Bordeaux 2006 report and 100 top reds

From the archives. I’ve backdated the post to the time it was published.

Here’s my en primeur report, along with notes and my selection of the 100 best reds, for Wine & Spirit magazine.

Wine & Spirit

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Vintage defies the odds

Harvest 2006, Right Bank

Vieux Chateau Certan, Pomerol, 12 Sept 2006. One of the successes of the vintage.

Just when we thought we could write off the 2006 Bordeaux vintage after the circus surrounding a spectacular 2005, it turns out there are some seriously good wines on offer from top estates. And if the price is right, they might even be worth buying.

This was a potentially great vintage that only came off the rails towards the end of the season, not a poor one playing catch up. This is revealed in the wines, many of which, at the top level, have real quality but without the intensity of fruit and freshness of the previous year. But 2005 was always going to be a tough act to follow.

The vintage

Although 2006 was another dry, warm year the weather fluctuated from one extreme to the other at critical periods. In fact, a repeat of the great 2005 vintage looked a distinct possibility at the end of July. A cold winter with some much needed rain in March led to a dry April, a lovely May and a hot, dry June, and flowering took place in ideal conditions.

July was the second hottest month on record before the weather turned. August was drizzly and the coolest for 20 years. Then it was back to the heat – the first ten days of September were the hottest ever. Picking for dry whites had already begun In Pessac-Léognan, and at Haut Brion they began their merlot on the 7th September.

Then, critically, it rained – not prolonged showers throughout the harvest but heavy, localised downpours at key times. It rained off and on from September 11th, at which point many estates in Pomerol began harvesting, then it rained heavily on 16th and 21st September before the weather cleared up. Many in Saint Emilion had been waiting for better ripeness but had to act as the skins on the merlot were already fragile and there was an acute risk of rot.

In the Médoc, the merlots had to be brought in quickly soon after the mid-September rains, with the hardier cabernet sauvignons being harvested mostly during the last week of September, which was dry, and into early October.

Sorting and selection in the vineyard and winery were crucial. Hand-picking using small crates is commonplace now with ‘double sorting’ at the winery.   A gentle approach to extraction was required, and strict selection of the vats was required to eliminate inferior plots from the final blends.

The top wines

With the fluctuating weather patterns throughout, and showers around harvest time, it is the best-run estates, with the best vineyard sites, that have made the best wines in 2006. Tasting the wines now shows that that the top terroirs, with old deep-rooted vines, seemed to handle the extremes of the weather better.

There are very good red wines from the major communes of St-Julien, Pauillac, St-Estephe and Margaux and Pessac-Léognan on the Left Bank, and Pomerol and St-Emilion on the Right. Quality is by no means consistent (especially in the large catchment of Saint Emilion) and this variation is more pronounced in other, lesser appellations.

The better wines have good intensity of colour, fine fruit character, a high tannin count and racy acidity. Many wines, especially from the Médoc, will require long ageing. There is also a sensation of great ‘precision’ at the top level, unlike even just a few years ago. The alcohol levels range from 12.5% (Lafite) to 14.3% (La Mission), with most around 13 to 13.5%.

En Primeur prices in May and June are likely to be pitched between the prices asked for the 2004s and 2005s. Exactly where on that broad spectrum will depend on how hard the Chateau owners think they can squeeze the pips.

2006 is also very good vintage for dry whites, which have vivacity and attractive fruit, but a problematic one for Sauternes.

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