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2008 California Wine Experience: 2005 Bordeaux

Top châteaus treat audience to 10 classic young wines from an already legendary vintage

Dana Nigro
Posted: October 21, 2008

By now, every serious wine lover knows that the 2005 vintage in Bordeaux is a benchmark for the great wines of the world. Well before the last seminar of the 2008 Wine Experience, the audience was buzzing about Saturday afternoon's lineup of 10 classic young Bordeaux, eager to try wines that they may have purchased but not opened yet, or wines they may not have the chance to try again.

As Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken observed, "One of the sommeliers calculated the cost of the 2005 Bordeaux we're having. If a person bought one bottle of each of the 10 wines, it would cost him $5,200."

The 2005 vintage has been rated overall at 98 points for the Left Bank and 99 points for the Right Bank by senior editor and European bureau chief James Suckling, who has been tasting the wines of Bordeaux since 1983. "This is a year that will be remembered in the same vein as 1865, 1870, 1899, 1900, '28, '29, '45, '82, '89, '90 and finally 2000," he said, before introducing the château owners and winemakers, many of whom made the trip even though they hadn't finished their 2008 harvest.

In 2005, everything went right for winegrowers. In the winter, there was enough rain; the fruit set was good in the spring; and the summer was hot, but with a little bit of rain and cool nights, so the grapes maintained their acidity and perfumes. "It was top to bottom a great year," Suckling said, when everyone, from the smallest producers to the most famous estates, made great wine. While the wines at the top level are very expensive, consumers can find many excellent wines in the $15 to $30 range.

The 2005 vintage is also excellent because the Bordelais have improved their practices, Suckling said. Even in the classic 1982 vintage, he explained, châteaus were making wines from vineyard yields twice as high as in 2005; now they have cut yields to start, are more strict in their selection of grapes when picking, have renovated their wineries, and are using better oak and better vinification techniques.

Guests enjoyed the 97-point Vieux-Château-Certan, of which only 4,000 cases were made.  

Although the 10 Bordeaux were double decanted a few hours before the seminar, when tasting such young wines with the structure for long aging, it can be difficult to understand what they will become in 20 years or more. "Sometimes you have to dig down to really see what's there," said Suckling, who instructed the audience to look at the quality of the tannins, the density of the wine and its length on the palate. "These wines always had such harmony. This is what I like about the vintage—how the alcohol and tannins and fruit all come together with a touch of freshness and acidity."

The first wine presented was the Château Malescot-St.-Exupéry Margaux 2005 (97 points, $100 on release). Jean-Luc Zuger, who runs the third-growth family estate, said he looks for good balance and doesn't extract too much, to keep the freshness in the wine. Suckling described it as dense but elegant, long with beautiful tannins and "Burgundian clarity." Zuger quipped that the best notes he got were not from Suckling but from Zuger's father, who said he "was very proud of the '61 he produced but you can be more proud of the 2005, because I think it is better."

Next up was second-growth Château Rauzan-Ségla Margaux 2005 (97, $100), owned by the Wertheimer family, owners of Chanel. Managing director John Kolasa said that he has worked to restore the estate's centuries-old reputation by making changes such as improving drainage in the vineyards to keep the grapes healthy and reintroducing Petit Verdot, which helps fill in the midpalate. In 2005, all the elements were there to make great wine, he said. "All you had to do was be intelligent enough to see exactly what you had and not be tempted to make a little bit more wine, to stay faithful to what your philosophy is." Suckling described the wine as still tight but showing flowers, raspberry and vanilla, with sweet fruit on the finish.

Third in the lineup was the Château Pontet-Canet Pauillac 2005 (96, $100). Suckling said the fifth-growth estate is Mouton-Rothschild's closest neighbor and is "giving Mouton a real run for its money," which he attributed to the hard work of owner Alfred Tesseron. Though it's his 30th vintage, Tesseron said it's the first one that's totally organic; he has been trying to grow grapes in the most natural way possible so they express the real flavors of the terroir. Suckling called the resulting wine rich and powerful, with chewy, ripe tannins and licorice, tar and mineral notes. "This is classic Pauillac character," he concluded.

