one day had to go out the window the next as it became essential to pick another parcel quickly. On the other hand, some of the largest properties of the Medoc are like huge cruise ships that cannot be turned on a dime. The challenge was to let the fruit hang for more thorough phenolic ripeness but to pick before the grapes began to degrade and rot became too widespread. As is their habit, some risk-averse chateaux picked underripe fruit, while others made the decision to wait for more thorough ripeness and then to do a careful elimination of rotten berries. One fact worthy of emphasis: some of the region's best small estates and micro-cuvees outperformed wines of greater pedigree for the simple reason that they could farm their vines, and harvest and sort their fruit, with greater precision.

The merlot in the Medoc was farther along than the cabernet sauvignon when the rains arrived on September 11 and was more susceptible to rot, so many growers had no choice but to pick this fruit somewhat underripe. Merlot in Pomerol had the advantage of being nearly ripe, and full of sugar, when the rains fell, and chateau that were able to harvest ripe fruit early, before substantial rainfall on September 16 and 17, were often very successful; some of these wines taste like they're from another vintage, with seductively pliant, plump textures rare for the year, but with the freshness made possible by the cooler August. A good bit of merlot was also harvested on the early side in the Graves region.

As a general rule, fruit on younger vines with shallower roots was far more likely to swell with water and become vulnerable to rot. Plants with deep roots, on the other hand, took up water more slowly. Well-drained sites resisted dilution and rot more successfully, and clay-based soils also tended to regulate the flow of water to the vines' fruit. The cabernet sauvignon in the Medoc had generally resisted the rot better than the merlots, but some proprietors nevertheless picked their cabernet prior to full phenolic ripeness in the last several days of September, because the region received a welcome break in the precipitation and because more rain was in the forecast for the first week of October.

The 2006 vinifications and wines. Many of the chateaux made use of moderate saignee, or bleeding of the must, essentially to eliminate the excess water in the grapes that was due to the September rains. Some who said that the grapes were swelled by 20% admitted to me that this is roughly the percentage of water they tried to eliminate via saignee. Some estates also used high-tech methods for concentrating their musts, such as reverse osmosis and the Entropie method (vacuum evaporation), but in general neither these techniques nor chaptalization were required, as the grapes began with very healthy levels of potential alcohol. Winemakers then tended to do less extractive vinifications than normal, with shorter total cuvaisons and lower than usual fermentation temperatures. They did not believe that the limited mid-palate richness of their wines would support strong extraction of tannins, and they were afraid of getting off-elements from less than perfect grape skins. Most reported that colors came easily, but others clearly had problems and needed to make critical decisions on the fly. Some winemakers who worked with riper grapes and were confident about their ability to keep rotten berries out of the fermenters did a more leisurely vinification. For example, Stephane Derenoncourt practiced a cuvaison of a full month for many of his clients' wines, but relied more on gentle infusion than on vigorous punching down of the cap.

Ultimately quality will vary widely in 2006. On the whole I prefer this vintage to both 2004 and 2002 because I find better tannin ripeness and less of a green character to the wines. The vintage is particularly interesting to me because its successes are more a function of individual terroir and viticultural and winemaking practices than of appellation. The best wines have plenty of natural alcohol and tannic structure; they show a lovely combination of fresh fruit and soil character thanks to sound natural acidity, and they convey vibrancy and energy. The better right bank wines, many of which will offer considerable early appeal, should be good mid-term agers, while the top wines of the Medoc could certainly enjoy 25 to 30 years of evolution in bottle.

Another look at 2005. At all the individual chateaux I visited, I asked to taste '05s and '04s as well as '06s. Most chateaux were willing to show me these wines, but a few did not present their 2005s, as they were in an awkward stage: just off the finings or in the process of being fined. At the large group tastings I conducted on the right bank, because of the sheer volume of wines, I tended to focus on the new vintage ('06) and the bottled vintage ('04), as I have done in recent years. I should point out that I fully expect most of the 2005s to earn scores at the high end of my projected ranges for them: these wines are just getting better and better. For me, this is a great Bordeaux vintage (as it is for red Burgundy), and the best wines have the density and balance to go on for decades. Whereas 2000 is a somewhat overrated year for Bordeaux-a very good vintage in which numerous outstanding wines were made-2005 is the real article. Of course, exorbitant pricing for the top classified growths and collectible-grade right bank wines has taken much of the fun out of this vintage for most consumers, who will probably read about the top bottlings more often than they will drink them. But there are still many buying opportunities for wonderfully satisfying wine at affordable prices.

A word on Bordeaux pricing. Note that I have provided only skimpy retail price information for most 2004s. This is because relatively few of these bottles have made it to the shelves of the major Bordeaux sources I generally canvas for current prices. In many cases, retailers bought 2004s only selectively or took a wait-and-see attitude. There's considerable evidence that some plan to purchase these wines at close-out prices from wholesalers who had no choice but to commit to them in advance. With the market obsessed with 2005, and now beginning to consider 2006, it's likely that the best 2004s will offer serious buying opportunities for Bordeaux drinkers over the next 12 months.

As to 2006, pricing will be all-important. Because there are few if any truly great wines, 2006 is unlikely to be viewed as a "collectible" vintage. Even where chateaux are serious about selling their wines and decide to price them closer to 2004 than to 2005 levels, the weaker U.S. dollar will make them fairly expensive to consumers here. But at press-time, there was little cause to believe that the first growths, other top classified growths and the top right bank wines would exercise much pricing restraint, for a number of reasons. First, production in 2006 was on the low side, and especially short where chateau were highly selective about what would go into their grand vin. Bordeaux's top classified growths, especially the first growths, are happy that they were able to leapfrog past California prices with the 2005 vintage and they are loath to yield their #1 position. The first growths and super-seconds appear to be convinced that there are investment trusts and pension funds in England, Europe, Russia and the Far East that are poised to take major positions in Bordeaux (this is probably true but it remains to be seen whether these entities will sink their money into 2006 or wait for a stronger vintage). And with the windfall profits they made with the 2005s, the top chateaux are probably willing to sit awhile with their 2006s, if necessary. So unless there's a wine or two that you feel you simply must own, there is very little reason to purchase these wines as futures.