Vintage and Bordeaux are inseparable. Located on the 45th parallel, the region has an oceanic climate at the northernmost limit for the production of great red wine.
That is its strength—in good vintages, the temperate weather equals wines with great tension between richness, structure and longevity—and its weakness. In poor vintages, the wines can be underripe, lightweight and dilute.
Climate change has made a difference in the frequency of poor vintages, with only two since 2000 (2002 and 2007) qualifying for that dubious distinction. But in the United States, we still tend to buy great vintages and ignore lesser ones.
Having bought, there is only one important decision left: When should we drink the wine?
There are two approaches. Drink it young and fruity (possible, even with some structured Bordeaux), or age it for up to several decades so it can develop mature aromas and flavors.
These capsule summaries, with ratings taken from our latest vintage chart, advise what state of drinkability your wine is in now. And, if you are in the mood for buying more, I recommend the wines that fared best during the great vintages since 1990.
Many pre-1990 vintages should still be in great form. These are not always wines with masses of fruit. Often they were made from underripe fruit and possessed stalky tannins. That’s why they didn’t give any pleasure when young (an obvious exception being 1982, which was criticized at the time for being too enjoyable). But these wines can shine after 30 or more years.
If anybody offered me bottles of 1989, 1988, 1985, 1982, 1978, 1966, 1961, 1959 or 1955, all vintages whose top wines are still magnificent, I would jump at the chance (having first checked where they came from—there are plenty of counterfeits around).
With these and other old wines, keep in mind that proper storage conditions throughout their lives and good corks are vital for wines to show their best. Bottle variation is common, so don’t immediately despair because one of your old treasures doesn’t show well—just open a backup bottle. It’s possible that the next one will be better.