  Back row (from left): Jean-Luc Zuger, Malescot-St.-Exupéry; Alfred Tesseron, Pontet-Canet; Jean-Guillaume Prats, Cos-d'Estournel; senior editor James Suckling; Jean-Michel Laporte, La Conseillante. Front row: John Kolasa, Rauzan-Ségla, Yorick d'Alton, Léoville Las Cases; Christophe Salin, L'Evangile; Coralie de Boüard de Laforest, Angélus; Alexandre Thienpont, Vieux-Château-Certan.

Presenting the Château Cos-d'Estournel St.-Estèphe 2005 (98, $206), CEO Jean-Guillaume Prats joked that "we can say with total conviction that 2005 is the vintage of the millennium, as was '82, '61 and '28." He remarked that if you compare the 2005 wines to '82, "they are far more modern because they are easy to enjoy at a very early stage. There is a long extraction, a long maceration, long aging in barrels and the wines are very round, supple and silky." Suckling, noting the wine's classic St.-Estèphe Indian spice and berry character, added, "In 2005, all the appellations show their typicity."

Although proprietor Jean-Hubert Delon couldn't be on hand to present a perfect wine from the second-growth Château Léoville Las Cases 2005 (100, $315), his brother-in-law Yorick d'Alton explained that the wine contains an unusually high proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon (88 percent), which only happens in the best vintages and guarantees its aging potential. Suckling added that this wine has everything: length, density and structure. "It's just a sleeping giant right now. ... It should live for at least 100 years."

Moving over to the Right Bank, the audience was served three neighboring wines from the plateau of Pomerol, which Suckling called "the holy grail for Merlot," with its blue clay that retains moisture in very warm years. Winemaker Alexandre Thienpont, whom Suckling called "a poet in the vineyards," poured his family's Vieux-Château-Certan Pomerol 2005 (97, $200). He said, "[2005] was a good Merlot year, a good Cabernet Sauvignon year and a good Cabernet Franc year," which gives the wine power, finesse and complexity.

The Château La Conseillante Pomerol 2005 (97, $189) comes from an estate that slightly lost its way in the 1980s, and has found new focus under winemaker Jean-Michel Laporte, who has changed how different plots were picked and handled. "We can have precision, real finesse, more complexity, due to the details." Laporte noted that Conseillante has a unique character that comes from its two terrains on the plateau, the top part and then 4 hectares in St.-Emilion, which has some gravel. "It's not totally Pomerol, it has a hint of St.-Emilion."

The Château L'Evangile Pomerol 2005 (100, $260) is another wine from an estate that has seen a return to greatness. Christophe Salin, president of Domaines Baron de Rothschild (Lafite), explained that when they bought L'Evangile in 1990, despite high prices for the land, they considered it a long-term investment. But their first harvest was 1991, which had a terrible frost and they didn't make one bottle. In 1992, the whole crop was sold to two clients at less than 10 euros a bottle. 1993 and 1994 weren't particularly strong. Now finally, they met their goal with 2005. "This is the long term," Salin said. Suckling commented, "This is so Pomerol. It has such structure, dense tannins; it's powerful but at the end you're ready for another sip. This is the real deal."

For the Château Angélus St.-Emilion 2005 (96, $295), Hubert de Boüard de Laforest's daughter Coralie explained that hydric stress during the growing season gave the grapes thick skins, which led to deep color and concentration in the wines. While Cabernet Franc usually dominates the wine, she said, in 2005, the Merlot was so beautiful that it became 60 percent of the blend. Suckling enthused, "This redefines what St.-Emilion can be. While a lot of the wines rest on elegance, this has a lot of power with finesse."

The final wine was from Pessac-Léognan, the Château La Mission-Haut-Brion 2005 (97, $663), which was also about two-thirds Merlot. Suckling recalled that in 1983, when the Dillon family, which owns Haut-Brion, bought La Mission, people worried that the estate would lose its identity and become a second wine. But the terroir always shows its unique character of hot stones and iodine. Like all the other wines poured that afternoon, he said, this has the length and structure for long-term aging.

One of the great things about Bordeaux, according to Suckling, is that these are wines that make you think, that prompt conversation and even disagreement. And with two recent classic vintages laying claim to being the region's new benchmark, he said, "We'll be debating for a long, long time whether 2000 or 2005 is better."

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