When it comes to Bordeaux, buying the vintage is often seen as a significant consideration. Bordeaux has a temperate oceanic climate, with cool winters thanks to its close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the cooling effect of the westerly winds. Although relatively cool, summers can be extremely hot in some years since the region lies close to a humid, subtropical climate zone.
Extraordinary vintages are not a regular occurrence and if one looks back through recent decades they seem to occur about once every 10 years or so, meaning the really great years are few and far between. A great vintage produces wines that may take many years to reach their peak, and these are our picks of the post-war period.
The Bordelaise prayed that the millennium vintage would be a success, and their prayers were answered. The growing season was unpredictable through the early part of spring, with a wet April and May, but what saved the vintage was unbroken sunshine without rain through August and September.
The vintage was widely acclaimed at the time of release, especially in the United States, where Robert Parker wrote of ‘a phenomenal vintage that might turn out to be one of the greatest vintages that Bordeaux has ever produced’. Wines to look out for include La Mission Haut-Brion, Margaux, Pavie, Lafleur and Petrus — all awarded 100 points by Robert Parker.
Others that you should snap up if you see them on the block include Léoville las Cases, Haut-Brion and Evangile. Rest assured there is quality throughout this vintage, with some wines now approaching an enjoyable drinking window.
The end of the magnificent trio: 1988, 1989 and 1990
1990 marked the final year in a sequence of three very good vintages. A warm spring was followed by an excessively hot July, while August was warm and dry, and the benefit of some rain in September led to successful ripening of both the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. In fact, 1990 was the hottest vintage year since 1947.
For many years the 1990 vintage remained underrated, largely due to the wines having been released during a financial downturn. It also remained in the shadow of the 89s for a while. Jancis Robinson agrees, describing the 1990 Bordeaux as wines that ‘are currently showing even better than the 1982s in many cases’. Wines for your cellar should include Margaux, Montrose and Petrus, alongside Latour, Lynch-Bages and Haut-Brion.
Widely proclaimed around the globe as the first important vin de garde since 1970, this vintage was characterised by ideal growing conditions: early flowering, followed by a hot and dry summer, and perfect conditions at harvest. Jean-Bernard Delmas, then managing Haut-Brion, commented that ‘it was an armchair summer, hot and dry, so there were no diseases or insects to worry us’.
The resulting wines had both power and elegance, and crucially an ability to age well. This was also the vintage that launched the career of Robert Parker, whose enthusiasm for the wines led to the first significant en primeur campaign in America.
Wines widely proclaimed as great from this year include Lafleur, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild and Gruaud Larose, but there exists a plethora of greatness from this vintage, so look out also for Grand Puy Lacoste, Pichon-Lalande and La Lagune.
Frost and spring rain reduced the eventual yields and although it rained during July, the months of August and September were hot and sunny. This truly great vintage produced some now legendary wines, and while some of the lesser wines may now be past their peak, they are still worth picking up.
Examples from these historic vintages are scarce nowadays, but the very best examples often appear in the salerooms. The most sought-after, and wines to try before you die, include Latour, Palmer, Petrus, Lafleur and Mouton-Rothschild. Others to look out for, although rarely seen, are Figeac, Brane Cantenac and Lynch-Bages. Even a lowly wine from this vintage can make for a great tasting experience.
The greatest vintage of the 20th century?
A very small crop due to the severe May frosts was followed by a summer of excessive heat and drought. This was a very different time in terms of winemaking — no new oak, all very traditional. This is a vintage characterised by wines of concentration, ripeness and power. Only a few bottles appear at auction, with many having been consumed over the intervening years.
There are some real treasures from this vintage and wines considered great include Mouton-Rothschild, Petrus, Leoville-Barton and Gruaud Larose. As with the 1961s, it is worth checking in for wines from this vintage when they appear in the salerooms, as greatness can be found in the unlikeliest quarters. When well stored these historic vintages can offer immense pleasure, as well as a snapshot of a time long past.