What makes a wine truly great? As most wine connoisseurs know, there’s no straightforward answer to that – the greatness of a wine hinges on a delicate balance of myriad factors: the producer, the process, the grape, the growing conditions, the harvest.
One of the most effective hallmarks of a great wine, however, is its vintage year – the year in which a wine’s grapes were harvested. What constitutes a great vintage year depends heavily on the region from which the wine originates, but largely it all comes down to the weather.
In Bordeaux – arguably France’s most revered winemaking region – the best wines are generally born of warm summer days, cool nights and mild rain, although the size of the area does mean there are some preferred conditions across its geography. Merlot from Pomerol is better in cooler years, for example, while the clay-rich soils of St Emilion fare better in wet weather than vines in Medoc, which is plagued by heavy rains.
Nonetheless, Bordeaux in its entirety has produced some truly spectacular vintages in recent times. With top critic scores, excellent investment prospects and, of course, maximum enjoyment potential, these are widely acknowledged as Bordeaux’s best vintage years.
The best Bordeaux vintages of the 21st century
The last 20 years has seen Bordeaux produce a good handful of stellar vintages, although the exact ones to go for depend on whether you’re looking at reds or whites.
In the red corner, stand-outs include 2015, 2010, 2009 and 2005. You might notice that most of these are divisible by five, and with a few exceptions, this pattern has held true for the past few decades. Each of these boast their own unique characteristics, of course. The 2015 is rich and velvety, the 2010 is a strong and fresh ‘classic Bordeaux’, the 2009 is particularly ripe, and the 2005 touts bags of aging potential.
Average, but still decent, red vintages of the last two decades include the 2014, 2011 and 2006, while those generally regarded as a comparatively poor effort include the 2013, 2012, 2008 and 2007.
In the white corner – by which one generally means Sauternes – the best vintages years are 2015, 2014, 2011 and 2009. The 2011 in particular has immense aging potential. The remaining vintage years of the 21st century have all otherwise been reasonable quality, although the 2013, 2010 and 2005 stand out above the rest. There has been one significant flop, however: the 2012, where sporadic changes in weather resulted in uneven grapes.
The best Bordeaux vintages of the 1990s
The 1990s was not awash with exceptional Bordeaux vintages, but those that made the grade certainly passed with flying colours. The decade began with the exceptional 1990, for example, which marked the final year in a sequence of three very good vintages. For many years the 1990 vintage remained underrated, largely due to its release during a financial downturn. Now, it’s one of the most highly sought-after vintages on the market. Elsewhere, the 1996 and 1998 have seen great acclaim from critics, with the former producing excellent offerings from the Medoc, and the latter from Pomerol and St Emilion.
Other vintages from the latter half of the decade were of reasonable quality, but critics generally shy away from earlier offerings. The 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994 are regarded as poor counterparts – perhaps in payment for the huge success of the 1990!
The best Bordeaux vintages of the 1980s
The 1980s was a pivotal decade for Bordeaux wine, ushering in the first representation of the region’s modern winemaking style and ultimately launching the career of renowned critic Robert Parker. For oenophiles, the decade begins with the exceptional 1982, which is widely proclaimed around the globe as the first important vin de garde since 1970.
Skip over the drab 1983 and 1984, pause a while at the reasonable 1985 and 1986, and bypass the 1987, and then you’re onto the decade’s other gems. In what eventually culminated in the exceptional 1990 vintage, the 1988 and 1989 saw the 80s draw to a very triumphant close in Bordeaux. Sauternes drew particular acclaim from Parker for its 1988 offerings, while Pomerol was the stand-out in the largely faultless 1989. Specific regions aside, however, both years are recognised as being among the best in Bordeaux’s history, and should certainly form an integral part of any Bordeaux collector’s portfolio.