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Message in the Bottle, or Barrel

Posted: Mar 29, 2007 10:07am ET

I keep hearing wine producers in Bordeaux using the word “great” or “classic” for 2006, and I just can’t understand it. Maybe one could say that his or her 2006 was a great wine or that it was classic in style. But 2006 is not a great vintage. I am sorry.

Can’t we just agree that 2006 was a good year when some outstanding, even a few exceptional wines, were made?

The 2006 vintage just couldn’t be great. The growing season wasn’t great. The harvest wasn’t great. The only thing that was great was the work some châteaus did in their vineyards and the winemaking they did in their cellars. And that’s how they made some very good to outstanding wines. Some made exceptional quality wines, especially those châteaus with top-quality vineyards.

For example, I tasted the 2006 La Mission Haut-Brion today and it is one of the wines of the vintage. It is rich and powerful yet refined and beautiful. It really stands out in this vintage. It is better than the Haut-Brion. Also, the grapes of La Tour-Haut-Brion are now incorporated in La Mission as well as La Mission’s second wine, La Chapelle, so this no doubt helped improve the quality.

But La Mission is certainly the exception in 2006. Most barrel samples I tasted are nowhere near the same level of quality as the La Mission, or Latour, Margaux, Mouton, and Las Cases.

“I am not surprised by the differences you found,” said Jean-Philippe Mascles, cellar master at Haut-Brion and La Mission, during a tasting with him today. I told him how uneven the vintage was. “It is normal. You had excesses during the year. It was sort of bizarre. You had a very hot and dry July. Then it was very cold for August. I remember wearing a sweater. Then it rained too but it rained lightly and consistently. Then September we had rain. Only producers with great vineyards who worked seriously made serious wines … it wasn’t a great year.”

YES. A great year is like 2005, when nearly everyone from the simple winery in some outback district of Bordeaux to the first-growth in Pauillac makes the wines of their career, or at least exceptional ones. And the few 2005s that I tasted this week are just that. They are fabulous. If you bought some, you are not going to be sorry. You might even want to consider buying some more.

I have tasted about 150 2006s so far, and the majority of the wines are good to very good but nothing special. I would say most would fall in the 84- to 87-point range, if I had to give them exact scores. Remember, I am not talking about crus classés, or any of the big names. I have tasted lots of bourgeois crus and petit château already. They are clean wines with good, but not opulent fruit, with firm tannins and medium length. Most lack some concentration in their midpalates and have slightly austere tannins.

Nearly every winemaker in Bordeaux has told me that this was a “vine grower’s vintage” but I might add that it was also a “winemaker’s vintage.” Those who excelled in both areas made the best wines of the vintage.

The fact is that very few wineries in Bordeaux had the financial resources to have done the necessary work in their vineyards and cellars to make excellent wines in 2006—primarily the very top names. Those wineries that worked well sell their bottles for high enough prices, like in 2005, to justify the financial sacrifice to make very good to outstanding wines in a less-than-perfect harvest.

“We have so much competition in the world now that we have to make outstanding wines even in a difficult vintage such as 2006,” said Hubert de Boüard, the winemaker and part owner of St.-Emilion’s Angélus as well as the proprietor of La Fleur de Boüard in Lalande de Pomerol. His Angélus is outstanding in 2006.

Hubert was saying that this year the en primeur, or futures campaign would mostly focus on 30 or 40 names. It is not a year to buy across the board, like in 2005. I am not sure I would personally buy much 2006 en primeur, but I can see that some might want to. The top names of Bordeaux are getting harder and harder to buy, particularly some of the cult wines and other limited-production wines. Basically, the wines to focus on are those with score ranges of 95–100 or 92–94 in my ratings.

I am talking about consumers, by the way. Wine merchants are going to have to buy anyway to protect their allocations of futures. The system works that way, whereby wine merchants usually have a set number of cases of a particular château they can buy each year. If they pass on buying in one year, especially less good ones, then they won’t get much in another. I know a number of U.S. wine merchants who didn’t buy many 2004 futures, so they had a limited number of 2005 to buy, and later sell.

