The Baltimore Bounce or lack thereof: Robert Parker on 2005 Bordeaux

One notable point about Robert Parker’s review of the 2005 Bordeaux vintage is that Bordeaux negociants were sending out offers of 2005 Bordeaux, with the new scores, a full day before the review was officially supposed to be published online. Parker’s scores have been leaked for years but this time it seemed a little, well, wholesale.

Have a look at some of Robert Parker’s old notes – say his barrel scores on 1996 Bordeaux – and it is very clear that this is a man who knows his kit.  Barrel scores are tricky: you have a moving target, potentially dodgy sights, all manner of distractions.  It’s a bit like watching your camera try to focus: that moment, the split second, that it catches is similar to what you’re doing judging wine from barrel.  That moment of focus is what you judge, and – given that you can catch it – that’s just the start.  You’ve then got to judge the picture.  Some of this is talent.  Much of it is experience.  Both are required to do it properly.

The 2005 Bordeaux vintage is, I think, the best I’ve ever tasted from barrel (I started with the 2000 vintage, skipped 2001 and 2002, and have done every one since 2003).  I’ve tasted many 2005s since then, and they’re brilliant.  Their hallmark is simple: perfection.  They make 2000s look a little “smudgy”, as Jancis would say.  They make 2009s look over-ripe.  They make 2010s look either cut-and-shut or overdone.  2009s might just give the 2005s a run for their money – 2009 is essentially a riper version of 2005 – but for my money 2005 is king.

And I’m not alone in this.  A straw poll of twenty or so of the UK’s most experienced palates at the 2011 Southwold tasting this January asked for the order, in terms of quality, of every Bordeaux vintage from 2000 to 2011.  2005 was the clear winner, followed by 2010 and 2009 (second place was close; I personally reckon 2010 over-rated).

So Mr Parker’s review could be seen as a little confusing.  But probably not.

Much of the UK wine trade thought and hoped that this was going to be the review that set the scores right on the 2005 vintage.  Part of that hope was “moral”: I think that 2005 Château Margaux is a 100+ point wine if ever there was one, and it irks me a little that my judgement might be questioned.  Indeed Paul Pontallier, the man that made it, drifts away a little when speaking of it – it’s one of those wines that transcends, or maybe defines, or something spiritual like that, the human condition.  To me, 98+ from Parker means he’s got the instructions upside-down or similar. Likewise, the full 100 for Larcis-Ducasse and Pavie.

And this is what it’s all about: this isn’t objective scoring – this is whether or not a man likes something.  Two different things.

Robert Parker is a man who has been one of the defining factors of an era that is coming to an end.  The era of speculation, the era of the Far East Boom, the era of the garagiste.  This era, his era even, has seen the quality of wine made in Bordeaux, and worldwide, reach new heights.  In some cases it has seen a loss of identity: I’ll guarantee one thing about 2005 Larcis-Ducasse and that is that it doesn’t typify St Emilion in the same way that 2009 Cos d’Estournel doesn’t typify St Estephe.  Whether or not that is important depends which side of the fence you are (I’m on it, balanced like a cat, with a view of both sides, Mr Miles).

It’s easy to say that Mr Parker has got this one wrong; that he’s jumped the shark.  The real answer lies deeper: it’s about those who buy, sell and drink wine rather than the man who rates them.  A 100 point score does not change the contents of a bottle.  It can change the value, which is why holders of the wines, or those hoping to profit from sales of the wines, may have an axe to grind.  But if you think that Mr Parker’s palate has faded, his ability compromised by a predilection for ripeness, then why not simply follow another critic?  Or listen to your wine merchant?  Or – here’s a thing – read Mr Parker’s ending statement on his scoring system: “there can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself”?  Why not taste a few?

My view on 2005s is clear.  It ranks along with 2009 as the greatest of the modern vintages for Bordeaux.  There used to be a style of Champagne called “Gout Americain” or “American Taste”.  2009 is essentially the “Gout Americain” version of 2005: riper, sweeter.  Those who proclaim 2010 to be the daddy of them all miss the fact that the wines are, from a drinking point of view, hard work and will be for some time to come.  Are they going to hold together?  I’m not convinced.

There is more to come on this era subject.  One is definitely ending – indeed it’s over – and a new one is beginning.  And Mr Parker will gently exit the stage, to considerable applause.  And those that bought their 2005s to drink will smile as they do so.