In December, I was in Bordeaux, talking with wine merchants about the 2005 vintage, now in transit. Although it was claret we were discussing, someone overhearing the conversation might have mistaken the subject to be gold, diamonds or bags full of cash. o The merchants described how millions of dollars worth of young wine was being shipped from wineries to their cellars.
The trucks moved with armed guards and surveillance cars ahead and behind; otherwise, because of the high risk of theft, the wines could not be insured. Most amazing of all, these shipments often consisted of only a half-dozen cases.
"The world is a little crazy," marveled one négociant, who wished to remain anonymous. "It really is hard to believe, but we are talking about a lot of money. We can't afford to have the wines stolen en route to our cellars. You lose a truckload of first-growths, or something like Pétrus, and you lose millions."
There's no doubt that taken as a whole, Bordeaux 2005 is the world's most expensive young vintage ever. But it is also one of the best from France's premier wine region. As high-priced as some of the best wines are, they are magnificent, and touch your heart and soul the moment you put your nose in the glass. Eight wines have earned perfect scores of 100 points—seven reds and one dry white—the most ever in my tastings of young Bordeaux.
2005 In Context
The 2005 vintage will go into the history books alongside other great modern classics for Bordeaux, including 2003, 2000, 1995, 1990, 1989 and 1982. But there has not been a vintage since 1989 in which the region's reds, whites and sweeties have all been of such high quality. This may be why many producers compare 2005 to that earlier year, which I rated 98 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale.
But I think 2005 is even better than 1989. The wines are not only better made, they were better born. They were produced in one of the best periods in the history of Bordeaux winemaking; even compared with only a few years ago, wine producers are paying closer attention to just about every aspect of viticulture and winemaking.
The reds show complex aromas of ripe fruits, tobacco and minerals, intensely flavored palates, and seamless textures of powerful yet ultrafine tannins and fresh acidity. They are in total harmony in their structure as young clarets, like perfectly carved marble sculptures by Auguste Rodin or Henry Moore. Dry and sweet whites are equally impressive, with the '05 Sauternes bridging the gap between the structured 2001s and the superripe 2003s.
"You really can't compare what we are doing today to what we were doing in a great year like 1989 or 1982," admits Jean-Guillaume Prats, president of second-growth St.-Estèphe Cos-d'Estournel. Prats made his greatest wine ever in 2005 (98 points). "For example, our grape yields are half compared with those vintages', and the attention to detail in every aspect of our winemaking is incomparable."
With that in mind, is 2005 better than the postmodern classic 2000? On the Right Bank (centered around St.-Emilion and Pomerol), yes. I give 2005 99 points in this region (compared with 97 points for 2000), thanks largely to the mind-blowing quality in Pomerol.
On the Left Bank (which includes the Médoc and Pessac-Léognan), not quite. I give 2005 98 points in this region (compared with 99 points for 2000) because some of the big names in the Médoc underperformed slightly. Still, 2005 is an amazing vintage in general.
In some cases, châteaus made better wines in 2000. Châteaus Lafite Rothschild and Latour certainly did (both scored 100 points in 2000), although they also made fantastic wines in 2005 (98 and 99 points, respectively). In other instances, châteaus made their best wines ever in 2005. Success came not only to trophy wine producers, but also to dozens of lesser-known names in less popular appellations.
"Bordeaux has the best values of all the appellations in France," insists Stéphane Derenoncourt, a leading enologist in Bordeaux who makes wines in unfashionable appellations such as Côtes de Francs and Premières Côtes de Blaye as well as in top districts such as Pomerol and St.-Emilion. "There are so many great wines for great prices."
The Character Of the Wines
I blind-tasted nearly 1,000 2005s in Bordeaux during a two-week period this past December (as well as dozens of 2004s and 2003s and a number of older vintages back to the 1950s). As I wrote in blogs during my trip, the top 2005s are not wines that blow you away with their concentration as do many of the world's highly rated wines. Instead, they impress with their completeness. The totality of their character and structure is what ensures a long life for these wines. The top names will be great for decades to come. (A chart of my top-scorers appears on page 60; for complete reviews see the Buying Guide of this issue or the Wine Ratings Search at WineSpectator.com. An alphabetical guide to all '05s tasted begins on page 163.)
Nevertheless, these young wines seduce already with their complex aromas of ripe fruit, minerals and light earth. These enticing aromas constantly evolve in the glass. They are mesmerizing, like subtle perfume on a beautiful woman. You fall in love with them the moment you taste them.
"They are wines that are easy to understand," says Jacques Guinaudeau, the owner of Lafleur, the super-rarified Pomerol. I gave his 2005 a perfect 100 points. "They are always going to be great. It's the length and class that make the 2005s so great."
