2007 Bordeaux : Don't Hate Me Because I'm Overpriced

Two thousand seven is an ideal vintage for Bordeaux lovers who bemoan what has happened to their favorite category of wine as a result of global warming and more extractive modern-day winemaking. Or at least it would be if prices weren’t seriously out of whack.

The 2007s are generally attractive, elegantly styled wines that are true to their sites but will offer the advantage of early drinking owing to their relatively easygoing structures. Very few of them are too tough or tannic to taste today, and it’s only the exceptionally backward wine that will need more than seven or eight years of cellaring before approaching maturity. That is not to say that the vintage’s best examples don’t have the stuffing and balance to offer 15 to 20 years of pleasure. This is hardly an off vintage, even if it could have turned out so much better.

A freakishly hot April (it was literally the warmest month of the growing season until September) led to a very early flowering, but inconsistent and often rainy weather during the second half of May and early June resulted in some coulure and set the stage for irregular ripening of the fruit. It also limited the size of the crop. The summer was then cool and dreary straight through the end of August. The most quality-conscious estates had previously thinned their crops and eliminated bunches that had been affected by mildew; now they green harvested to remove the bunches that were last to go through veraison, in the hope of reducing the range of fruit ripeness at harvest-time. In the end, those estates that did not continue to reduce crop levels through the summer were much less likely to get their fruit ripe by the end of the season.

Significant rainfall during the last third of August triggered a wide outbreak of rot and at the beginning of September the fruit looked terrible. But the skies cleared on the 30th, and, miraculously, September and early October offered mostly sunny weather. Best of all, a dry northeast breeze blew through most of September, helping to dry up incipient rot and allowing most châteaux to let their fruit hang for better ripeness. In the end, the luckiest properties were able to pick at leisure, while others had no choice but to bring in their fruit before it was really ready. Many small estates on the Right Bank, and not just those in the high-rent neighborhoods of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion, were able to pick with great precision. And careful harvesting was called for, as fruit picked too early lacked phenolic ripeness, while merlot brought in too late lacked verve and personality. In the Médoc, some fruit had to be harvested before it was properly ripe, but many of the best estates picked slowly over an extended period.

Happily, despite the fact that the fruit typically came in with healthy sugar levels, the raw material of 2007 did not generally permit exaggerated extraction via radical saignée or other methods of concentrating the must, and relatively few chateaux fell into this trap. Soft vinifications generally yielded attractive, unforced wines with clean fruit and reasonably supple tannins. As Thomas Duroux, manager of Château Palmer, told me in the spring of 2008, “We could eventually get the tannins and the aromas ripe in September, and the green elements burned off as the fruit got ripe, but we couldn’t really get structure.”

What was perhaps most intriguing about my extensive tastings of these wines in recent months is how many “lesser” chateaux managed to make elegant and enjoyable wines, with only a trace of the green qualities that could characterize wines based on cabernet (sauvignon or franc). Their success was no doubt due to careful management of their yields through attentive work in the vines followed by clever harvesting and winemaking strategies. On the other hand, many big names, including numerous large classified growths of the Médoc, made wines that are undernourished: too green, lean, dry, short. And then of course there were a number of Right Bank producers who tried to extract what Nature had not given the grapes and made dull, chunky wines.

Long-time claret lovers can accept a moderate early green character (tobacco leaf, mint, black pepper, fresh herbs) in their wines because they know that in sufficiently ripe vintages these elements are the precursors of more interesting secondary and tertiary aromas. These consumers will be intrigued by the best 2007s, which accurately represent their respective châteaux without being especially forceful. These mostly medium-bodied wines are elegant and very easy to drink and enjoy, even in the early going.

But prices for the top classified growths opened at absurdly high levels. Bordeaux proprietors flush with the cash they had made on their 2005s thought they could get prices for their 2007s as high as, or higher than, their mostly stronger 2006s, and they were wrong. There was virtually no futures market for the ’07s, and demand for these wines has remained scant. Not surprisingly, the wines have been very slow to arrive in the U.S., and slower still to reach store shelves, as retailers still have 2006s to unload. (I was tasting new arrivals virtually until press time, and although I have been able to sample nearly all of the most important wines of the vintage, I have yet to see a few top bottlings such as Château Lafite-Rothschild; I will insert notes on these wines to this article as soon as I have a chance to taste them.)

In a deflationary environment, it’s a foregone conclusion that prices on the 2007s will have to be slashed to pass these wines through to consumers. But you will see from the price ranges I’ve provided that many of the vintage’s successful lesser names are already surprisingly cheap. For those that are much more expensive, I recommend that you wait patiently for the inevitable price cuts and be ready to pounce when the time is right.

My coverage in this issue also includes a number of the top white wines made in 2007. As a group, they are sappy, fresh and pure, and they suffered much less from the lack of sunshine than the reds did. I will also publish coverage of the superb Sauternes and Barsacs of 2007 on the IWC site in the next few weeks. These wines too have been very late to arrive in the U.S. market, but this is a marvelous vintage for the sweet wines of Bordeaux. It remains to be seen if the much-hyped 2009s will surpass them.