The Bordeaux question is this: which is the greatest young vintage of Bordeaux? 2010? Or 2009, or 2005? I nailed my colours to 2005 a long time back. Some 2009s are a little too ripe for me and 2010s, whilst spectacular at the very top level, are mixed. 2005s, or so I thought, are the real deal. Am I, or was I, right?
And – this is important: just what is “greatest”? And does that mean a score? Because scores, whilst simplifying buying decisions and oiling the wheels of trade, are the bluntest of tools. For scores to be of any worth they have to be objective. And objectivity doesn’t exist in wine. “You like to-may-toes and I like to-mah-toes.”
Last week I tasted well over 150 wines from the 2005 vintage, mostly blind, at Farr Vintners‘ rather swanky offices in Battersea. It was an experience, and a tasting that I had been looking forward to for some time. It was tougher than I expected, and I have been reflecting on the wines, and the tasting, almost constantly, and in considerable depth, ever since. A rare win for Crystal Palace on Saturday provided some diversion, but I have been thinking about 2005 claret almost incessantly for the past few days.
When Robert Parker “scored” the 2005 vintage from bottle in 2008 there was considerable debate over the numbers, which much of the UK wine trade thought were too low (it certainly didn’t help from a commercial point of view). One former colleague of mine maintained that there was an agenda, that there were dark forces at work. My view was, and still is after last week’s tasting, that Mr Parker was wary of the level of tannin in some wines, something that I can well understand: having finished the tasting at 1.30 or so we ate (rather well). An hour or so later I grabbed a quick pint with Big Phil. Another hour passed and walking home from Farnham station, a good three or four hours after the last of the 2005s had passed my lips, I could still feel tannin on my tongue. 2005 clarets are muscular wines, wines that are not short of tannic backbone. At the lower end I wonder if the fruit can/has/will keep up. At the upper end of the scale – let’s say Talbot and upwards – I believe that this is a great vintage, though a difficult one to judge at this stage.
Commentary on the wines follows below. In the meantime: the question and the answer.
What is the greatest of the young Bordeaux vintages? 2010, 2009 or 2005? There is not an answer to this, and there was no unanimous judgement around the tasting table. For what it’s worth I have 2005 and 2009 very, very, close as joint winners with 2010 just behind them. But, especially at the top (Talbot+), this is a marathon, not a sprint. And 2005s (Talbot+) are neither young nor old. Many are right in the middle, at the jack-knife of the dive or, to use a racing analogy, they are on the other side of the course and it’s rather hard to see what’s going on. Or, last one, many are dishes that are half-way through their preparation; we know of the quality of the raw materials though those materials are half-wedded, half-cooked at this stage. Neither here, nor there. I have a feeling that these 2005 clarets will unfold from the jack-knife, enter the straight, end up on the plate, as some truly exceptional wines. 2009s may rival them, though stylistically 2005 is the one for me. To-may-toes and to-mah-toes.
What is it with the Lost Boy that is St Emilion? Why are the wines so consistently over-done? The word that comes up in my notes again and again is “aggressive”. Looking across the tasting table I could see at least a couple of my peers wincing, as was I. The three wines I would like to own are Canon, Figeac and Tertre-Roteboeuf, probably in that order. These guys aside, I really don’t know what the score is in St Emilion, nor who is keeping it.
There are some excellent 2005s from Pomerol and after the St Emilions they offered real pleasure as well as technical correctness, if that is the right way to describe it. I picked Vieux Château Certan for what it was and this, along with Evangile and La Conseillante were my, and the group’s, top three. La Conseillante is a lush, lush wine. Think silk sheets and mirrors on the ceiling (I thought it was Eglise-Clinet for what that is worth). VCC and Evangile are a just behind it, with Eglise-Clinet running them both very close. These are seriously good wines that need just a little more time before they spread their wings.
Winemaking styles have changed since 2005. I can usually pick young Domaine de Chevalier, which is an increasingly flashy wine. As it happens what I thought was DDC was actually SHL – Smith-Haut-Lafitte. SHL and Haut-Bailly come in joint third for me, with Domaine de Chevalier and Pape-Clement winning the garland. Both are a bit funky, but both have some serious content to them. The Domaine de Chevalier was a bit more developed than I would have expected, and you can tuck into this one now.
The ringer of the tasting, and there is always one, was Ch. Meyney, which I rated the equal of Montrose and a whisker behind Calon-Ségur and Cos d’Estournel (though I changed my score on Montrose at least twice). All four of these wines are muscular, powerful and fresh. There is what I might call the spirit of the vintage here.
I have long touted Margaux itself as the wine of the vintage – more of that later. The appellation itself was a little disappointing. The group winner was the distinctly “proper” Rauzan-Ségla though for my money this came third behind Palmer and Pavillon Rouge. 2005 Palmer is, in my opinion, very serious wine though not quite showing all of its beauty today. It’s still got its clothes on. A mention should also go to the deliciously tarty Ch. du Tertre – a wine with its clothes most definitely off, indeed they are hanging from the ceiling fan above the bed. Owners of this wine will be very happy and you can put a bottle on the table now.
This is almost always the most consistently good appellation in Bordeaux, and 2005 St Julien is no exception. I have Ducru-Beaucaillou and Léoville-Barton at the top, closely followed by the almost-always-overperforming Langoa-Barton. The group had Léoville-Poyferré at the top, though I had it just behind these three. Poyferré is often a bit too flashy for me, and this is the case in 2005. Others may disagree. It’s that tomatoes thing again.
Batailley, a wine that I buy every year, was corked. Disaster. Everything else performed as it should and the winners were very hard to call – a five horse photo-finish. Lynch-Bages and Duhart-Milon nosed it for me, Pichon-Baron for the group. As is always the case, Grand-Puy-Lacoste is your value for money pick.
The Big Boys
My pick of the tasting was La Mission Haut-Brion – a quite spectacular wine – with Ausone and Latour just behind it. The group concurred, and had my first true love, Margaux, just behind them.
At this level (indeed I feel this way for many of the wines, not just those that are worth more than my car) scores, and the cold judgement of tasting the wines blind at what is clearly an awkward stage, seems a little bit wrong. You don’t stick a score on a Beethoven symphony after listening to a couple of bars in the car, and the context within which these wines are going to be enjoyed is/will be very different from the one within which I judged them last week.
Moreover, the 2005 Bordeaux vintage is not singing today. It is, in my opinion, a great vintage and it may well turn out to be the great vintage. And, as winemaking styles change, and barrel scores become more and more important, it may well go down as one of the last great vintages in the classic style, and I like the style of 2005 Bordeaux very much.
And, finally, my scores. I think I underscored pretty much everything by about half a point or more (out of twenty). My palate struggled to recover from the tannic kicking that it received from the St Emilions and, on top of that, I think everyone would agree that these were not easy wines to taste. My highest scoring wine was La Mission Haut-Brion at 19 points. Your Ducrus, Léovilles, Lynch-Bages and similar came in at 17.5 or so. On another day you could make that 20 and 18.5. Such is the challenge of tasting, and of scoring. I occasionally struggle with the latter.