The best ever? Experts hail 2005 vintage as a Bordeaux to die for

John Lichfield reports from Château Lynch-Bages, Médoc

In all walks of life, such moments arrive once in a lifetime, maybe only once in several lifetimes. Imagine the day when the Koh-i-Noor diamond was first plucked from the rock, or when a football scout first saw Pele kick a football. Daniel Llose has been wine-maker at the much prized Château Lynch-Bages vineyard in the Médoc for 30 years. He experienced such a moment - a eureka moment - towards the end of last summer.

Day after day the weather was warm and sunny, but never suffocatingly warm, allowing his precious grapes to mature slowly. Night after night, the temperatures were cool but not too cool, giving the grapes a chance to rebuild their bloom and freshness. Day after day there was no rain, concentrating the strength and sweetness of the grape juice, forcing the old, gnarled vines of the Lynch-Bages vineyards - the Cabernet Sauvignons and the Cabernet Francs and the Merlots - to dig deep for their sustenance into the barren gravel and sand of the Médoc. (Barren for any other kind of plant but perfect conditions for some of the best - some say the very best - red wines in the world.)

"There was a day, towards the end of August, when I realised that we were going to see something that I thought we might never see," M. Llose said. "The perfect year, the year when everything went right." M. Llose, 54, believes that the 2005 vintage of Lynch-Bages, one of the great châteaux of the Médoc, is incomparably the best in his 30 years as a wine-maker. "It may even be better than the mythical vintages, like 1961. It may be even more special than the great vintages of the 1940s," he said.

The same story was being reported - some say spun - from all the leading châteaux of the Médoc and the other great vineyards of the Bordeaux region this week as pundits and traders flocked from all over the world to "pre-taste" the 2005 vintage for themselves.

Down the road from Lynch-Bages, at the increasingly prized Château Pontet-Canet, the proprietor, Alfred Tesseron, makes an even more startling claim. "This is likely to be the best Bordeaux vintage ever," he said calmly, as if observing that it might well rain later.

"Years like 2005 - perfect years - have arrived before but never sincewe improved our methods, and our tools, for expressing the character of our wines more exactly. In years gone by, it was rather hit and miss. It is probable, therefore, that 2005 will come to be regarded as the best millesime [vintage] of all time."

Traders and pundits are withholding judgement before making such sweeping claims. This is the week when the new Bordeaux vintage is traditionally tasted en primeur (in its raw state) by experts, four or five years before it would normally be retailed and 10 years before it reaches maturity.

In this crucial week, when orders are placed by traders, wine buffs and price speculators, there is always a buzz of hype surrounding the new millesime in Bordeaux. "You have to be cautious but, for once, the hype is justified," said Nick Faith, a leading British expert and writer on Bordeaux wines. "This is clearly going to be an exceptional vintage, one of the greats." Mr Faith believes that this is especially the case in the Médoc, where the conditions were perfect for Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes, which form the majority of the blend. The 2005 vintage will also be great, but perhaps not quite so great, on the "right bank" of the Gironde (ie in the Saint Emilion and Pomerol vineyards) where they typically use less Cabernet and more Merlot.

The drumbeat about the excellence of the 2005 vintage began last September and October, during the grape harvest. Such a mood of expectation has been generated that it was almost impossible to find a hotel room in Bordeaux this week. The usual pundits and traders from America, Britain, Germany and Japan have been joined, in great numbers this spring, by wine buyers from the world's "nouveaux riches" countries: Russia, Korea, Malaysia, even China.

So what makes the 2005 vintage so special? M. Tesseron at Château Pontet-Canet handed me a glass of a profoundly dark wine, the colour of freshly spilled blood, at 10am in the morning. "It is the most precise wine that I have ever made," he said. "By precise I mean that it expresses the most exactly what a good Médoc should be.

"It has a precise balance between richness and acidity, between fruitiness and the tannins [which make the wine more complex as it matures]. It has an extremely punchy nose [smell] but it also lingers in the mouth. Even drunk so young, it has great complexity, great depth."

I took a gulp, before spitting out into the basin provided. (Ten in the morning is a little early to start drinking, even the best Bordeaux vintage of all time.) I am no wine expert. All I can say is that, for a young wine - an infant wine - the 2005 Pontet-Canet already had the capacity to open up a whole landscape in the mouth. Ridge after ridge of subtle, new variations of taste stretched infinitely into the distance. The same was true for a 2005 Lynch-Bages, which I tried an hour later.

To buy such a wine this week, you would have to pay the equivalent of €30 (roughly £20 a bottle). The even bigger name châteaux, such as Mouton Rothschild, M. Tesseron's next- door neighbour, might sell en primeur for double that. In five years' time, the top Médoc clarets would normally sell for €100 to €200 a bottle. The 2005 vintages may well sell for more than that. As they mature - and it is likely to be a vintage that keeps indefinitely - the price is anyone's guess. A 1961 Lynch-Bages goes for up to €500 a bottle. A 1961 Mouton Rothschild for €1,000.

Who will buy the 2005 vintage en primeur? M. Tesseron opened his hands in a gesture of resignation. "Not the French," he said. "You, the British, have a true culture of wine. There is a real appreciation of the finest vintages, and a readiness to pay the price. The Americans also, and up to a point, the Germans and Japanese. The French and the Belgians tend to buy only the lesser vintages, because they are guided partly by price. It's a pity but that's the way it is."

Wait a moment. Have we not been told that no one is buying French wine any more, especially abroad? Have we not been told the French wine industry is in crisis? Yes, but there is not one wine industry in France. There are two, or at least two. It is the producers of lower quality, and, increasingly, of middle quality, wine who are suffering from competition from New World wines, especially in Bordeaux.

