BORDEAUX 1999: The Year of Rain and Technology
Weather and conditions aside, the final vintage of the 20th century produced some good easy-drinking wines, but are they worth purchasing as futures?
The '99 Bordeaux vintage is not one for speculative investment. Don't buy to resell; only buy if these wine prices don't exceed those of the '98's.
Pauillac, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Saint-Emilion and Pomerol posted the greatest number of successes in the 1999 Bordeaux vintage. Many of the great chateaus in these regions, and some lesser ones, managed to beat dicey weather conditions and produced fine wines last year. But in general, the quality of the vintage is sketchy.
In reading this report you will come across a number of enticing and attractive wines that make the final vintage to begin with a "19" worth buying—certainly the wines will be ready to drink before the more lauded 1998s. Overall it's a vintage to buy to drink, and if the price is right, the wines should offer considerable pleasure.
Very ripe Merlot (with astonishing levels, for Bordeaux, of 13.5 to 14 percent alcohol) seems to be a major component of the better wines. And in Saint-Emilion, some deliciously perfumed Cabernet Franc is behind typically superb wines like Châteaux Cheval Blanc, Belair and Pavie. The Cabernet Sauvignon in regions such as Saint-Estèphe, Haut-Médoc, and Graves was more of a problem, as rain cut short the final ripening period, infusing the wines with some green flavors of underripeness.
For certain this was one of those vintages where producers needed to be versed in the latest viticultural trends and techniques in order to cope with whatever nature threw at them. From too much heat in July, to hail in Saint-Emilion a week before harvest, to three weeks of rain at harvest, everything was there to give winemakers sleepless nights. With the first two weeks of September giving perfect final ripening conditions, it must have been heartbreaking for vintners to see waterlogged Cabernet Sauvignon vines lapping up the rain, diluting the sugars and lowering the potential alcohol.
Small wonder then that talk of the 1999 vintage has mostly been about sorting tables in the vineyards (to remove any damaged grapes), about reverse-osmosis concentrators to remove excess water from the must, and about microbullage (pumping beads of oxygen into the wine to assist its development). Yes, the French like to talk of terroir, but they are the first to bring technology to the aid of terroir when it suits them.
As with most of the vintages of the 1990s, the growing period last year in Bordeaux was ten days shorter than the previous average. In the Graves district, the harvest for white grapes began on September 1, while the Merlot was harvested beginning September 10. In the Médoc and Saint-Emilion, the Merlot harvest began on September 14, while Cabernet picking started on September 21, by which time steady rains had set in.
With the blending of the '99 wines complete by mid March, I was able to gain an excellent overview of the vintage at the so-called en primeur tastings that are held throughout Bordeaux during the first three weeks of April. In general, I was impressed by the color of the wines, by the sweetness of the Merlot, and by the ripeness of the tannins in the better wines. As a group, these wines are already more advanced at this early stage than were the 1998s, which had much firmer structures and drier tannins. Hence my prediction that this past year's wines will not age as well as the 1998s.
However, they are certainly better than the much-maligned 1997 Bordeaux wines. That was the vintage, you will remember, in which producers and négociants launched the wines onto an overheated futures market at ridiculously high prices. The result has been that the 1997 wines are still stuck in the system, awaiting buyers that may never come. The better 1998 vintage, in relation, was more sensibly priced.
Pricing the vintage
Hubert de Boüard de Laforest of Château L'Angelus was one of the many producers whose vineyards were badly hit by an early-September hailstorm over Saint-Emilion. He was able to produce only half the normal amount of his wine, and this was after 1998, when he was also one of the few producers to drop his price from 1997 "because that was what the market demanded." De Boüard believes that one of the major reasons for the erratic pricing of Bordeaux wines is that "chateau owners have no idea who their clients are. They sell to the négociants and have no contact with anybody else in the selling chain, least of all the consumer."
The peculiar system of wine sales in Bordeaux involves chateau proprietors selling their wines, via brokers known as courtiers, to négociants, who then sell on to merchants and importers around the world (imagine if a California winery did the same, with various middlemen taking their respective cuts). The result is that there are more and more levels built into the system, each taking a share of the final price paid by the consumer. With little likelihood of such an entrenched system changing, the consumer's best hope for fair pricing is that chateau owners seek more contact with the real world when setting their opening prices.
At this point, with only projected price ranges to go on, my advice is to steer clear of the 1999 Bordeaux vintage as an investment opportunity. Don't buy wines with the idea of reselling them down the road. If the wines show no price advance on 1998, then they will be good buys for relatively early drinking. Of course, should you want to cellar some '99s for later drinking, or if you are looking to pass them on to your children and grandchildren, then stick with our top-rated suggestions and you shouldn't be disappointed.