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?


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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
This spring, the attitude in Bordeaux has been one of restraint. Based on the first few price declarations, single-digit decreases from the prices asked for the '98s appear likely, although a few chateaus may buck the trend. Hervé Berland of Château Mouton Rothschild said in April that "while the first growths will have no problem selling their wines, there could be serious difficulties for the wines at the level of super seconds. They are still having to pay for the mistakes made with the 1997 vintage. They will have to make some adjustments this year."

 

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.

THE WINES OF THE VINTAGE

Based on past pricing and performance, and my prerelease tastings in April, the following wines will be worth snapping up because of their fruit-forward style. Within five years they will be quite drinkable, and in ten years they will be just right. Given time they will display all the ripe, generous flavors common to good Bordeaux. Because the wines are still very much in their barrel-development stage, scores are offered in a range. See page 45 for tasting notes on these and other wines.

Wine and Rating
Château Pavie (Saint-Emilion) 89-93
Château Petit-Village (Pomerol) 87-91
Château Ferrière (Margaux) 87-91
Château Talbot (Saint-Julien) 87-91
Domaine de Chevalier (Pessac-Léognan) 87-91
Château Troplong-Mondot (Saint-Emilion) 86-90

If you are buying for a son, daughter, grandson or granddaughter born in 1999, or you were married last year and want to hold onto a bottle of good '99 Bordeaux as a keepsake, consider buying some of these wines and laying them down. All feature structure, firm tannins and powerful fruit. They should age well for 20 years, possibly more. They are classic Bordeaux, wines of the intellect as well as the heart. See page 45 for detailed tasting notes.

Wine and Rating
Château Latour (Pauillac) 92-96
Château Margaux (Margaux) 92-96
Vieux Château Certan (Pomerol) 89-93
Château Magdelaine (Saint-Emilion) 89-93
Château Léoville-Barton (Saint-Julien) 88-92
Château Pontet-Canet (Pauillac) 86-90

 

TASTING AND RATING THE 1999 BORDEAUX VINTAGE

The following wines are some of the best of the most recent vintage. Ratings are offered in five-point ranges to reflect the fact that the wines are still very young and will evolve signioficantly between now and the time they come onto the market in the fall of 2001.

Graves
Château Haut-Brion 91-95
Well colored, if not as dark as the 1998. Dense, solid tannins go right through the black-fruit component of the wine. Acidity comes out but is a wholesome part of a ripe-fruited concentrated wine.

Château La Mission 89-93
Haut-Brion
Deep-purple color. Big, chewy tannins but with dense ripe fruit. A concentrated intense wine, with acidity at the end. Very typical of the year.

Domaine de Chevalier 87-91
Excellent ripe fruit balanced by a developing woody flavor. A rich wine, with a manicured sense of style and poise.

Château Carbonnieux 86-90
Intensely colored, with ripe fruit and some sweet fruit tannins. Shows good juicy character alongside plenty of structure.

Château Larrivet-Haut-Brion 86-90
A fine, elegant wine with pure fruit and wood coming into balance. Finely made.

Château La Louvière 86-90
Big, powerful dry fruit with traditional herb flavors and structured tannins. Designed for the long term.

Château Olivier 86-90
A dry, tannic wine with solid fruit. Chunky, well structured, and destined for a long life.

Saint-Emilion
Château Cheval Blanc 89-93
While it is certainly not as powerful as the blockbuster 1998, this wine has great style. Sweet, juicy fruit comes alongside dense tannins and bracing acidity.

Château Magdelaine 89-93
A beautifully crafted wine with firm tannins over juicy, ripe fruit. There's solid balancing acidity and a rich, chocolaty finish. Elegant rather than powerful.

Château Pavie 89-93
A modern, extracted wine, but one with great class. The dense tannins are soft and go well with the ripe fruit. It is powerful but not strong, more charming than overwhelming.

Château Belair 88-92
A powerful wine, oozing rich fruit and new-wood flavor. Chunky black fruits and ripe tannins. From a biodynamic vineyard.

Le Dôme 88-92
A big, enveloping, powerful wine with excellent ripe, perfumed fruit. The tannins of the wood and fruit are knitting together well.

Château L'Angelus 87-91
A big, concentrated wine with plenty of sweet ripe fruit. At this stage the new wood is very dominant, but the perfume of the fruit should emerge in time.

Château Cap de Mourlin 87-91
A solid, structured wine with firm fruit and tannins. Well built, with power, shape, and concentrated black fruit.

Château Larmande 87-91
A new kid on the block as far as quality is concerned. Modern wood and fruit flavors are currently dominated by new wood, but there's lots of good black fruit underneath.

Château La Gaffelière 86-90
Chocolate and ripe fruit; soft and sweet. There is structure to the wine but it is mixed with flatteringly elegant fruit.

Château Grand-Mayne 86-90
Perfumed aromas, with spicy fruit. A modern spicy-wood character gives style and charm rather than power.

