Believe the millennium-vintage hype. Not only are the 2000s outstanding, but fine quality can be found in all of Bordeaux’s communes.
Two years ago, we reported that the vintage had the makings of greatness. The question was, how great? Had we been taken in by superficially seductive, ripe fruit, soft tannins and richness? Or was there something behind that enticing exterior that could put 2000 into the same category as such hallowed vintages as 1982, 1961 and 1945?
To judge from the tastings I conducted in Bordeaux, the 2000 vintage fully lives up to its billing. Some of the wines are as great as any I have tasted from Bordeaux. And, to judge by their comments, chateau owners and négociants agree. “It has been a magic combination,” said Paul Pontallier, director of Château Margaux. “It was a great vintage and it had a mythic number. We were either very lucky or the heavens were smiling on us.”
There are a number of factors that make the 2000 vintage exceptional. Most important was the weather. Though the spring of 2000 was cold and dry, and it rained through much of June and early July, from then until the third week of September the skies were blue; the days were warm, but not too hot. The Merlot harvest, which started on September 16, took place under perfect conditions. While the harvesting of the Cabernets started on September 22, most top estates were able to wait until the beginning of October, gaining extra maturity.
The only casualty of the year was Sauternes. The growers of these sweet wines had been expecting great things, but September rain dampened any hopes of a great sweet wine vintage.
Bordeaux is dominated by families that overlap from generation to generation. This is why “new faces” from Bordeaux tend to come from the same families who are already entrenched in the local world of wine. All five of the winemakers on the following pages have strong family connections with other vineyard properties, some of them going back centuries. —R.V.
He has also launched the first garage wine of the Entre-deux-Mers, a red called Girolatte. Now son Thibault has been put in charge of a project in the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux. As with Girolatte, consultant Michel Rolland has been involved in the restoration of a property called Château Mont-Pérat that the Despagnes acquired five years ago. It is a stunning 15-acre vineyard, filled with old vines, on three chalk and gravel outcrops. “We want to prove that with the right care and the right techniques it is possible to make great wine anywhere in Bordeaux,” says Thibault. “We should be cultivating the vines in such a way that we can get all the concentration and power that we need just from them.” The 2000 vintage certainly shows that the ancient vineyards of the Premières Côtes, reputedly first cultivated by the Romans, have the same potential as many of the best growths of the region.88 Château Mont-Pérat 2000 Premières Côtes de Bordeaux; $13. An intensely concentrated wine, reflecting both the richness of the vintage and the extreme care that went into the winemaking. The color is almost black, with black currant jelly aromas. The palate is open and round, with very ripe tannins and a touch of wood. The wine combines both power and elegance.
Thibault Despagne is a young man with a mission. His aim is to show that the vineyards of the beautiful region known as the Entre-deux-Mers can make great wines. His father, Jean-Louis Despagne, has been producing exciting white wines from estates in the heart of the Entre-deux-Mers as Château Tour de Mirambeau, Château Bel Air Perponcher and Château Rauzan Despagne.
In the other regions, though, the wines seem to have both the ability to age and also to taste attractive when young. Even the Cabernet-based monsters of Pauillac and Saint-Julien are approachable at this stage. They aren’t just a mouthful of tannin; they have fruit. (You have only to sample Châteaux Pichon Lalande, Lynch-Bages and Talbot to get a sense of this.) The inherent ripeness of the fruit in 2000 is partially responsible for this.
Another factor that makes the vintage great is technique. As Christian Moueix, president of Jean-Pierre Moueix, the shipping company and négociant, whose properties in Pomerol and Saint-Emilion include Pétrus and Magdelaine, explained, “The last vintage with such ripe fruit was 1990. But in 1990 we knew less than we do now. We harvested sooner in 1990 than in 2000. We thinned the crop more in 2000 and we pruned more severely. So although the conditions in 1990 were actually better than in 2000, the wine of 2000 is going to be greater.”
