Bordeaux 2007: Tannin management, sweet Sauternes

That’s how Christian Seely of wine conglomerate AXA Millesimes put it to me while sampling southern Medoc wines during Bordeaux’s frenzied barrel tastings in early April 2008. The vintage in question, 2007, will likely be a downer price-wise. Futures prices – wines sold not yet bottled, but offered for pre-sale in barrel (to get a better price normally) – may not be low enough to harbor interest in traditional markets like the U.S. and the U.K. Especially as euro levels have reached all time highs against both the dollar and the pound.

As I tasted the relatively good whites (that’s me, above, at Chateau Olivier), I was amazed that so many Americans showed up to taste the 2007 vintage. ‘I could sit at a beach and just buy plenty of wine from a great vintage like 2005, but harder vintages like 2007 make my job interesting,’ said one potential American buyer – who plans to buy very little wine any way. ‘The important thing is to come and taste – and pick only the best.’

Slim pickings? Well, as Seely said, it was all about tannin management. Some chateaux went nuts with oak levels. Concentration levels were not very high, so adding too much oak proved dangerous – as I noticed in some wines with oak-infused flavors and drying tannins. I got that feeling tasting, for example, Chateau Lascombes from Margaux where 75% new oak was used. The wine was just ripe enough, but I felt too much dryness on the finish. Better bets with wines like Rauzan Segla or Malescot St Exupery from Margaux – each with 60% new oak – or even a more humble cru bourgeois like Siran. But as appellations go, Margaux was just ok. Perhaps estates with more gravel maintained greater heat in the cool, rather sunless summer months. Bill Blatch’s annual harvest report (see attached pdf file) indicates how appellations and grape varieties varied in 2007.

Some tasters praised the Right Bank, even though the official Bordeaux harvest report was not favorable to the Right Bank’s main varietal Merlot. Let’s face it: 2007 was not a great vintage by any measure. Winemakers all over Bordeaux, from Jean Rene Matignon at Pichon Baron to John Kolasa at Canon, said it was the most difficult harvest in memory – rife with disease in the vineyard. At Moueix – famous for Petrus, Trotanoy, La Fleur Petrus and other fine Right Bank wines – harvesters were given cinema seats to watch the funny (and in my opinion totally overrated) cartoon movie Ratatouille, so they could stay on duty longer to pick grapes later in the day. It was a harvest of careful picking as well as tannin management. Bad grapes from bunches had to be removed day in, day out. Not so much a question of picking early or late, but picking carefully. Although picking late and carefully may have been wiser this vintage, especially for the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, which had the greater potential to profit from a fine, long Indian Summer. Somewhat similar to the 2004 harvest, but 2004 yielded wines with far better structure and concentration, perhaps because of a much warmer (and better) June.

In the vat room, extraction levels should not have been too high. There was green tannin and winemakers had to be careful to avoid too much pumping over or long term contact with grape skins before or after fermentation. Many estates used concentrating machines, but that was also perilous. One had to be very careful not to concentrate too much green flavor.

Finally, the best appellation in terms of overall quality – from high to lower-end – seems to be Sauternes. Pickers took advantage of a later harvest to assure botrytis in their grapes, some picking as late as November.

The Parker palate?

The subject pops up now and again, but Parker himself wrote that the St. Emilion Chateau Magdaleine in 2007 was not as good as a $10 Cote du Rhone on his website on 10 April 2008. After tasting it ‘at least’ three times, he said. I cannot understand how he could compare a 1st growth St. Emilion to a cheapie bottle from the southern Rhone, other than to attack the style employed by Moueix – a style that favors soft extraction, earlier picking and less concentration. Yes, dear reader, such a post proves that Parker is not favorable to that style. Fine and dandy!  But please let us not have our intelligence insulted by anyone who says that Parker appreciates all styles. No, he tends to favor higher concentration, later picking and lower yields.

Given the challenges, 2007 may prove also an occasion to buy the better wines – if they lower their prices enough. For U.S. consumers, I would say do not bother with futures purchases, unless you want to secure magnum bottles of rarer estates. Given the euro’s rise against the dollar, any modest reduction in prices compared to a far better 2006 vintage are wiped out by the unfavorable exchange rate, leaving consumers with a choice of similar 2006-2007 prices, with the obvious choice: buy 2006. But for other markets, in China, in Russia, in India, in Europe itself, 2007 could be a hunter’s paradise for some estates that outperformed the vintage’s reputation. Although I am sad to hear that Chateau Rieussec – an excellent Sauternes – has been introduced at some 50 euros per bottle futures price. Yes, Sauternes did rather well in 2007, but 50 euros? Come on, people: get a grip. In any case, I hope the enclosed notes will prove useful to Bordeaux hunters because – I can say with confidence – diamonds in the rough can be found… on both the Left and Right Bank. Just look for the red colored text for wines worth seeking; red and bold highlights absolute best wines I tasted, sometimes if only in terms of price/quality ratios.