The Annual Red Bordeaux Report

Although earlier Bordeaux growing seasons have been characterized as miracle vintages, for once that description does not exaggerate what happened in the Bordeaux region in September and early October of 2002. As of the first week of September, the approaching 2002 harvest was widely being written off as mediocre, following a poor flowering, some problems with hydric stress during the summer, a summer with less than average sunshine, and the beginnings of grey rot. But then a month of mostly fine weather, featuring a steady drying breeze from the northeast, rescued the vintage. While 2002 is a distinctly mixed bag, estates that were able to take advantage of the late-season weather often made very good to excellent wines. Not surprisingly, the vintage favors the later-ripening cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, which were generally picked in near-ideal conditions in early October.

The 2002 growing season. A very dry winter set the stage for problems with insufficient ground water later in the growing season. Following a mostly cold winter, a warming trend in mid-March followed by cold nights at the end of the month led to a drawn-out budding, with the cabernets on cooler soil not really budding until some rain fell in early April. The region weathered the period of greatest frost risk, despite a few nights during mid-April when temperatures descended to 32oF or even 30o.

The period leading up to the flowering was dry, with a sharp heat wave in mid-May. Just as the first flowers were beginning to appear, the last third of May turned cold and wet. The more precocious, warmer vineyard locations were hard-hit, with right-bank merlot, especially older vines and in the better hillside sites, seriously affected by coulure [a condition in which the blossoms are not pollinated and the embryo berries fall off as the stems shrivel from lack of photosynthesis]. The later merlots and the cabernets began to flower at the end of the month, but the next two weeks brought extremely erratic conditions: heat, then violent storms, then more heat, then four days of rain, then cold nights, then another heat wave, then a couple days of cool, damp weather, followed by a day in the mid-90s). This drew out the flowering over nearly a month, and resulted in additional coulure in the later-flowering vines.

In addition, millerandage [mixed berry size within the same bunches, with some berries remaining small and underdeveloped] was widespread, but generally worse in the later-flowering cabernets than in the merlot. The problem of aborted berries in the bunches was a tricky one. Very few chateaux can afford to remove these stunted berries during the summer via green harvesting (more than one chateau director told me that this step can risk damaging the healthier berries, even if it were economically feasible). The best option is to eliminate the stunted or less-ripe berries at the time of the harvest, and many properties that did not already own them purchased special vibrating sorting tables prior to the harvest.

Many chateaux that knew early on that they had lost a significant portion of their merlots were loath to crop-thin their cabernets and further reduce their potential 2002 production. But as Marcel Ducasse of Chateau Lagrange noted, vines that had come through the flowering period relatively unscathed (particularly the cabernets) tended to be carrying full loads of fruit, and really required crop-thinning. Those who did not carry out green harvests tended not to de-leaf either, and in these vineyards grape bunches shaded by leaves were more vulnerable to rot in the damp conditions of late August and early September. Vineyards with spreading rot often had to be picked in a hurry in September, before the fruit was ripe, while those chateaux that had done careful work in the vines had less fragile fruit and were in a position to wait for more thorough ripeness.

Following a cooler-than-average June that nonetheless featured a few heat spikes, July and August were also a bit cooler than normal. Precipitation totals were low in June and July, but above average in August, mostly due to a single heavy storm on the 19th (some vineyards on well-drained soils suffered from lack of water during July and early August). But even if rain totals were modest, the sky remained mostly overcast through the end of August. The veraison was drawn out through the month of August, accentuating the irregularity of ripeness caused by the long flowering. The storm on the 19th followed by showery weather during the last third of the month tended to swell the grapes and grey rot began to spread in less well-tended vineyards. Rot problems were exacerbated by several days of sunny, warm weather at the beginning of September.

Then, following two additional rainy spells between the 4th and the 9th, the miracle occurred. The wind turned around from the northeast, high pressure set in, and the weather was mostly fine, but not hot, for the next month. Cool nights from the 11th through 16th helped forestall further outbreaks of rot and provided good harvest conditions for white grapes in the Graves region (these wines tend to be extremely fresh in 2002).