Put another way, although the 2000s can taste great now, they will still follow the classic Bordeaux course of gaining in depth and complexity as they age. The telltale sign is in the acidity. “The acidity was higher than usual in 2000, but the ripe fruit masks it,” said Bernard de Laage de Meux, director of Château Palmer in the Médoc.
Chantal Lebreton sits outside her parents’ home in Pomerol, at a table in the sun, talking fast about her winemaking experiences. Her family, the Raynauds, has owned Château la Fleur de Gay and Château la Croix de Gay since the 15th century. She runs both, along with her brother, Alain Raynaud, who is also producer of Château Quinault L’Enclos.
But it is her work at another family property, Château Faizeau, that makes her especially worth watching. She has shown that the sort of care that goes into top Pomerol estates can produce equally exciting results in Saint-Emilion satellites. Faizeau is a 25-acre property in Montagne Saint-Emilion, just to the north of Saint-Emilion.
“We have some fantastic old vines at Faizeau,” she says. “It seemed a shame not to get the best out of them. So we started using the techniques we use in Pomerol. We green harvest, we pick everything by hand into small boxes, we have a sorting table. In the chai we use new wood. Our neighbors think we are mad.”
Montagne Saint-Emilion is in the “backwoods” of Saint-Emilion. A few properties in the appellation, generally those owned by people who own chateaus in Saint-Emilion itself, are a cut above the rest. But Faizeau is the only one that consistently stands out. “We treat the vineyard like our backyard. We can almost name the vines,” says Lebreton. “A vintage is a daily care, like making a new baby each year.” The results show in the bottle.
88 Château Faizeau 2000 Montagne Saint-Emilion; $17.
Super-ripe fruit is this wine’s dominant character. It is rich, round and opulent, with ripe black currant and berry fruits. Layers of wood are there but certainly not dominant. It is only just balancing out, with fruit dominating at this stage, but it will age well over the next eight years.
Another factor that sets 2000 apart is the fact that the Left Bank wines are just as great as the Right Bank wines. This famous divide in Bordeaux pits the Merlot- and Cabernet Franc-based wines of Pomerol, Saint-Emilion and areas such as Côtes de Castillon, against the more Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines of the Médoc. Somewhere between, but generally closer to the Médoc, are the wines of the Graves and Pessac-Léognan.
In most years in Bordeaux, either the Right or the Left Bank wins out. But in 2000, conditions were equally propitious across Bordeaux.
Vintage 2000 also saw two groups of wines come into their own. The first was the crus bourgeois—the wines one rung down the hierarchy ladder from the classed growths in the rigid Bordeaux scheme of things. Some have been as good as classed growths for many years. Others, though, have been no better than average. In 2000 they did well as a group, with moderate prices (most from $20 to $50 a bottle) to match.
The other group of wines that shine are the so-called “Côtes.” The word means “slopes” in French, and these wines come from the slopes of Bordeaux: Côtes de Castillon, Côtes de Francs, Côtes de Bourg, Côtes de Blaye and Premières Côtes de Bordeaux. Investment over the past decade, new ideas and new owners all paid off in 2000. And these wines are almost indecently cheap-$15 to $25 on average. Some standouts in this group are Château Côte Monpezat and Château Cap de Faugères (Côtes de Castillon) and Château Mont-Perat (Premieres Côtes de Bordeaux). (For more complete coverage of this group, see “New Faces” boxes.)
Alain Moueix is a busy man, vice president of a new, dynamic grouping of producers on Bordeaux’s Right Bank called the Cercle du Rive Droite. Their tasting during en primeur was the must-do visit of the week. The name “Moueix” needs little introduction to lovers of great Pomerol. Alain Moueix is a member of the young generation of Moueix; his father is cousin to Christian Moueix of Château Pétrus fame. Alain runs two properties, Château Mazeyres in Pomerol (where he is director) and the family-owned Château Fonroque in Saint-Emilion.
Like others of his generation, he is turning to organic techniques to express the land in the vineyard.