The 2005 summer did not magically stop at the gates of the great châteaux. The conditions were wonderful for all categories of producers. The vintage will be superb right across the board. For the top châteaux, this is a fantastic opportunity to solidify the position of high quality Bordeaux red wines as the finest in the world. For the smaller producers, depending who you speak to, the excellence of the 2005 vintage could be a salvation - or yet another disaster.

While traders were jostling this week to buy the big-name clarets, sales of 2005 generic red Bordeaux have slumped to a trickle. Small producers are refusing to sell at less than € 1,000 a barrel (80 cents a bottle.) The Bordeaux negoçiants, are unable to find buyers on the world market at that price. Result: deadlock. And much anger.

Yves D'Ameceurt produces generic claret - Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur - in the Entre-deux-Mers region, south of the city of Bordeaux. "Yes, 2005 was a wonderful vintage for us too," he said. "But that will only bring us even more misery. The traders know that it is a good vintage and that it will keep well. They are refusing to buy until conditions improve on the world market. The big châteaux may be having a wonderful time but they should be careful and remember that there are small producers out here who are dying. If nothing happens soon, there is a risk that actions will be taken to spoil their party."

Other figures in the Bordeaux industry say that the anger of small producers is understandable - but short-sighted. They will also, eventually, have their place at the 2005 ball.

Sylvie Cazes, co-proprietor of Lynch-Bages, said: "The excitement surrounding the 2005 vintage is producing more demand for the big names than we can satisfy. The sales are likely to spill over to the next category, and their sales down to the next one and so on. They don't feel the effect yet and their anger is understandable but the small producers will feel the benefit soon. I am sure of that."

As she was talking, several important visitors arrived in the tasting room at Lynch-Bages. François Chandou and his American wife, Anne, are based in Dallas, Texas and run one of the most successful specialist wine businesses in the US. Their companion was Steve Tanzer, publisher of International Wine Cellar, a close rival to the legendary Robert Parker as the maker and breaker of wine reputations with wine buffs in the US.

"There are some wild claims being made but 2005 was clearly an exceptional summer," Mr Tanzer said. "Making great wine takes people as well as weather. You have to be cautious. But everything suggests that the 2005 vintages will be very, very good indeed, producing classic Médocs, with a great balance between fruitiness and the complexity of the tannins."

A few minutes later, Mr Tanzer sampled the 2005 Lynch-Bages before spitting it out in an elegant red stream. He summed up his circumspect and prudent observations above in one word: "Wow!"

What to buy (and where to buy it)

By Richard Ehrlich

Numerous companies will be carrying en primeur offers, but here are a few to get started with:

Berry Bros. & Rudd (0870 900 4300,www.bbr.com)

Bibendum Wines (020 7722 5577, www.bibendum-wine.co.uk)

Fine and Rare Wines Ltd (020 8960 1995, www.frw.co.uk)

Majestic Wine Warehouses (www.majestic.co.uk)

Some buying tips

The mob is out there in Bordeaux, tasting away even while I write these words. Unable to join them, I asked some advice of Richard Weaver, e-commerce manager of Majestic; he had just returned from the tastings, and comments: "Aside from the obvious (first growths, Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Pétrus, Cos d'Estournel, Léoville Las Cases), my picks are: Brane-Cantenac and Cantenac-Brown (Margaux), Langoa-Barton, Léoville-Barton, Léoville-Poyferré (St-Julien), Pontet-Canet (Pauillac), Angélus, Berliquet, and Figeac (St-Emilion), La Conseillante and L'Evangile (Pomerol), Coutet (Sauternes)."

Prices for these wines have not been set yet, but as a rule of thumb you can expect them to start at around £150 a case and perhaps move into the low four-digits for outperforming estates like Léoville Las Cases.

The great vintages

By Richard Ehrlich

Vintages in Bordeaux vary enormously. What nature creates through climate, humanity manipulates using two remarkable skills: winemaking and marketing. As a general rule, the farther back you go, the more you are tasting something created with a minimum of scientific intervention - and marketed, initially at least, with a minimum of hype.

* 2000

This was the vintage Bordeaux had been praying for: good quantities, excellent quality, and all those zeroes on the end of the date. The season did not begin auspiciously, but August was perfect: warm and dry. And the good weather held out through the picking season.

* 1990

The culmination of three consecutive high-quality years, and with higher quality than any of them. The hottest weather since 1947, and wonderful growing conditions for most of the summer. Huge quantity, huge consistency.

* 1982

Not everyone thinks of this among the all-time greats, as very hot weather gave the grapes lots of sugar but lower acidity than normal. But it's indisputably a fine vintage. Moreover, it was one of the first great vintages in which modern winemaking techniques played an important part.

* 1961

This vintage changed Bordeaux: it was the first to be sold heavily to the growing US market. Poor conditions at flowering led to a smaller number of grapes. But conditions were perfect from then on, so the remaining fruit was outstanding. 1961 Latour is generally regarded as one of Bordeaux's greatest hits.

* 1947

An incredibly hot year, which in Bordeaux is - or was, before the era of global warming - an extremely rare event. The result: wines of high alcohol and lower acidity, of which the Cheval Blanc is now legendary. But there seems to be less consistency in this famous year than in others.

* 1945

Another dream year. Frosts in May meant the crop was heavily reduced, but the weather was excellent for the remainder of the growing season and the harvest. And then there was that "other" cause for celebration in 1945, which made the wines even more appealing.

* 1929

The first "legendary" vintage of the 20th century. Growing conditions were hot, but not so hot as to be unmanageable by the relatively low-tech winemakers of the day. Result: good ripeness, good alcohol, and acidity that reportedly is keeping some of them fresh even to this day.

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