Vineyards that were in good shape were able to take maximum advantage of the sunny weather and of the drying wind from the northeast that concentrated grape sugars through the evaporation of water (in some spots, fruit even suffered from the effects of dehydration). Warmer weather during the third week of September accelerated the ripening process, and by now much merlot was already over 12% in potential alcohol, with very high tannin readings. (Many proprietors told me that the indice des polyphenols et des tanins, or IPT, a purely quantitative measurement that is not necessarily indicative of the quality of the tannins, was higher in their young 2002s than in the 2000s.)

As is often the case, the autumnal equinox brought unsettled weather on the 20th and 21st, with heavy rain falling on the right bank, Entre-Deux-Mers and Pessac, and even some hail damage in the northern tip of the Medoc and parts of Moulis and Listrac. Many estates began picking their merlots on the 23rd, and almost everyone harvested most of their merlots between September 23 and October 4 in sunny conditions, with cool nights. The better merlots had very good grape sugars, strong acid levels and sturdy tannins. The fine weather in September had somewhat reduced the ripeness gap between cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, and these two varieties tended to be harvested simultaneously across the Bordeaux region, beginning mostly on September 30. Most of the cabernets were picked before rain returned on October 9. The late-ripening petit verdot grapes were also highly concentrated and fully mature, giving numerous chateaux in the Medoc a further advantage in 2002.

The 2002 wines. Overall yields in 2002 were down sharply from 2001, due to a small sortie (the number of embryo bunches in the buds), difficulties during and just after the flowering, and the dehydrating effect of the drying northeast wind in September. Ultimately, the musts were strong, and artificial concentrating techniques like reverse osmosis and entropy (both are useful methods to remove excess water from the grapes in years when rainfall prior to the harvest causes dilution) were rarely used. With high sugars and low crop levels, few estates carried out significant saignees or did more than light chaptalization.

Due to the cool summer nights, the musts were rather high in acidity, both malic and tartaric, and in many instances the malolactic fermentations took place a bit later than usual. (Christian Moueix chose not to present his new wines until June of 2002, in part due to the late malolactic fermentations, which in turn delayed the assemblages.) Tannin levels were generally high, and less-dense wines that combine high acid levels with tannins that are not sufficiently ripe are apt to show a tough side. But the materials in the skins proved generally easy to extract; many estates carried out shorter-than-normal macerations, with more gentle extraction. In my early tastings, I found less evidence of overextraction in 2002 than in recent vintages like 2001 and 1999.

Merlot is the major wild card in the 2002 deck. Some late-picked merlot is reasonably strong, although I also detected hints of overripeness in numerous right-bank examples, as growers let their fruit hang for maximum skin maturity. Other merlot is merely correct, sometimes lacking fat, sweetness and flavor development even where alcohol levels are healthy. And some merlot is skinny or even green, with elevated acidity betraying its lack of ripeness. Some of the best merlots, vinified carefully and in some cases enriched on their lees, are turning out well and should develop slowly in bottle, while many other right-bank wines do not have the constitutions to support more than medium-term aging. The cabernets, on the other hand, are more consistently successful, but the ultimate quality of these wines will depend on whether the fruit had enough hang time and sunshine to truly ripen.

For this taster, the high points in 2002 are the cabernet sauvignon in the Northern Medoc and the cabernet franc on the right bank (plus petit verdot, of course). The cabernet in the Medoc is often deeply colored, dense, strong and tannic, with aromas and flavors of dark fruits and flowers and palate-stimulating acidity. Many wines from St. Estephe, Pauillac and St. Julien are dry and classically structured, with firm, lively tannins. In fact, this cabernet is typically more precise and more scented than the cabernet in 2000, and perhaps closer in style to the great Northern Medoc cabernets of 1996 (some insiders compare the structure of the 2002 cabernet sauvignon to that of 1986, a year in which a drying wind prior to the harvest had brought the cabernets to near-perfect ripeness). The top wines of the Medoc, including the Pauillac first growths, Leoville-Las Cases and Cos d'Estournel, will probably need 8 to 12 years to approach peak drinkability and go on for another decade or two, while slightly less structured examples will be at their best 5 to 18 years after the vintage.

