From the archives; I’ve backdated the date of this post to when the article was published.
I’d been writing en primeur reports for my own Chateau Bauduc newsletter called La Gazette since the 2000 vintage. We used to mail it out in the post to around 3,000 lucky people, in the UK mostly. The 2005 vintage, clearly the best year since 2000, gave me the opportunity to write for a UK wine magazine. That was Wine & Spirit, a title that had recently taken over from the popular Wine International magazine. The Fine Wine Section carried the strapline ‘For those who can afford it, and for those who wish they could.’
I wrote two articles about the primeurs, the first in the May issue called ‘Bordeaux 2005: a truly great vintage’, with tasting notes on my pick of the Top 100 reds, and the second in the June edition. That was ‘2005: 100 Best Values at under £200 a case’ and the whites.
I reviewed all the wines in bottle for a follow up in December 2007.
Here’s the vintage overview from the en primeur piece.
2005 is the greatest vintage in Bordeaux in living memory. No other year has given producers from across the entire region the opportunity to produce such high quality wine in reasonable quantities. It is a great vintage for reds, dry whites and Sauternes.
For the reds, 2005 is rather like a modern-day equivalent of 1982 but the number of châteaux making better wine today than 20 years ago is countless. Improved vineyard management, stricter selection, substantial investment in know-how and equipment, and smarter wine-making have changed the face of the region.
In the coming months we will see the ‘en primeur’ market for Bordeaux 2005 go completely mad. Prices for the First Growths and other top wines will spiral to unprecedented levels as demand for the very best cannot be met.
The good news is that, just below the level of the some of the most famous names, there are some truly outstanding wines from estates that have made probably their best wine to date. It’s a tiny percentage of châteaux in Bordeaux that sell their wines en primeur, and the good ones are worth hunting down in a year like 2005.
2005 was an extraordinary year of almost perfect weather. It is one of the driest vintages on record, with half the normal amount of rainfall. It was also very sunny and warm but not excessively hot, as in 2003. A little rain fell at crucial times and the older vines in the best vineyard sites adapted to the near-drought conditions as their roots were able to source just enough moisture.
A feature of the vintage was the cool night air that accompanied the warm days in August and September. Crucially, the fine weather held throughout the harvest. The grapes for the dry whites were picked in late August and September, the merlots in the second half of September (although Pétrus kicked off on the 7th and some St-Emilion producers were still at it in October) and the cabernets were harvested during the last ten days of September and into October. Most of the cabernet sauvignon in the Médoc was picked in the first ten days of October. In Sauternes they worked throughout late September and October.
The size of the crop in the best vineyards was about right as well – not too small (as in 2002 and 2003), and not too big (2004). Château Montrose, for example, produced 44 hectolitres per hectare in 2005, compared to 57hl/ha in 2004 and just 33hl/ha in both 2002 and 2003. Not too many bunches formed in 2005 and small, concentrated grapes ripened in a perfect state of health.
Long before the grapes were picked, châteaux owners across the region knew that they were onto something special if there was no downpour. Merlot grapes were brought in at very high degrees of potential alcohol with the cabernets also registering near record levels. The colours were impressive and the tannins high but what was different in this vintage – when compared to other ‘ripe’ years – was that there was good acidity and amazing ‘fraicheur’. It seemed that the climate had given the great vineyard sites, in particular, the perfect ripening cycle whereby the sugars had peaked, the acidities fallen and the tannins ripened fully at precisely the right moment.
The glee on the part of the winemakers was clear. Some had problems with long fermentations but for the most part everything went smoothly.
Tasting the wines some six months later, the optimism is well-founded. Hundreds of the top chateaux have produced quite possibly their best wine to date. The reds have a wonderful core of ripe fruit, lovely weight and balance, beautifully knit tannins and above all, extraordinary freshness. I can’t help feeling that this is a result of warm sunshine in the day and cold nights that created this character of the vintage.