Didn’t wine merchants and châteaus make enough money in 2005 anyway? Do they need to sell 2006 en primeur?

I haven’t finished tasting yet. So these are just my impressions at the moment. I have to taste the big names of St.-Emilion and Pomerol—Cheval-Blanc, Ausone, Pétrus, and Le Pin—and I suspect they made some excellent wines. But they are, as always, the cream on top of the milk. But the milk in 2006 is looking rather skim at the moment ...

I keep thinking about conversations over the week when wine producers looked me straight in the eye and said how 2006 was a great year. Some even said that 2006 was better than 2005. And some even said it didn’t rain during the harvest! That’s not helpfuI ... I was in Bordeaux during the harvest. Moreover, the wines tell the story.

Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  March 29, 2007 12:16pm ET
Hi James, one thing only: thank you for your clear view and extremly acurate point of view and thanks to clean a lot of everything said since the blast of '05. Thanks for your great blogludovic
Roberto Cassis
Guayaquil - Ecuador —  March 29, 2007 1:26pm ET
Hello James, do you think that Pomerol and St.Emilion would be better wines than the other regions?Please give your advice about Pomerol and St.Emilion..
Guus Hateboer
Netherlands —  March 29, 2007 3:39pm ET
James, very useful, very thorough. Excellent post.
James Suckling
 —  March 29, 2007 4:42pm ET
I will let you know tomorrow...
Horacio Campana / Butler Me
Monterrey, Mexico —  March 29, 2007 9:28pm ET
James,So Latour Haut Brion has ceased to exist?
Trevor Witt
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada —  March 29, 2007 9:40pm ET
James...I must also express my appreciation for your openess and frank discussion on the 2006's. It will be an interesting journey yet. On a personal note, I viewed your WS video with Jean-Luc Thunevin of Chateau Valandraud...a most excellent interview. The video segments on WS are very interesting and lend a more personal approach. J'ai tres surprise que vous parler et ecouter francais. C'etais tres bien. Maintenant, j'etudie la langue francaise, malheurusement, c'est tres difficile. Combien de ans vous parler francais? J'em excuse pour mes erruers dans ce courriel. Bon courage avec votre responsabilite au Bordeaux, France. Nous sommes tres heureuse avec votre correspondance. With so much riding on each vintage for each Chateau, it becomes very difficult to pick out the winners for our cellars. Thanks for your assistance. Stay healthy for the weeks ahead!!
David A Zajac
March 30, 2007 8:46am ET
I think the thing people need to keep in mind is that if the overall vintage is not a great vintage, then prices across the board will have to reflect that. Even if Latour and Mouton make 99 point wines in 2006, I can't imagine them selling for even half of what the 2005's are going for based upon the fact that the vintage appears to be moderately successful at best. That being said, it might create buying opportunities on the top wines if you care to buy futures, and if you don't, prices will not likely rise dramatically in the next few years.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  March 30, 2007 10:40am ET
You may already do this, but if not can I strongly recommend that when your bottle scores come out for the highest-rated 2006 Bordeaux you put them in a special "WS Insider" release? Perhaps even use one entire issue of the "WS Advance" as well in order to showcase the best buys of the vintage? I didn't mind when you did it for the Brunello (or was it Barolo?) retrospective and I'd really love to know where the final scores came down for the most worthy of the 2006 Bordeaux in advance of print publication.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  March 30, 2007 11:03am ET
James somethign amusing: (Copy and paste)


Look at instruction 23.
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  March 30, 2007 12:24pm ET
Horacio , si existe latour haut brion, no te preocupes. Saludos desde CUN .
James Suckling
 —  March 30, 2007 12:32pm ET
Ludovic. It's over. That's the word from the owner. I was there yesterday. 2005 was the last year. The grapes go into La Mission now. Sorry to disappoint you.
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  March 30, 2007 4:42pm ET
merci mr suckling. pourquoi ont ils arrete la production de latour haut brion ? thanks for the update and by the way your french is very good!

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