On the Trail

Bordeaux's Grey Vintages

David Driscoll

As a consumer society, we’ve become very good at compartmentalizing things into easy-to-reference summaries. Four stars. Ninety points. Is this a good vintage or bad vintage? Whether we’re looking for a place to eat or shopping for a bottle of wine, we rely on these quick synopses to help guide us towards quality in times of need. The drawback of using abbreviated analysis, however, is that it often comes at the expense of nuance, subtlety, and depth. Working in the wine business, in constant search of overlooked value, we’ve come to realize that our greatest finds often materialize from these grey areas; the bottles that fall off the spectrum in what’s becoming a black and white world. In the realm of Bordeaux, the most knowledgable customers have pounced on heralded vintages like 2000, 2005, 2009, and 2010; mainly because these were the harvests that drew the largest critical acclaim. Indeed, each of these vintages did produce an outstanding crop of wines in most of the region’s communes. In stark contrast, cold and difficult vintages like 2007, 2011, and 2013 have produced less enthusiasm from fans of the genre, mainly due to their categorization as off-vintages. 

It should come as no surprise that pricing for the top wines in these “good vintages” has remained high, while costs for the so-called “bad vintages” remain lower. We know this is how capitalism works. The higher the demand for a product, the more it costs. It’s precisely because of that correlation that we continue to hunt for Bordeaux value where many don’t have time to dig: in between the cracks, within the grey zones of tweener-vintages like 2008, 2012, and 2014. What we’ve found more often than not, is that the difficulty in determining the initial quality in each of these harvests led to tentative reviews early on. As the years went by, however, and the wines became ready for market, new critical evaluations have proved more positive than originally thought. Here in the K&L Bordeaux department, however; we have to put our money where our mouth is early on. In the case of 2014, we knew the wines were good from the get go and that the harvest had all the makings of a “sleeper vintage” in the classic sense, which is why we bought in when prices were low. Now that January has come and the vintage has been re-scored by a number of critics, it seems 2014 is moving out from the grey area and into the clear distinction of “good Bordeaux vintage” with a wide array of critical positivity that was missing early on.

While prices for the wines are going to rise as a result, the good news for K&L shoppers is that we still have a number of wines available based on our original en primeur pricing with a much stronger U.S. dollar. In the eyes of our experts, 2014 was a better year for Bordeaux than the underrated 2012 vintage; in some cases, surpassing the quality of the outstanding 2015 harvest. Our Bordeaux chief Clyde Beffa thinks 2014 was equally as good as 2015 in the Pauillac region, and perhaps better than 2014 in the northern communes like St. Estèphe (which is why blanket vintage statements also need to be scrutinized). The wines also constitute a better value for the time being, but don’t expect that to last long. Higher scores equate to a higher demand, which—as we know—results in higher prices. That’s why it’s always good to dig a little deeper when it comes to wine evaluation. In doing so, you usually find quality where other more general summaries might have overlooked it.

Some shining examples of 2014 Bordeaux's value can be found below; all under fifty dollars, and still available on a pre-order basis: 2014 Branaire-Ducru; 2014 Langoa-Barton; 2014 Phelan-Ségur; 2014 Clerc-Milon; 2014 d'Armailhac; 2014 Brane-Cantenac; 2014 Giscours. All have great reviews, lots of points, and constitute a fantastic quality-to-dollar ratio for the time being. For a complete look at our 2014 Bordeaux pre-arrival selections, click here.

-David Driscoll