The 2005 Bordeaux Vintage

Count John Umberto Salvi MW is an Englishmen with a noble Italian ancestry. He is one of the earliest breeds of Master of Wine, the certification he received in the early seventies. Using his 30 years experience as a professional wine taster and international judge, he writes his Monthly Bordeaux Report from his home in Medoc , where he has been living for the past 38 years. He analyses the effect of weather on the vineyards for his subscribers.

He was a co-juror at the Vinitaly International Wine Competition 2006 and has kindly agreed to share his insight with our viewers as well. Subhash Arora

The famous « EN PRIMEUR » tastings of the 2005 Bordeaux wines took place from 3rd – 7th April, in the various 50 appellation regions of Bordeaux. Well over 2000 wines were on display to be tasted, ranging from the smallest, unknown properties of Red and White Bordeaux to the great First Growths, Pétrus, Cheval Blanc, Le Pin and d’Yquem.

These mammoth tastings have become a crucial moment in the annual wine calendar. Frequently the wines are not really ready to taste at the end of March/begin April, but market forces are so powerful and buyers are so desperate to taste the new wines, that the producers have been powerless to resist. This spring, the 2005 vintage having already acquired a reputation for excellent quality, there were more buyers than ever before and the USA, after a spell of anti-French feeling, is back in the market place with a vengeance.

It was not always like this. After World War Two the world needed wine, especially French wine that they had not been able to obtain since 1939, and although the Bordeaux Chateaux were for the most part in a dreadful state after several years of occupation, the magnificent 1945 vintage was a wine that nobody wanted to pass up or could afford to miss. It was sold before anybody had time to think about it. For the next five years prices remained low and great wine was still cheap. Christies had not yet gone back into the auction business and wine collectors still belonged in the future. Growers sold their product without too much difficulty but at very modest prices with modest profits.

There was not much money for replanting and for renovating the run down buildings and equipment. The need for cash flow pushed growers to sell earlier and earlier until, by 1959, wines were being sold “on the vine”, in other words in the spring before the autumn vintage when the wine would be made. 1960 was a poor year and the prices were very low. Therefore, in the spring of 1961, many growers sold the coming 1961 vintage for the same price as the 1960. The vintage then turned out to be a very small one, just one third of an average crop, and one of the greatest of the entire 20th century. Growers found that they had sold far more than they made and at derisory prices. It was a catastrophe for them and “on the vine” sales were never heard of again. Gradually the system evolved of presenting the new wines during the summer following the vintage, when they were ready to taste and spring frost danger for the following vintage was over. As the wine boom got under way, and demand for the great wines became fiercer and fiercer, demand outstripped production and Négociants started to put the wines on allocation.

This demand gradually pushed the date of the tastings from summer back to spring, until it arrived where it is today – right at the beginning of April. Many growers felt that this was too early for their wines to be showing well but were forced to go along with it not to miss the hordes of buyers waving their cheque books at them. This year at least we have had a very cold winter and the wines fell bright quickly. They are therefore much more forward and ready to taste than were the 2004s at the same time last year.

So what are these 2005s like? Is it a great vintage as many are saying? For the best and the finest the answer is yes, they are stupendous, they are works of art. They are MUST HAVES, sublime wines. But like all works of art there are a very limited number of great artists and therefore a very limited number of these great wines. It was a difficult year meteorologically. Very dry, very dry indeed, but not particularly hot. It was a year that favoured well established vines with deep root structures and water retentive soils. Young vines, vines with shallow roots, and vines on soils which dried out quickly, suffered considerably.

Also Bordeaux has a very humid climate and rot is one of our worst enemies, all forms of rot. This year we had none – it was too dry for that. Therefore there were superbly healthy grapes with high sugar contents. At the same time, because it was not so hot, and because august and September had cooler than average nights, the acidities stayed relatively high and at perfect levels. We enjoyed the rare phenomenon of reaching ideal acidity levels, generous sugar levels and perfect phenolic ripeness of the skins and pips, all at the same time. This is a joy and it is very unusual in Bordeaux for all these three attributes to come together. The harvesting of these wonderful grapes took place under almost ideal conditions.

There was little or no excuse for not making good wine. However here came the artistry, the knowledge and the skill. The ripeness and the high sugar content, together with warm weather, meant rapid fermentation. This had to be very carefully controlled. The colour came out fast and the 2005s have wonderful, deep, vivid, purple colours. The tannins also dissolved fast as soon as some of the sugar was transformed into alcohol. Here lay the danger! It was wise this year to avoid pre-fermentation maceration and wise to ferment at relatively low controlled temperatures – say28°C maximum. Pumping over needed to be gentle. One or two per day and often only half a vat at a time. No more once the density had descended to 1030. “Délestage” or “rack and return” was on the whole not advisable as too brutal a treatment for the grapes this year and with a serious danger of unwanted volatile acidity.

Finally, post-fermentation maceration needed to be kept short to avoid leaching the harsh tannins out of the pips, but sufficient to stabilise the colouring matter. Many people were not careful enough and the main problem in Bordeaux this year is wines with harsh and over extracted tannins. This is a tragedy as these wines have beautiful fruit underneath, which has been crushed. Fortunately, there is a move away from the awful mode of over-oaking with new barrels, and at the same time the powerful structure of the 2005s can absorb more than most years. Very few wines have been spoiled this way – not nearly as many as in the past.

As I started by saying at the beginning of this article, there are those artists who vinified perfectly. They have made wines which are rich and powerful, yet supple and elegant, with vibrant fruit like crushing fresh ripe grapes between the teeth. They have voluminous, yet ripe and silky tannins. They are complex wines with layer upon layer of flavour, generous, fulfilling end-flavours and beautiful, long, lingering aftertastes – as I said “works of art”.

The dry White Wines are fresh and fragrant, with crisp, vital acidities and vibrant fruit. The sweet wines are perhaps one of the greatest vintages of the last 30 years. Superb noble rot (botrytis cinerea), often 95%, and with hardly a single grape to be discarded during 5-6 pickings (tris). These are truly beautiful things for lovers of the great sweet wines and, although they could be drunk with pleasure as soon as bottled in 2-3 years time, they will improve and be outstanding in 50 years.

Bordeaux may be in crisis as I write, and as I wrote in my first article, but fortunately for them, and for us, this does not stop them making great wine. 2005 is a year that we must all make sure not to miss!


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