“We started in 2001, which means we will be fully organic by 2006 in the vineyards I manage,” Moueix says. “The soil has been so neglected and badly managed. With organic [techniques] we can get a revolution in Bordeaux, raise the wines to new heights.
“Saint-Emilion and Pomerol are changing. There is much discussion between old and new in the area, but really we are not new, more going back to what was before. The cellar work is important, but what really matters is what happens in the vines.”
89 Château Fonroque 2000 Saint-Emilion Grand Cru; $22. Ripe but not over-extracted fruit is rich and generous, with black fruit flavors and poised acidity. The tannins are coming into balance, sweet and not too dominant. It is going to be great to drink in five years.
Terroir is the first and the last,” he says. “The role of man is to make the best of the terroir. In Pomerol and Saint-Emilion we are so close to our vines, that it is easy to keep experimenting, trying to get the best.”
With the wines now in bottle, and the results tasted, it’s time to begin everyone’s favorite Bordeaux game—compare the vintage. We have already mentioned 1990. But other vintages have also been invoked. Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages believes “2000 is more like 1982 at this stage, rather than 1990.”
Says Margaux’s Pontallier, “I could compare it with 1986, except that 1986 had some austerity to start with, whereas 2000 has none. But it has the structure of 1986.”
Frédéric Ardouin, technical director of Château Latour says, “It has so much complexity, we can even compare it with 1961.” It is obvious that 2000 is already up there with the greats.
Thierry Valette’s family is as famous as any in Saint-Emilion. The Valettes own Château Troplong Mondot and once owned Château Pavie. But this Valette’s activities are based further east, along the same ridge of hills as Saint-Emilion, but in the A.O.C. of Castillon-la-Bataille, on slopes near the site of the last battle of the Hundred Years’ War.
Valette was an artist who worked in modern dance and jazz, but the lure of wine and the call of the family got to him. He studied at Bordeaux University, then worked in the family vineyards doing anything and everything, “I even sold wine in supermarkets,” he says.
He bought his Castillon vineyard in 2000. Clos Puy Arnaud is only 18 acres, but after only three vintages it has joined the ranks of pioneering properties that are pulling another corner of Bordeaux into the future. “Potentially,” says Valette, “the Côtes de Castillon can be as good as Saint-Emilion. If you taste blind, there is no difference. And it doesn’t have the rigid classification of Saint-Emilion, it’s like a new world.”
Valette is happy with his 2000, his first vintage. “It was an easy vintage, a good start for me,” he says. The density of the fruit is the most apparent thing with the wine today. The other quality is the elegance and finesse. Tasted blind, it could be a classed growth Saint-Emilion.
“I want my wine to be classic, at the same time as modern,” he says. “In other words, it needs to be more balanced than some of those hugely extracted wines. Many people in this area use hyper-concentration, superripe fruit. Those techniques spoil the balance, and anyway they only work in the best years.”
On the other hand, “classic” doesn’t have to mean undrinkable young wines. “If they are drinkable when young, it doesn’t mean they won’t age,” says Valette. “We can have ageworthy structure as the same time as drinkability.”
87 Clos Puy Arnaud 2000 Côtes de Castillon; $19.
This was the first vintage for Thierry Valette at Clos Puy Arnaud, and in a few short months he has created a wine that is black, dense and complex. The palate is rich, but also restrained. At the end, it is the balance that is so good, with all the elements in their proper place.
The Bordelais always like to talk up a vintage. It sometimes seems that every year is a vintage of the century. So when word came out that Bordeaux 2000 was great, buyers around the world decided to wait and see until they tasted. Once the tastings in the spring of 2001 were complete, no doubts remained. Americans were among the most vociferous in their praise of the vintage. As one Florida importer told me, “The scores for the wines are so high that people just want to buy them. If the prices are high, they won’t mind.”
And the wines are expensive. The first-growth prices shot up nearly 70 percent, compared to the 1999s, to $400 a bottle. Other producers were equally demanding. Château Pavie in Saint-Emilion and Château Léoville Las Cases were notorious examples, jumping more than 50 percent from the previous vintage.