Indeed, the palates of the top 2005s are dense yet agile, with superripe, seamless tannins and long, fresh finishes. It's rare to find such structured Bordeaux so light-footed and crisp. That's why many of the top wines almost seem drinkable now. In fact, I drank a number of bottles of 2005 left over from my tastings during meals with various friends and vintners. The wines were fabulous. I still remember a bottle of 2005 Haut-Brion that I had one night with a juicy grilled steak at my hotel—what a wine!
This brought back fond memories of my first trip to Bordeaux, in the summer of 1983. I had gone to taste the 1982s, my first experience with barrel tasting. The late Alexis Lichine, esteemed wine merchant and author, invited me to his château for lunch with some his friends, including Anthony Barton of Léoville Barton, Bruno Prats of Cos-d'Estournel, and the late Jean-Eugene Borie of Ducru-Beaucaillou.
We drank some of the '82 samples with lunch after the tasting, and the young reds were amazingly attractive, even friendly, after less than a year in barrel, which, these veteran vintners explained to me, is a telltale sign of a great vintage in Bordeaux. A great year produces great wines that are always great, no matter when you drink them, young or old, and 2005 is exactly like that.
"Where [else] can you make wines that are so good when they are young yet age for decades?" asks Denis Durantou, owner and winemaker of the small, high-end Pomerol estate of L'Eglise Clinet. "We make dreams, not wine."
Eight Perfect Wines
One of my dreams in 2005 is Haut-Brion. The estate nearly always makes wine that is beautiful when young, but in 2005 Haut-Brion outperformed other châteaus by earning 100-point ratings for both its red and its white. The smallest of the five first-growths, this American-owned estate made two extra-ordinary wines in 2005. The red, Merlot-based with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, tempts your senses with its incredible aromas of coffee cake, blackberry, floral, coffee bean and vanilla bean, and Chinese spices. It's so complex on the nose. The palate is full-bodied, with seamless, hyperpolished tannins that caress every millimeter of the palate. It lasts for minutes.
The white, a blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, is equally beguiling. It is barrel-fermented and -aged, and shows the structure of a red wine with its dense and layered palate, yet it remains very fresh and lively. It is vibrant and exciting, with intense aromas of lightly toasted oak, pineapple skin, lemon, gooseberry, acacia honey and peach tart, even flowers. It's full-bodied, with tropical fruit, honey, vanilla cream and lightly toasted oak. It is gorgeous to drink now, but will improve for decades. In fact, it would be a waste to drink it young. Haut-Brion Blanc ages wonderfully. I recently uncorked bottles that were 10, 20 and 30 years old, and they drank beautifully.
"2005 is a really great year for dry whites because it combines the richness of 2003 with the freshness of 2004," says Jean-Philippe Delmas, technical director of Haut-Brion as well as of La Mission-Haut-Brion, which is under the same ownership. "The reds are very close to the 2000 [in style], but better."
Besides the two Haut-Brions, six other wines earned 100-point scores. They are Ausone, L'Evangile, Lafleur, Léoville Las Cases, Margaux and Pétrus.
The Margaux had my vote for "wine of the vintage" since the moment I tasted it from barrel in spring 2006. It is a hyperclassic Bordeaux, with amazing complexity of aroma and flavor and superb structure and length. It is a wine that changes every moment. Tasting this young wine moves you like reading great poetry. It is an emotional experience.
"I have never seen anything like this," marvels Paul Pontailler, technical director of Margaux. "The wine has such fine tannins and freshness. It is like the 2000 but has better acidity. It is an amazing wine."
Perhaps the most inspirational of the 2005s for me is the L'Evangile, the esteemed Merlot-based Pomerol. It reminds me of great Pomerols from the 1940s and 1950s with its breathtaking aromas of superripe fruit and palate of dense fruit and velvety tannins. Yet it is fresh and crisp, which is the common character in the vintage. The great Right Bank reds from 1950, 1947 and 1945, such as Pétrus, Lafleur and L'Evangile, are some of the most moving and profound wines I have drunk in my career. For many, L'Evangile has not been great since 1982, but for me, 2005 easily surpasses that benchmark in quality.
"I remember making [wine in] 1982, but it was not the same as 2005," recalls Charles Chevallier, head of winemaking at L'Evangile, Lafite Rothschild, Duhart-Milon Rothschild and Rieussec. He didn't make the 1982 L'Evangile, but all the properties now share the same ownership. "The wines were much harder in 1982," Chevallier adds. "The 2005 is rounder, fresher and richer by comparison."
Price and Value
The obvious drawback to many of the top-scoring wines is that they are extremely expensive. First-growths Margaux and Haut-Brion are hovering around $1,000 a bottle. Ausone, the tiny-production St.-Emilion, is about twice that, while Pétrus can sell for as much as $5,000 a bottle in the United States. (Many of the top 2005s are now being shipped and will arrive in the States beginning in late spring.)