In Margaux and to a lesser extent in the Graves, the vintage is more variable, with too many wines showing elevated acidity and incomplete ripeness. Less-dense examples and those with a sizable percentage of merlot will not have the same longevity as the best wines from further north, even where pHs are low and acid levels are healthy. Right-bank chateaux whose wines feature a substantial percentage of cabernet franc were often able to make very good to excellent wines with solid structure. But many merlot-based wines, particularly in Pomerol, lack flesh, ripeness and dimension; these smaller-scaled wines will probably be best consumed between now and 2012 or so, and they may never truly blossom in the bottle. However, while the number of potentially outstanding wines in the right bank is small, I tasted many very good ones, with attractive, sweet fruit, decent concentration and reasonably well-integrated acids and tannins. Work in the vineyards and severe selection in the winery were critical, of course, and I was struck by the number of successes in lesser appellations like the Cotes de Castillon and Cotes de Francs to the east of St. Emilion. (Sauternes has apparently had another above-average vintage, with early samples showing lovely sweetness of fruit and uncharacteristic approachability, but it's the powerfully constituted 2001s that fans of sweet wine should be focusing on now; I will provide a set of tasting notes on these wines in the next issue.)

A second look at the 2001s. As most IWC readers will recall, I very much liked a number of the 2001s in their infancy, even if the wines were tricky to taste and often rather austere last spring, six months after the harvest. (Interestingly, even though the 2002s also tended to finish their malolactic fermentations a bit later than usual, and despite the fact that many wines show more structure than flesh, most early tasters agreed that this vintage was easier to taste during the Union des Grands Crus tastings than the 2001s had been last spring, although many complained about significant sample variation this year.) But the best of these wines are developing nicely in barrel, putting on weight while retaining their aromatic freshness and precision of flavor. While it's a decidedly variable vintage, excellent wines were made in most major appellations of the departemente of the Gironde. The 2001s tend to be less fleshy than 2000 but display lovely purity of fruit and a balance more classic to the Bordeaux region.

Current Bordeaux pricing. That the Union des Grands Crus tastings were surprisingly well-attended this spring was no doubt largely due to the fact that potential buyers sniffed a bargain. Prices for 2001s had already come down sharply from opening prices for the 2000s, and further declines were expected on the 2002s. In fact, the wines that have opened to date, including a few first growths, are typically down 20% to 35% from last year's levels. Unfortunately, however, the year-to-year decline in the value of the U.S. dollar against the Euro has been about 20%, thus negating much of the pricing advantage. Still, prices of $100 a bottle for first growths may well offer well-heeled collectors reasonable value - assuming, of course, that we are approaching the bottom of the current down cycle, which is far from a foregone conclusion.

Elsewhere, there will be no shortage of very good 2002s at affordable prices, many of which should offer early drinking pleasure. For wine lovers who are tired of getting green, one-dimensional or overoaked California cabernets in the $30-and-under range, many Bordeaux wines merit active buying interest. Still, I see little reason to purchase 2002 futures anytime soon given the large quantities of 2001s and 1999s that are still unsold, and from all reports early buying interest in the vintage has been muted. Although numerous retailers report some demand for 2002 first growths, in the days leading up to press-time I heard more anecdotal evidence about emerging interest in the better 2001s, which went largely unsold last spring. With many of these wines still available as futures at prices not much above opening levels, the 2001s may be a more appropriate target today for many wine Bordeaux lovers.

Although many 2002s were surprisingly easy to taste in early April, others had just been assembled; some were at the tail end of their secondary fermentations. In numerous cases, I tasted radically different samples of the same wine on different days. Thus, I have chosen not to publish notes now on dozens of 2002s that showed awkwardly or inconsistently in early April; while these wines may indeed be weak, I'd rather taste them in better condition before publishing notes and scores. And in other cases I have used wider projected ranges of wine quality than I usually do, as some wines have not even begun to come into focus. In my Bordeaux coverage in this issue, price ranges listed for 2000s come from a half dozen major retailers across the country who are offering these wines. Price ranges for 2001s are based on current pre-arrival offerings.