No one in Bordeaux seems terribly concerned about how the 2004 vintage will turn out. Perhaps it's too early to start worrying. The tiny flowers on the predominant Cabernet and Merlot vines only recently finished setting into grape clusters. The success of this process, called flowering, determines the quantity of wine produced. In September and October, the grapes will be harvested and put in temperature-controlled tanks to begin their frothy fermentation. That's when the quality of the vintage will be known. Too much rain at harvest will result in a watery washout and an ignoble rot; insufficient rain will prevent the grapes from ripening, leading to astringent, green flavors that even the winemaking magicians of Bordeaux will be unable to make disappear.
But the real reason for the casual attitude in Bordeaux is probably even simpler -- in light of Bordeaux's recent success, 2004 hardly matters. Bordeaux has been on a tear. This renowned wine region of southwestern France has put together the longest string of consecutive successful vintages in more than a century and perhaps in its 400-plus-year recorded history. Some commentators would put the winning streak at nine years, from 1995 through 2003. My count is six, because the best I can award the 1997 vintage is a workaday B. However, six consecutive triumphs would be considered remarkable even in everybody-knows-it-never-rains-in California.
This is good news not only for the winemakers of Bordeaux but for wine lovers, especially those who think they can't afford great wine. Bordeaux has a reputation for being expensive, but the real Bordeaux story is that it is the champion low-cost producer of world- class wine. "Overpriced" applies only to the most famous 50 or 100 wines from the best years. On the other hand, the region is home to several thousand individual chateaux, each producing anywhere from 2,000 cases to more than 100,000 cases of wine. Even if two-thirds of this production is nothing special, the remaining third is still a lot of wine. And most of it is very, very good.
I have no quarrel with lovers of Napa Valley Cabernet, red Burgundy, Rhones reds, the Nebbiolo-based wines of the Italian Piedmont and other premier wine regions who believe that the creme de la creme of their regions are on a par with the best wines of Bordeaux. But I'll drink them under the table every day of the week with moderately priced cru bourgeois and lower-ranked classified Bordeaux in the $15-to-$50 range. Guaranteed, for every good village-level Gevrey-Chambertin or delectably lush Crozes-Hermitage they can produce, I'll be able to find 10 grand cru Leovilles or Lynch's, and 25 lovely cru bourgeois like Chateau Gloria's. And I'll have enough spare change to cover a good piece of Camembert to enjoy with it.
Bordeaux's six-year winning streak has created an unprecedented buying opportunity for savvy consumers. Most vintages were purchased by importers and retail shops at favorable exchange rates, before the Euro's climb against the U.S. dollar. The flip side is that prices will be going up as the dollar weakens. The time to buy is now.
Here is an overview of recent Bordeaux vintages and buying recommendations to start. In upcoming weeks, I'll follow up with recommendations of the best available wines in various price categories.
Bordeaux 2003: A potentially great but highly unusual powerhouse of a vintage. Several area retailers have begun to offer 2003s on pre-order for future delivery. The five first growths (Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion) opened at twice the price of the 2002s and are shockingly expensive. Pass on the first growths but give serious consideration to almost everything else. Futures buyers beware: Though 2003 produced some monumental wines, some great estates, such as L'Evangile in Pomerol, got burned by the freakish summer heat.
Don't you get burned. The safer course is to wait for the wines to arrive, so that you can taste them, even though it will mean paying a premium over the current pre-arrival price. The belle of the ball at the 2003 tasting I attended was the gorgeously rich Chateau Giscours ($45; Margaux).
Bordeaux 2002: Go for the first growths. They are attractively priced at around $120 a bottle on pre-order, and appear to have dramatically outperformed the rest of the pack in 2002. Among the first growths, I have tasted the opulent Mouton-Rothschild, but it was there with the best Moutons I've ever tasted.
Bordeaux 2001: Better than 2002 but totally overshadowed by 2000. A classic, mid-weight claret lovers' vintage, this crop is equally good for both the Left Bank (Medoc and Graves) and the Right Bank (Saint-Emilion and Pomerol). The wines are arriving now, and there are some very attractive values. Chateau d'Issan ($40; Margaux) won my heart.
Bordeaux 2000: The vintage of the century? Old-timers say that 1900 was never eclipsed in that century. It may be happening again. The 2000s seem to be getting better with every tasting. Although the big names are grotesquely overpriced, gazillions of mid-tier chateaux have produced powerful, deeply fruity wines of Grand Cru Classe quality. For starters, I'd recommend looking for Haut-Medoc cru bourgeois and fifth growths in the $30 to $40 range, such as Clerc-Milon, d'Agassac, Cambon la Pelouse and Duhart-Milon.
Bordeaux 1999: Though similar to 2001, 1999 is a little bit softer, and favors the Left Bank slightly. Few great wines were made, but these wines are immensely charming and well priced. Leoville-Barton, which would go on to produced a landmark wine in 2000, is a perfect place to start.
Bordeaux 1998: Almost forgotten in the wake of the 2000 vintage is how grandly the Merlot-based Right Bank wines of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion performed in 1998. Many good wines are still available. The Medoc and Graves are a bit compact. A good one to look for is Chateau Fombrauge. If the well-made 1998 Fombrauge is sold out, console yourself with a bottle of the 2000, which may be even better.