Vintners, both in France and abroad, seem unconcerned with the high prices for some wines, especially since the top-name 2005s sold so easily as futures. Moreover, they say that new affluence continues to grow around the world. From Russia to China to India, the newly wealthy want to buy the best names from Bordeaux in great vintages. "We didn't have enough of the top 2005s to sell," reports Ferdinand Mahler-Besse of the Bordeaux wine merchant firm carrying his family's name. "The demand was more than the supply."
There's a lot of debate about what percentage of these ultra--expensive wines has been bought by speculators (rather than by drinkers). Moreover, many consumers continue to generalize that 2005 is overpriced due to the high prices of a couple dozen names.
"The superexpensive wines represent only about 2 million bottles of the 900 million produced in Bordeaux in 2005," insists Mathieu Chadronnier of CVBG, one of the region's biggest fine wine merchants. "It's not that much of the production when you look at it properly."
Nonetheless, the big question is whether investors will hold on to their stocks of 2005s or sell them early on to make a quick profit. Some Bordeaux vintners are concerned that large amounts of high-end wine could trade hands this year due to volatility in the global economy and other negative market conditions such as the sub-prime debacle and the decline in property values. Time will tell.
"My wines are still bought primarily by people who plan to drink them one day," Jean-Hubert Delon, the owner of Léoville Las Cases, tells me during a lunch in Bordeaux. He argues that real wine drinkers buy his wines in great years like 2005 because they remain relatively accessible compared with the region's trophy wines. "I like to think of my wine as a first-growth for wine drinkers," he says.
There are other wines in that vein in 2005—fantastic bottles that won't require that you remortgage the house. They include Cos-d'Estournel (98, $206), La Conseillante (97, $189), Malescot-St.-Exupéry (97, $100), Rauzan-Ségla (97, $100), Vieux-Château-Certan (97, $200), Léoville Barton (96, $130), Pape Clément (96, $196), Pavie-Macquin (96, $200), Pontet-Canet (96, $100), Troplong-Mondot (96, $250) and Clerc Milon (95, $57). These wines are of trophy quality in 2005, but without the diamond-encrusted prices.
The really great values in 2005, however, are going to be in the 90- to 92-point range. I found many wines that are expected to sell for between $30 and $60 a bottle that are of outstanding quality (90 points or higher) and offer all the harmony in fruit and structure that one could hope for from the vintage. My favorites in this group include d'Aiguilhe, Bouscaut, Pipeau, Puygueraud, Valrose Cuvée Alienon (all at 92 points), Belgrave, Couhins-Lurton, Reignac Balthus, Gigault Cuvée Viva, and Patache d'Aux Cuvée Flora (all 91). But there are many more to choose from.
Such across-the-board success is a sure sign of a fabulous vintage in Bordeaux. Just about everything is good in 2005, starting with basic, wine merchants' blends such as the Christian Moueix Merlot (85, $NA), moving up to lesser-known estates in less-popular appellations, such as Fontenil (91, $72) and Haut-Carles (91, $34) in Fronsac, and reaching for the stars with great names like Mouton-Rothschild (95, $680) and Cheval-Blanc (97, $945). For a detailed look at some of the most impressive values in 2005, see the profiles beginning on page 63.
The Roots of Quality
Wine producers in Bordeaux knew from the beginning that they had something exceptional. The grapes were gorgeous when they were picked, wonderfully ripe yet crisp and bright with acidity. Most vintners described the growing season and harvest as "ideal," even "easy." The flowering and berry set were normal while the summer growing season was mostly sunny with cool nights. The latter ensured that acidity levels in the grapes were higher than normal.
For example, many 2005s are between 13 percent and 14.5 percent natural alcohol yet they have a pH of about 3.7 to 3.8, an excellent balance compared with other recent hot years. They also have a lot of tannins. Semi-drought conditions in 2005 resulted in small, thick-skinned berries that gave loads of color and tannins during the fermentations and macerations.
I remember tasting the wines from barrel in spring 2006. Their powerful tannins were not very evident due to their wonderfully ripe fruit and bright acidity. It was the same in December '07 when I tasted them from bottle. The wines have loads of tannins, yet they appear fruity and refined due to their wonderful balance and harmony. The whites, both dry and sweet, are equally balanced and satisfying.
With all the excitement over 2005 in terms of style and quality, the vintage should be a benchmark for a very long time. The fact that many of its wines sold at record-breaking prices only adds to the notoriety. "With such high prices, the quality has to be confirmed in the bottle," declares Frédéric Engerer, president of first-growth Latour, which made a fantastic wine in the vintage (99 points). "Bordeaux has to prove that 2005 is extraordinary."
It has. Try some and see what all the excitement is about.
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