Which appellations performed well in 2005?
2005 was a great vintage for both the Left Bank and the Right Bank. On the Left Bank, the top ‘classed growths’ of Pauillac made outstanding wines, as did those of St-Julien and St-Estephe. I think Margaux had a particularly good vintage and this is where there’ll be plenty of values, even amongst the well-known names – many classed growths and top Cru Bourgeois will be reasonably priced. There are scores of very good wines from the Haut-Médoc and the Médoc, Listrac and Moulis, so at Cru Bourgeois level there are bargains to be had – refer to the Top 100 values list for numerous wines for under £120 a case. Not all chateaux make good wine here so choose carefully.
There were many successful wines from Pessac-Léognan and the Graves, with the dry whites too proving to be outstanding as well. Sauternes and Barsac also had a great vintage as the weather held well into October.
On the Right Bank, for me Pomerol was a pleasant surprise, if only because they picked quite early as the merlot ripens sooner there and I wasn’t sure that the full benefits of the gorgeous harvest weather would be gained. After all, many top Médoc estates picked their cabernet sauvignon almost a month later in perfect conditions. It is without doubt, though, a Pomerol vintage.
St-Emilon too enjoyed a great 2005 and here there is a wider range of styles – hardly surprising given that it is much bigger than the other major appellations in Bordeaux, has at least four different types of ‘terroir’ and there are literally hundreds of different chateaux making quality wine. If you don’t like big, full-bodied, super-ripe wines then you need to choose carefully but there are scores of beautifully balanced, delicious efforts for a fair price. There are some very good wines from the satellite communes, although as with St-Emilion, there are some less attractive wines.
The appellations of Fronsac and Canon Fronsac had a very good vintage and the Côtes did well – although here there are more variations in quality. There are at least a dozen top flight Castillons, for example, but there are many producers that are not so quality-orientated here. The same is true for Bourg, Blaye, the Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur – bargains can be had but careful selection is required.
The tastings and the en primeur circus
Every year in late March and early April, the world’s wine writers and trade buyers of fine wine descend on Bordeaux to taste barrel samples from the previous vintage. The owners of leading châteaux then digest what people say and take into account the all-important scores from influential critics. They will then release their prices over the following months for merchants to sell their wine ‘en primeur’. Châteaux and merchants will be paid long before the wines are bottled (these 2005s will mostly be bottled in mid-2007) and the buyer at the end of the chain hopefully secures an allocation of the wine at the best price – at least that’s the theory.
This campaign will see some outstanding reviews, extraordinarily high demand and unbelievably high prices – putting even the en primeur sales campaign for the 2000s and many of the top 2003s in the shade. Other recent vintages like 2001, 2002 and 2004 did not have the same ‘must have’ reputation and prices for many good wines from these vintages haven’t moved. As a result there are some superb wines available for a great deal less than their 2005 counterparts will cost.
Prices – mind the gap
The châteaux that sell en primeur will publish their offer prices during May and June (after a game of follow-my-leader). The First Growths and a few ‘super seconds’ come out towards the end of the campaign with an initial offer, followed by further ‘tranches’ at increased prices. My price estimates for the Top 100 are based on the early tranche prices for those top chateaux and for the others I quote the initial price as offered by UK merchants – not the inflated price after speculators have cashed in.
Experience shows that with some great wines there will be rapid increases in value. Château Léoville-Barton opened at under £300 for their 2000 vintage in May 2001 before jumping to over £750 in value within days as early buyers sold on their allocation. However, the value of that wine has stayed at that same £750 level five years on, so caveat emptor – many wines hit the top of the market soon after the release price is announced.
Some wines will be released by châteaux at very high prices from the start when compared with other top vintages of late. I expect Cos d’Estournel, for example, to be priced way over the cost of a great mature vintage – but in terms of quality their wine in 2005 is up there with the best. Check www.wine-searcher.com for prices for previous vintages of the wines that interest you.