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Vintages ain’t what they used to be - which is good news

IS it right that the 2011s aren’t up to much?” asked a friend who enjoys drinking fine red Bordeaux wine and occasionally, lucky man, has enough spare cash to buy a few extra cases as an investment.

Grapes on a vine
Grapes on a vine

IS it right that the 2011s aren’t up to much?” asked a friend who enjoys drinking fine red Bordeaux wine and occasionally, lucky man, has enough spare cash to buy a few extra cases as an investment.

I told him he was mistaken. I tasted plenty of delicious 2011s when I went to Bordeaux last month; but I advised him just to buy wine that he’d want to drink himself. It’s not a vintage that’s ever likely to make him much money, but it will give wine lovers lots of pleasure.

The problem is that 2011 follows two of the finest harvests that Bordeaux has ever known and the market is awash with fine wine, laid down by investors who hope to sell it without a drop ever touching their lips.

It’s in the interests of those who have already invested in the 2009s and 2010s to sing their praises ever more loudly and to cast aspersions on the very real charms of the 2011s.

All this plays straight into the hands of the canny wine lover. Only the wine from an elite group of 50 or 60 estates ever attracts serious investors. But there are thousands of “châteaux” in Bordeaux and in great vintages even the unfashionable estates can make wonderful wine.

You don’t need to have the income of a Premier League footballer to afford a bottle or two of them.

In the also-ran years, the price of the designer-label wines is lower. Not only does this bring many of them within the reach of the rest of us, but they can even be rather more enjoyable to drink than the wine of the much-vaunted super vintages. The reason for this is that a “great” red wine tends to mean one with more of everything: colour, flavour, tannin, alcohol and, sometimes, acidity. But “less is more” applies as surely to wine as it does to cuisine and make-up. I for one don’t really want to be able to stand a teaspoon in a glass of claret.

These days there are very few poor harvests in Bordeaux that produce wine that’s not worth drinking. This wasn’t the case a generation ago when vintage charts that rank each year out of 10 or 20 first became popular in wine books and magazines. Climate change and hugely better selection procedures in the vineyard and winery have made a huge difference.

The 2011 season certainly presented many challenges for a careless or unprepared grower to come unstuck, with grapes prematurely shrivelled on the vine as a result of a heatwave in June, followed by an outbreak of rot after a period of stormy weather in August, but technology-savvy growers have invested in equipment to get rid of inferior quality grapes.

The better estates now use optical sorting machines or, as I saw at Château Siaurac in Lalande de Pomerol recently, a machine adapted from the frozen pea industry that uses a blower to select the best quality grapes. Château Siaurac is a prime example of an excellent property that makes wine fine enough to satisfy the most discerning wine lover, but will probably never be the object of wine investors.

Standards have risen in every major producing country over the last 20 years. In Portugal’s Douro Valley, for example, it would be possible to make great vintage port far more regularly than in the past. Only the fact that the growers wish to keep vintage port as a rare and special style prevents them from declaring more vintages.

Although this careful control of supply helps to keep prices high, the higher quality of wines released as other, cheaper styles, such as “Late Bottled Vintage” is good news for those of us who can’t afford vintage port.

Something similar has happened in Champagne. Vintage Champagne, the essence of a single outstanding harvest, remains the icing at the top of the range offered by the great houses, released in curmudgeonly small amounts, while wine that they would have been only too delighted to release as a vintage in the 1970s and 80s is used to raise the quality of their standard blends. Everyone is a winner.

Despite this profusion of better quality wine, nature can still, of course, make life tough for winemakers.

For example, hail this month has wiped out half of this year’s Madiran harvest in Gascony, and the cold, wet spring has other vignerons in western France in a panic about mildew.

Some are even worried that the land is too wet to do a preventative spray in the usual way, using tractors. In southern Europe and large parts of Australia and South Africa rising temperatures make it ever harder to make wines that aren’t baked and over alcoholic.

But none of this detracts from my main point that vintages ain’t what they used to be.

At least three Bordeaux vintages in the 1960s made wine so bad that much of it should never have been sold, and three vintages in the 70s weren’t a lot better, but since then it’s been pretty much a story of steady improvement. Bordeaux 2011 has its own character and will give lots of pleasure. Who cares if investors aren’t impressed?

 
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