Wine: The Bordeaux threshold

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Indy Lifestyle Online

It was a surprise to receive an enthusiastic letter from Berry Bros & Rudd at the end of last month asking the rhetorical question: "2005 bordeaux - the best vintage ever?" It went on to say how amazed the St James's wine merchant continues to be by the sensational quality of the 2005 bordeaux "a truly fantastic vintage with great quality across the board on both the Left and Right Banks", and urging me to buy "unquestionably the finest wines produced in the modern era by their respective châteaux". The surprise lay in the fact that I was expecting the way to be paved for plaudits for the 2006 vintage which they and many others in the wine trade had just been to Bordeaux to taste. After all, weren't they shortly going to be releasing their en primeur (pre-release) offer for 2006?

I wasn't part of the media circus in Bordeaux this year, but a pretty good picture of the 2006 vintage was painted by the bordeaux wine merchant Bill Blatch. His detailed annual vintage report transcends commercial interests, pulling no punches in its insights into the growing season and its likely implications for quality. He points out that the hype over vintages like 2005 can overshadow a subsequent vintage, which may turn out better than expected. And it was looking as though 2006 might be such a vintage after a hot, early summer. But cool, damp August weather swelled and weakened the grapes. When it rained in mid-September, "picking decisions had to be made quickly … and the ripening was induced by the rain rather than the sun, and that brought with it a slight pinch to the tannins".

Mr Blatch concludes that 2006 red wines vary considerably from region to region, estate to estate and even within each estate. The merlot grape often shows traces of unripe characters and the later-ripening cabernet sauvignon clearly needed time, money and work in the vineyard. Tasting a handful of the new wines in London last month, it was hard not to disagree with the critics. James Suckling, of Wine Spectator, which normally hypes bordeaux to the skies, said "to be perfectly straightforward, 2006 is not a great vintage in bordeaux". According to Jancis Robinson, "this is a vintage to be bought by wine lovers only if they have an empty cellar that they are dying to fill given the vintage's notable acidity, lightweight fruit and rasping tannins".

At one such tasting, one of the country's leading bordeaux merchants said: "Frankly, our customers have shown zero interest in the 2006s". A recent report shows that although bordeaux sales are recovering on the British market, bordeaux retains the image of being an expensive wine. Given the fact that the region's producers made a massive killing on last year's superb vintage and that 2006 looks like being in the mould of the respectable, if unexciting, 2004s and 2001s, what sort of concession were the bordelais going to be making on price? "Concession, monsieur?" Clearly there is no such word in the bordelais vocabulary. Would they be returning to 2004 prices as BBR, Farr Vintners and other leading UK wine merchants were suggesting? Not exactly, no.

Even though America's great panjandrum Robert Parker had not yet delivered his pearls of wisdom on the 2006 vintage, most producers were prepared to contemplate pitching their prices at no less than halfway between 2004 and 2005. Given that Château L'Angelus, for instance, offered its 2004 at €50 (£34) a bottle and its 2005 at €150 (£102), that's one giant leap. When it comes to the crunch, for buying en primeur to be worthwhile, you must have (a) a good price, and (b) a terrific vintage. Since the latter doesn't apply and the former remains dubious, you're better off casting your net a little wider for now and looking at the price of 2006 again a couple of years down the track.

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