Château Troplong-Mondot 86-90
Sweet fruit is the dominant characteristic. Soft and ripe, the dusty tannins suggest that it will develop fast. But it should also be delicious.

Pomerol
Vieux Château Certan 89-93
Deep-purple fruit. Structure dominates with the perfume of Cabernet Franc coming through. A wine for the long term.

Château Petit-Village 87-91
A solid wine; dense and chunky, with some excellent ripe tannins, juicy fruit flavors, and firm tannins at the end.

Château Le Pin 87-91
Delicious, opulent ripe fruit makes this wine a heady experience to taste. Enormous juicy fruit and developing wood.

Château La Conseillante 86-90
Plenty of Merlot sweetness on the nose and in the taste. Excellent ripe fruit, with fine balance from the developing tannins. Not powerful but very stylish.

Château du Domaine 86-90
de L'Eglise
Ripe, open, smoky, juicy fruit. A delicious, rich expression of Merlot with just the right amount of firm tannins and wood flavors to give it structure.

Margaux
Château Margaux 92-96
One of the wines of the vintage. A deep purple-to-black color shows the concentration. Big, structured, powerful fruit and dense tannins give it strength. At the end there is the patented Margaux shapeliness to give it finesse.

Château Monbrison 88-92
For a Margaux, this is a huge, powerful, structured wine that relies on firm tannins and very ripe, dense fruit.

Château Ferrière 87-91
Black currant and ripe fruit come together with sweet, soft wood flavors and balancing light tannins.

Château Malescot 87-91
Saint-Exupéry
New wood and concentrated fruit give this wine a distinct new-world feel. The structure is there, but it's softly shaped.

Château Rauzan-Ségla 87-91
Big, firm tannins power this wine along with some ripe, velvety black-currant and toast flavors.

Château Kirwan 86-90
An up-front ripe wine with some dry fruit tannins and more astringency from the sweet-and-spicy new wood.

Château Labegorce 86-90
The smoky, meaty nose is followed by good tannins and ripe fruit flavors. Solid and chunky, with good weight.

Château Siran 86-90
A well-balanced wine with good strong tannins but also ripe fruit that comes through at the end along with balancing acidity.

Château d'Angludet 85-89
This wine is all about structure. It's not heavy or hard, but shapely. It's balanced by some red fruit and delicate acidity.

Saint-Julien


Château Léoville-Barton 88-92
Firm and structured, with hard, serious tannins at this stage. But under the tough exterior there's ripe fruit and strong, spicy flavors.

Château Talbot 87-91
Big new-wood flavors, ripe tannins, and lovely red fruit. A deliciously harmonious wine that should develop very well.

Château Branaire-Ducru 86-90
Good ripe fruit with soft juicy flavors. A lovely wine with spice and red fruit. Opulent rather than firm.

Château Langoa-Barton 86-90
A soft, generous wine with some fine ripe, sweet tannins. Not powerful, but very attractive.

Pauillac

Château Latour 92-96
A firm, tough wine with very serious ripe fruit. Big and flavorful, with plum and dark fruit along with developing tannins and considerable weight. Powerful, structured, solid and chunky.

Château Lafite-Rothschild 91-95
Right away there's a full and deep color, and a perfume of ripe fruits and violets. A big concentrated wine with ripe tannins and rich black fruit. Dense and firm, but also generous. At the end you'll find balancing wood flavors and proper acidity.

Château Mouton Rothschild 90-94
A rich, open, opulent wine with strong new-wood elements. Dense and concentrated, but the tannins are sweet and mirror the big fruit flavors. A new-world-style first growth.

Château Croizet-Bages 88-92
Ripe black fruit on the nose, which follows through to the big open palate. There are tannins as well, but they are ripe and relatively soft.

Château Lynch-Bages 88-92
Open perfumed fruit on the nose. The palate is ripe, generous and solid, with high extract and piles of rich fruit. The tannins are sweet and go well with the acidity at the end.

Château Clerc-Milon 86-90
A finely structured wine with pure ripe fruit and dusty tannins. Exemplary balance brings together some new wood, red fruit, and clean acidity.

Château Pontet-Canet 86-90
A serious, firm, almost hard wine, with a huge-structured nature. There is ripe fruit under all this size, though, and it should be worth waiting for.

Saint-Estèphe

Château Les Ormes de Pez 87-91
Firm tannins and ripe fruit. A big, solid wine with some wood flavors and concentration.

Château Haut-Marbuzet 86-90
Firm, serious tannins but the fruit is rich and opulent underneath. A well-endowed wine with good potential.

Château Meyney 85-89
A very chunky wine full of dry tannins, but its ripe fruit promises much for the future. Good concentration.

Château Phélan-Segur 85-89
Powerful for the vintage, it's currently full of dry tannins and tough black fruit. The underlying weight of fruit indicates it will develop well.

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