Bordeaux 2000 - At Last of Age
Who remembers Y2K? It was I guess the beginnings of the tech obsession, but back then in 1999 everyone was apparently terrified that when the clock struck midnight not only would Cinderella’s glass slippers turn to rags, but the whole computer and time infrastructure would somehow collapse. And so, we all spent silly amounts having Y2K experts and consultants help us fix something that was never broken.
9 months later and the hype about the new millennium had gone, but the marketing arm of Bordeaux was beginning to flex its muscles. I mean just how nice does 2000 look on a label, and who will be around to taste the next millennium vintage? The expectation ramped up as did the prices – one thing one can say for certain is that the top Bordelais chateaux this century have been neither modest nor unambitious with their pricing and vintage acclamations.
The prices kicked up in 2000 due to the vintage numerals, then again in 2003 due to the heatwave vintage which many would say was the worst in years, but the US critics loved as it dragged the flavour profile closer to the ripe blockbusters of California. I’ve drunk a few, and some have nobly avoided the worst of the hottest summer since 1976, but others suffered more noticeably from the drought and endless heatwave, producing stewed, cooked aromas, jammy fruit and wines that are very difficult to place. Indeed, the grape variety is often hard to spot, and I think I’d probably put many of them if tasted blind somewhere south in the baked lands of the Mediterranean. The Medoc meets Languedoc-Roussillon (rather than Napa).
Of course, it all then went totally pear-shaped with the 2005 vintage when the top chateaux tripled their prices overnight, in a sad flight to corporate earnings and the East. In one fell swoop they alienated and dumped many faithful old clients (yours truly amongst them). Supposedly brilliant vintages followed each other, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2019, 2020 and even the pretty poor ones were ‘saved by a miraculous autumn’. Those we had loved and bought old school grand crus were left behind in the wake of the Chinese desire to be seen with Lafite (etc) on their table. It took a financial bubble to burst and, far more to the point, the Chinese president to crack down on corruption and endless first growths on expense accounts to break the mould, but by then ‘Bordeaux bashing’ was all the rage and the younger generation had turned their back on France’s most famous wine region.
Sad, but predictable. Perhaps the high point of commercial cynicism was when Lafite came out in 2008 with a Chinese symbol on the grand vin and Mouton commissioned, guess what, a Chinese artist. This delighted me as I had bought 3 bottles en primeur (as they were the least expensive of the premier crus) before the artist was known and paid about 130 euros. By the time, two years later, they were delivered, the artists had been announced and I sold them the next day for 700 euros and off they went to Hong Kong. I then used the cash to buy twice (or more) the number of bottles of Haut Brion (with no Chinese connection), a wine I prefer anyway. It was the last time that I bought a top Bordeaux.
It was not just the corporate greed and endless marketing that annoyed me, (and let’s be honest, the fact that I could no longer afford to buy some of my favourite wines), but I also noticed that as the critics in UK and France as well as the US swooned over the recent mega vintages, I saw a lot of right bank wines at over 15%, (even at 16%!), and I believe the 2020 Haut Brion just came out at 15% too. I am sure it shows up super well in the huge tastings that critics love, but I’m sorry, the reason I so appreciated Bordeaux was its elegance and refinement and ability to age so gracefully, not because it outpowers Chateauneuf and Barolo… I find that once cabernet and merlot get up to that alcoholic level, any sense of identity tends to get lost in the sugar rush. Could be from anywhere.
For me then it’s been a millennium that ushered in an era in Bordeaux that turned me right off, both pricing and alcoholic strength. Somehow, I can’t help wondering why alcohol levels in Bordeaux rose from 12.5 to often 14.5/15% in a decade or so, but not elsewhere in France. Seems that the Gironde estuary has a special micro-climate far more affected by global warming than the rest of the country? Or was it something to do with touting for the affections of a certain Mr Parker and his fellow judges across the Atlantic?
But if 2000 was the last vintage that I bought in some quantity, even if I had to drop the top wines due to the price, it does seem to be one that happily (for my tastes) looks backwards not forwards. The alcohols come in at, well, 12.5%, something that seems almost impossibly low nowadays, but is so digestible and delicious. Who wants a headache the next morning or a big ponderous wine of weight and power stomping across your palate?
It was also a year with solid old-fashioned tannins, built for ageing (people might think that lower alcohol wines cannot age so well as the bigger ones, but in fact the inverse is often the case as the balance is better and that’s what sustains a wine, the tannin and acidity, not the alcohol). When they first came out, the 2000’s were greatly acclaimed, so I bought up and waited the requisite ten years before trying the first bottle of each box.
And ooof. Melting black teeth and furry tongues, they were unyielding, tough old brutes. Was all that hype at release just the marketing machine in action after all? But there are vintages which really do take years to ‘come round’, such as 1986, even if I often think that if a red wine is tough at 15 or so it’s probably not going to blossom later into something balanced, sometimes they do. It’s a matter of balance again – some lesser vintages that people claim just need more age will simply fade as wines don’t grow extra fruit in bottle, but the tannins and structure can soften and allow the fruit behind them to shine.
Just so 1986 and 2000. They really did come of age as it were at 18 or 21, and if some of the lesser grand crus are now showing signs of age, I am sure that the better wines are still rising. I’ve not drunk the first growths, but Leoville Barton 2000 is not just a good value second growth, but obviously a really fine wine with the best I suspect to come in the next decade or so, or thereafter if you like your wines really soft, silky and mature.
My store was generally more humble, with several fifth growths and some higher ones from Margaux that generally ‘underperformed’ their lofty status, but all of them at twenty years old were classic old school Bordeaux – dark red colour, an elegant 12.5%, nicely mature and evolved aromas of cedarwood, earth, rounded cassis and plummy red fruit, and refreshing acidity with just a hint of tannin at the end, the merlot now quite mature and meaty. Lovely now and, for me, what classic Bordeaux should be.