It made no difference. “We sold more than $30 million en primeur,” said Stephen Browett, buying director of Farr Vintners in London. “That’s seven times more than we usually sell. The interest was absolutely amazing.”
“Certainly if you bought the top 40 or 50 classed growths and Saint-Emilions and Pomerols, you cannot have lost out,” said Eric Dulong of négociants Dulong et Fils in Bordeaux. “Demand is always strong for those wines.”
As an example, look at Pétrus. In 2001, it sold en primeur for $833 a bottle. Two years later, in 2003, its market price hit $1,500. Château Ausone sold in 2001 for $499: today it is $643. Mutual fund managers, eat your hearts out.
The enthusiasm among the importers is palpable and infectious. “I am very high on the 2000 vintage,” says Peter Morrell of Morrell and Company in New York City. “I tasted from barrel and I have tasted since. This is the best vintage in my career. The quality goes all the way down to the everyday wines.”
The 2000 vintage could mean a resurgence of interest in Bordeaux among younger wine drinkers in the U.S. “A new generation of drinkers, who haven’t touched Bordeaux, are discovering it for the first time,” said Daniel Greathouse, president of Heidelberg Distributing near Cleveland, Ohio.
Buying and drinking strategies
Although so many of the 2000s are attractive already, it would be a shame to drink the classed growths or many of the top Saint-Emilions and Pomerols now. They will certainly last for at least 10 years before reaching full maturity. Some may well last for decades. Today the wines to drink are the lesser wines, from the Côtes of Bordeaux or those known as the petits chateaux wines, which carry the simple Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur appellation. The 2000s are so good that even at this level—bottles costing $12 or less—wine drinkers will have a great time discovering, or returning, to Bordeaux. Such is their richness, I recommend you decant them for at least an hour before drinking.
Mind you, if you are set on opening a bottle of one of the top wines now, just to see how good it is, call me—I’ll be right over.
Xavier de Pontac is custodian of one of the greatest names in Bordeaux’s history. His family was owner of Château Haut-Brion in the 17th century and reigned over much of the Graves and the Médoc before the Revolution. His revolution today has been to revive a second classed-growth Sauternes property, Château de Myrat, that had fallen on hard times.
It was my father who pulled out the vines. When Jacques and I inherited, we knew we had to replant.”
By 1988, Xavier and his brother had replanted the 54-acre vineyard with Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. It took nine years before the resurrected Château de Myrat was in full production. Xavier de Pontac reels off the disasters that befell them: “We missed the great vintages of 1988, 1989 and 1990. In 1991, there was frost. Both 1992 and 1993 were terrible vintages in Sauternes. In 1994, there was more frost. In 1995, we had decent quantity but the vines were still too young. Our first real quality vintage was 1996.”
Perseverence has paid off. While 2000 was not a great vintage in Sauternes, Château de Myrat 2000 has fresh, lively fruit, with layers of botrytis, typical of the lighter style of the sweet wines from Barsac. The 2001 vintage at de Myrat, a great year in Sauternes, was acclaimed as the equal of many of the top Sauternes properties by French wine critics.
Xavier manages the property today. The chateau is a jewel of a building, perfectly proportioned, built from the local yellow stone. One of Bordeaux’s oldest wine families can claim to be back in the wine business.85 Château de Myrat 2000 Barsac; $13.
This was not a great vintage in Sauternes and Barsac, but the wines are fresh and vibrant. This style benefits Barsac, and the Myrat has attractive layers of botrytis between light, balanced fruit. The wine will age relatively fast over the next four or five years.
In 1975, discouraged by the depressed prices of Bordeaux sweet wines, the de Pontac family decided to uproot the vineyard. Such a radical step had never been taken before at a classed growth vineyard. “Our wine was only selling for four cents a gallon,” says de Pontac.
The story might have ended there, but for Xavier and his brother, Jacques de Pontac, who inherited the vineyard from their father in the mid-1980s. They decided to give the vineyard another try. “I was born here,” says Xavier. “So obviously I have a great attachment to it.