Bordeaux was not a pretty sight in the last week of March. In vineyards saturated by a winter of interminable rain the rows of twisted, black vine stumps stood leafless and forlorn. Why, then, were there convoys of hired Clios and Puntos snaking their tortuous way through the flat, windswept countryside? Even the quagmires couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of the world's wine trade, which descended on claret country last month following word on the grapevine that 2000 could be the best vintage since 1982.
There's plenty of wishful thinking. After a decade which failed to match the 1980s for consistently good vintages, Bordeaux desperately needs a Big One to restore its faltering image as the world's greatest fine wine region. Whereas once the region of grand châteaux had few rivals for its affections, today the fine wine decanter spills over to Burgundy and the Rhône, to Italy, California and Australia. As wine lovers become more vinously promiscuous, Bordeaux has to try that much harder to make new friends and prevent loyal customers from joining the expanding foreign legion.
At least there is consensus on one point. No one can remember another vintage quite like 2000. Août fait le mout, as they say (August determines the character of the grape juice). July was rainy but August unusually dry.
Crucially, almost the entire harvest took place in warm, dry weather. 2000 was at last a vintage in which growers didn't need to pretend that they'd picked before the rains. Only those who were abroad, asleep or growers in Sauterne, where the sweet whites did lose out to late downpours, would have harvested that late.
The cabernet sauvignon grape ripened beautifully in 2000. And since cabernet is at its highest concentration in the Médoc region, it is not surprising that the wines of the Médoc generally appear to have surpassed those of the Graves and the Right Bank districts of St-Emilion and Pomerol. It wasn't a foregone conclusion. The drought in August inhibited the ripening process, so growers had to keep their nerve in the face of worrying long-range weather forecasts. If they picked early, they missed out on an extra degree of ripeness. If they hung on, they brought the grapes in in optimum conditions. Many have made great wines.
At this early stage in a young wine's life, it is hard to predict, other than in general terms, how the unfinished wine, tasted as a barrel sample, will turn out once it's been bottled.
What the early barrel tastings can do is offer a snapshot of the vintage and help potential customers decide whether or not to buy Bordeaux en primeur (pre-release) when wine merchants offer the wines over the next couple of months, and if so, which ones.
Of the Famous Five icons (Château Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild), Margaux and Lafite are great, monumental wines capable of outliving us all. But with prices to match their stature, these great standard-bearers are out of most people's reach. In a first-rate vintage, it's the scores of other classified châteaux and the hundreds of middle-ranking wines ( crus bourgeois) that can offer the real value. 2000 is that vintage.
"This is a timely vintage for us, the quality is there across the board," says Jean-Michel Cazes, the well-respected owner of Château Lynch Bages. "Some of the better crus bourgeois are excellent this year and the better-classified châteaux are wines for the future. It's a vintage of powerful wines, and although the tannins are the highest on record, they're not aggressive or herbal. They have built-in approachability."
I'd second that. This is going to be a year of great values, price permitting, among well-selected châteaux, particularly at the middle- to high-ranking levels in the Médoc.
Although voluble about their wines, producers went quiet when the subject of price was raised. But you could still see the mental calculators working overtime. Despite the undoubted demand for 2000, there are brakes on Bordeaux's financial aspirations. It may still be France's wine capital, but it is no longer automatic flavour of the month overseas. And the shameful overpricing of the no-better-than average 1997 vintage still haunts producers.
According to Mr Cazes, even in the face of enormous demand for vintage 2000, there's a collective feeling Bordeaux should make a special effort to be responsible on its pricing. A rise of 5 to 10 per cent is being bandied about. This is all very well, but it is also dependent on restraint by the intermediaries in the chain, brokers, Bordeaux negociants and wine merchants overseas. If the market is as keen to get its hands on Bordeaux 2000 as it appears, lovers of fine Bordeaux can only hope that common sense will prevail.
¿ As prices are gradually released in Bordeaux over the coming weeks, specialist UK wine merchants will be sending out opening offers. I'll return to the subject with a guide to the best wines and values, and how to buy en primeur. Meanwhile, here is a selection of top Médocs to watch out for:
Beychevelle, Brane-Cantenac, Calon-Ségur, Cantemerle, Cos d'Estournel, Léoville-Barton, Gruaud-Larose, Lagrange, La Lagune, Léoville-Poyferré, Lynch-Bages, Palmer, Pichon Longueville, Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux, Rauzan Gassies, Rauzan-Ségla, Talbot. At middle-ranking level: Chasse-Spleen, Labégorce Zédé, Le Boscq, Malescasse, Maucaillou, Monbrison, Pibran, Poujeaux, Ramafort, Sénéjac, Siran.Reuse content