On the Trail

Bordeaux's Grey Vintages — Part II

David Driscoll

A few weeks ago I wrote about the tendency for consumers to use blanket statements when it comes to assessing Bordeaux (and wine in general); mainly because it's impossible for the everyday drinker to know the ins-and-outs of every regional commune in every single vintage. It's for that reason people repeat things like: "2000 was a good year; 2002 was a bad year." That's it, right? That's all you need to know. Buy the good years, avoid the bad ones. Easy peasy. Except there's something else you should know: rarely is a vintage so dreadfully "bad" where the effects of weather impact the entirety of a large and expansive region like Bordeaux. Let's look at 1998 as an example. Right before harvest time in early September, the rains came. The vintage had been strong up until that point and if you were a grower on the Right Bank, the Fall showers were no problem. The skins of the merlot grapes were strong and durable, plus the grapes were fully mature by that time. When the vineyard managers saw the grey clouds come in they sent out their teams to begin the harvest and the crop was absolutely glorious. In fact, there are people out there who think 1998 was one of the best modern vintages for Pomerol and St. Emilion. But if 1998 was such a good year for these wines, you ask, then why isn't it included on the short list of top vintages? Let me tell you.

While Pomerol and St. Emilion are two of the best wine regions in the world, let's not kid ourselves and pretend they carry the same esteem as the great communes of the Mèdoc where cabernet is king. St. Julien, Pauillac, Margaux, and St. Estèphe unfortunately were not as lucky as their neighbors in 1998. Cabernet needs longer on the vine to fully mature, which presents a problem when your vines are getting showered by September rains. Rain leads to soggy grapes, which then leads to rot. You've got two choices at that point: pick early and make wine from grapes not fully mature, or pick late and spend days if not weeks throwing out the rotting fruit and cleaning up your cuvée. It's for that reason the 1998 vintage in Bordeaux has a bit of a stigma. That being said, I still have to warn you: there are no blanket statements in Bordeaux. You still have to consider the Graves and Pessac-Léognan! You know: the stony and rocky soils to the south of the Mèdoc, home of Haut-Brion, Smith-Haut-Lafitte, and Pape-Clément? They make cabernet-based wines down there, too; and the rain didn't fall nearly as hard in that region. Yet, because we are a society that likes to summarize and put things into tidy little packages, the producers in this region had no choice but to lower their prices due to the generalization about the vintage. Didn't you hear? 1998 wasn't a good year for cabernet; therefore no one was going to pay a premium for 1998 cabernet wines from Bordeaux, even if the wine was perfect. It's exactly in those situations that we start getting excited because it's in these grey areas that K&L is able to find some amazing deals.

I've written about the Garcin family here before. We visit them each year on our annual pilgrimage to Bordeaux and the family's broad-reaching portfolio of properties makes up one of our most exciting direct relationships. Not only are we able to purchase the wines directly from the estates (rather than a négociant middleman), we're able to pick through back vintages that have been resting peacefully for decades in some cases—right from the source! Let's look at Haut-Bergey as an example, the Garcin family's château in Pessac-Léognan that was acquired in 1991. It's twenty-eight hectares of spectacular fruit, grown in (as you can see in the photos above) classic Gravesian soils, full of small pebbles and stones. Twenty-six of those twenty-eight hectares are devoted to cabernet and merlot; and—guess what?—they didn't have nearly as many problems with rain or rot in those vineyards during 1998. Because of that very important detail, we've had no issue selling the glorious 1998 Haut-Bergey for a staggering $24.99. The wine is absolutely dynamite; full of fruit and all the richness you would expect from fully-mature cabernet. With almost twenty years of bottle age and development at this point, the wine is in a fantastic spot. Just ask the K&L insiders who blew through 2400 bottles of this little secret over the last few shipments. But, of course, you'd never know about the 1998 Haut-Bergey if you didn't look between the cracks. You'd never enjoy the incredible value this wine offers if you simply followed the generalized blanket statements posted on vintage grade charts throughout the industry. 

That's why we taste everything, however. That's why we sort through the grey areas in Bordeaux's grey vintages. These are the discoveries you find when you visit the properties directly and establish relationships. A wine like the 1998 Haut-Bergey should be the reason you love shopping at K&L. It's not the exception to the rule; it's simply proof that ultimately there are always exceptions.

-David Driscoll