A wine worth waiting for
By Eric Asimov
It’s only 2021, and we’ve already had possibly seven red Bordeaux vintages of the 21st century.
Depending on which critics you pay attention to, they are 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016 and 2018.
That’s an awful lot of choices, particularly for a region that earlier in its history would typically have endured a decade or two between vintages that might widely be considered great.
I’m generally not all that interested in the great-vintage method of buying wine. For one thing, the prevailing standard of greatness, for Bordeaux in particular, is powerful wines that can endure for decades, long enough to develop the complex secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors that transcend mere pleasure and achieve profundity.
I have nothing against drinking those wines, naturally. Once they have reached a certain level of aging, wines of this caliber have provided memorable thrills that have helped to shape the way I think about wine and its possibilities.
But buying and aging these sorts of wines for the decades necessary to reach that breathtaking threshold is difficult, both because they are generally beyond my means and, with the most recent vintages, will mature beyond my life span.
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this sort of apathy about the great vintages. The audience for these wines is diminishing, narrowing to those with the bankroll to afford them and the resources to age them. It makes me wonder whether we should either think about expanding our criteria for determining great vintages or dispense altogether with a single scale for measuring greatness.
Wines with the ability to evolve slowly for decades are rare and precious, no doubt. But shouldn’t we cherish wines that are more immediately charming and that still can give immense pleasure after 25 years, but maybe not after 50?
Too often, these sorts of wines are dismissed with faint praise. The trade calls them “restaurant wines” because they are accessible enough to be enjoyed young in the vast majority of restaurants that don’t have the resources or inclination to age wines properly.
But so long as these wines are not insipid, shouldn’t we value them more highly? Because wines from these sorts of vintages are typically more widely consumed, and for many people they are more important than the so-called great vintages.
I’ve been thinking about these questions since attending a 16-year weekend retrospective of the 2005 Bordeaux vintage in Atlanta in late June. It was intended to be a 15-year retrospective, scheduled for March 2020, but we had to wait 15 more months before regularly scheduled programming could be resumed.
The 36 selections from 2005 were almost entirely provided by Mark Taylor, a longtime collector of both Bordeaux and modern art. The wines ranged across the leading Bordeaux appellations and included many of the most famous names, a few little-known producers and many in between.
Among the tasters were sommeliers, enthusiasts, writers and two authorities, Charles Curtis and Mary Margaret McCamic, who had gone through the rigorous process of earning Master of Wine accreditations.
The weekend confirmed my opinion that, by the conventional standards, the 2005 Bordeaux vintage was indisputably great. The wines continue after 16 years to be formidably structured, though beginning to turn the corner toward drinkability. The best of these wines have decades of evolution before them.
Yet after 16 years, our top wines were remarkably fresh and alive, with impeccable balance. This is a departure from some of the other years carrying that vintage-of-the-century mantle.
I have never cared much for the 2000 vintage, for example. The wines always seemed big and amorphous, landing with a thud rather than offering the linear journey of aromas and flavors that I believe will be found in the 2005s.
The powerful, rounded wines of the 2009 vintage are not to my taste, not as much as the fresher, more classically lined 2010s, although alcohol levels are pretty high in both, as they are in 2015 and 2016. For my money, which as I’ve said doesn’t go far with these rarefied wines, 2005 is by far the best and most interesting.
The wines came in flights of six bottles, three flights Saturday and another three Sunday. They were served blind, although we knew the six wines making up each flight. After tasting, the group ranked the bottles.
Ranking is never an easy proposition. Good wines change in the glass as they are exposed to air. Over the course of the 20 to 30 minutes allotted to each flight, my opinion often wobbled. But as in a game of musical chairs, when the tune stops you must pick a place to land decisively.
The biggest surprise on the first day came in a flight that included the Bordeaux heavyweights Lafite Rothschild, Margaux, Cos d’Estournel and Angelus. In this company, my favorite was Pontet-Canet, a Pauillac estate that has been a leader in Bordeaux’s late-blooming interest in organic and biodynamic viticulture.
Led by the proprietor, Alfred Tesseron, and the longtime technical director, Jean-Michel Comme, the estate began converting to biodynamics in 2004, though was not entirely there in 2005. The wine had a sheer, lovely elegance, purity and finesse, with silky tannins. As with many of these wines, I would love to taste it in another 10 years.
Interestingly, the group consensus preferred the Margaux, followed by the Angelus, and ranked the Pontet-Canet fourth. The Margaux was fifth in my personal ranking.
The first flight on Saturday included bottles from estates not quite so legendary. My favorite was Château Lagrange, a St.-Julien, which I found savory, pure and balanced. The group preferred a St.-Émilion, Château Grand-Pontet, which I found to be fruity, rich and opulent in the modern style.
The 2005 vintage came at the height of the wine culture wars, a time of sometimes-sharp disagreements over styles and direction, with one side championing wines of power, impact and lavish fruitiness, and the other defending more classical wines of restraint and subtlety.
I’ve always been on the classical side, and I found in our tasting that the divide still exists, although on far-friendlier terms. It occurred again in the second flight Saturday in which the group liked best Château Gazin, a historic Pomerol estate, which I found dense, dark and highly concentrated. I preferred a Margaux, Château Malescot St.-Exupéry, which was medium-bodied and savory, with tannins that will need years to soften.
This divide continued Sunday, although the group’s taste and mine aligned on our favorite in the first flight, a Margaux, Château Prieuré-Lichine, which was elegant, and balanced with gentle flavors of cedar and tobacco.
My favorite in the second flight Sunday was a lovely, firm, cedary Château Brane-Cantenac, a Margaux, while the group chose Château Kirwan, yet another Margaux, which I found dense, rich and sweet.
The tasting closed with another exalted flight that included Mouton Rothschild, Latour and Haut-Brion. Our consensus favorite in this superb group was the Mouton; it was inky, ripe and complex, yet graceful and harmonious, with the potential to develop for decades, as with many of these wines.
A tasting of this type is singular. While we all had our favorites, chances are that a similar tasting on another weekend would yield different results. The individual bottle evaluations are less important than the overall impression of the wines.
On that, the results were clear: Regardless of what style you prefer, 2005 was an exceptional vintage, with wines that will reward long-term aging. The best will develop the sort of complexity that Bordeaux lovers crave.
Was it a great vintage? It depends on your definition.
The wines that will realize their potential for achieving greatness will only be available to the wealthy and those with the opportunity to drink the wines 15 or 20 years from now. That is fine. It used to be said in English manors that you drank wines purchased by your father and bought wines to be consumed by your children.
But wine-drinking is far more democratized and fluid now, with few people having the wherewithal to age wines for years. Bordeaux producers are already conscious of this and for years have tried to make wines that are more accessible in their youth without compromising long-term prospects. Regardless, the 2005s demand patience.
The 2005 vintage is historic, perhaps a vintage of the century as has been said. But maybe “great” isn’t the right word. Maybe it needs a more in-depth description of the sort of wines it produced without the value judgment, just as more accessible vintages such as 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2008 should not be denigrated for not having 2005’s historic potential.