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Bordeaux: Ever Optimistic Despite Wet Harvest
By James Suckling
Although an intermittently wet and cool fall dampened Bordeaux wine producers' enthusiasm for 1999, many vintners now hope to make better wines than they expected to just after the harvest. Some believe they can make reds as good as those from the highly touted 1996 vintage.
"We think that we have made some very good wine in 1999," said Jean-Guillaume Prats, manager of Château Cos-d'Estournel, a second growth in St. Estèphe. "It will take a good amount of rigorous selections, but we have some very good vats of wines to choose from."
Most wine producers in Bordeaux, regardless of the region, believe that the Cabernet Sauvignon is generally better than the Merlot in 1999. "The Merlot is very good, but the Cabernet is wonderful," said Paul Pontallier, technical director for first-growth Château Margaux. "The Cabernet has more charm and roundness. I am very pleasantly surprised by the quality."
The weather was variable throughout most of 1999. The spring was cold and unstable, although hot and humid weather in May helped the flowering of the vines. June and July were periodically rainy, as was the first half of August. Growers were thankful for a dry, hot spell from mid-August to mid-September that helped the grapes ripen. But rain began again in late September, with storms off and on into early October, when many estates were harvesting their reds.
According to Pontallier, rain levels in September 1999 were about the same as those in September 1996, a very good vintage in top Haut-Médoc appellations such as Margaux, though many wines from elsewhere were diluted. "The rain did not hurt us from making excellent wine," he said. "The quality shouldn't be too far from 1996."
Not all of Bordeaux fared as well, however. In St.-Emilion, a hailstorm ripped through some of the region's top vineyards in early September, cutting open grapes and ripping leaves off vines. Estates such as Château Angélus, Clos L'Oratoire and Château Canon were forced to begin harvesting almost two weeks earlier than usual to prevent the grapes from spoiling in the vineyards. As a result, some winemakers may not produce a serious wine this year.
Nonetheless, some Right Bank wine producers expect to make superb wines. "This year we have everything to make a wine of longevity, and we have a vintage like that every 10 years," said Jacques Guinaudeau, the manager of Château Lafleur in Pomerol.
But not every vintner was as highly optimistic about the vintage overall. "1999 was difficult," acknowledged Véronique Sanders, commercial director for the Pessac-Léognan estate of Château Haut-Bailly. "The harvest was really a yo-yo effect. The weather kept changing constantly and you never knew what it was going to be like the following day." She concluded, "In general for Bordeaux, this year will be very heterogeneous--those who worked hard in the vineyards will be rewarded ,and those who didn't won't. A vintage like this 20 or 30 years ago might have been a disaster."