The greatest Bordeaux vintages that never were
How Bordeaux came to embrace the idea of vintage wines.
The idea of vintage in Bordeaux has been fetishised slowly but surely over the years. It’s easy to see why.
It suits everyone to have a simple route in to such a big, complicated region.
An oceanic climate means producers are ecstatic whenever there are years with very little rain. And merchants are happy to find a simple message to go to market within a region populated with thousands of estates and dozens of different terroirs – even if (or perhaps especially because) they don’t all react in blanket fashion to changing weather conditions.
Like the 1855 classification with its five easy steps, selling the allure of an individual vintage is both smart and powerful.
But it wasn’t always this way. Until the 1970s, many châteaux would only bottle the best plots of the best years.
The rest would be sold to négociants in bulk, who did their own labelling, bottling and blending – and often chose to sell the wine without specifying the year.
Instead, the notion of a Bordeaux vintage was similar to that in Champagne or in Port – which means it was a reflection of excellence, not something that was seen every year.
I caught up with Jean-Claude Berrouet, one of the true historians of Bordeaux, to talk about this evolution. He’s a man who has known the vagaries of an oceanic climate intimately, having made some of the most beloved wines of Bordeaux for close on 50 years while at JP Moueix, and whose personal archives at his Vieux Château Saint André in Montagne-St-Emilion are full of details heading right back through the 19th century, alongside his winemaking notes and memories.
I always love visiting here. His front room is exactly as you would expect. Warm, welcoming, well-cluttered with books and family photographs, the odd original art work suggesting there’s a little bit more than your average home going on.
‘Certain years were bottled for historical reasons,’ he tells me, ‘so in 1945 nearly everyone bottled their wine because it was the end of the war. It was particularly good on the Left Bank, and Mouton is rightly recognised to have bottled an historic wine with an historic label in an excellent year – although you will find lots of different bottle shapes because of shortages of glass after the war.
‘In contrast it has always been extremely difficult to find any bottles from 1946 (the year that Christian Moueix was born coincidentally), because the vintage was less good and because most importantly it was less celebrated as an historical moment so châteaux didn’t go to the trouble of bottling it’.
The same thing was true even with what was perhaps the best run of vintages of the 20th century – 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1950.
‘This was an exemplary series of harvests,’ Berrouet says, ‘and if it happened today would be huge deal. But back then no one could believe that there would be interest in even two good vintages in a row. So a lot of châteaux bottled their 1947, which was particularly good on the Right Bank – particularly Cheval Blanc and Petrus – and then took a break when 1948 arrived, even though it was again an excellent vintage.
‘They simply sold it on to négociants, because they just couldn’t imagine that there were enough clients to buy a ‘vin millesimé’ for a second year running. This was followed by 1949, which was the heatwave vintage with the huge forest fires that raged across Les Landes in August (they killed more than 80 people, and destroyed 52,000ha of pine forest).
‘In the vineyards, despite this, it was an abundant year and the quality meant that everyone put a lot of wine in bottle. You can still find some today if you’re lucky, But when 1950 came around and delivered yet another excellent year in terms of quality, once again nobody bothered to bottle it.’
We can only imagine what treasures have been lost this way, but it did mean that vintages were inexorably associated with quality, as they still are in regions such as Champagne. Berrouet remembers his grandfather asking for ‘a Pauillac millesimé’, or a ‘St Julien millesimé’ when he wanted to buy a good quality bottle from a local wine shop, never mind which estate or even which particular year it came from.
It was only really in the mid 1970s, when château bottling became far more systematic, that the idea of a specified year changed from being the mark of exception to the reflection instead of a specific character – so both good and less good. Perhaps, global warming aside, this is one reason why vintages of the century were a little less commonplace in the past century than in this one?
Things began to really change in the 1970s. The oil crisis bankrupted a lot of négociants, meaning there were simply less of them to take large quantities of wine, and the Châteaux began widespread bottling themselves (this also converged with the region making more and more red wine, that could age in bottle).
From here on, vintages became the thumbprint of a year. Inevitably that meant that there was more diversity in quality, and the notion of climate became more important. It also arguably meant that quality began to rise, because if châteaux put their names to vintages year in year out, they needed to take greater responsibility for quality.
‘Even so, until 1982 there was less external pressure,’ remembers Berrouet.
‘Wine writers such as Harry Waugh didn’t talk about comparative quality. There were no scores, no competition really and facing the challenges of a vintage was much more of a collaborative effort between winemakers. The 100 points scale that Parker introduced inevitably had the effect of increasing competition. Steering your wine through the vagaries of each year became more of a personal challenge.’
Today, because the idea of vintages referring to character as well as quality is so widespread, examples of châteaux choosing not to bottle them is rare. But it still happens – and not just in clearly disappointing years such as 2013.
‘One of the more unusual side effects of the frost in the 2017 vintage,’ consultant Thomas Duclos told me recently, ‘was that it was suddenly more profitable for many estates to sell their wine off in bulk rather than bottling it. This was particularly true on the Right Bank, where the extremely low yields meant that the price of bulk wine doubled, and at the same time the quality for many across St Emilion was not good enough for them to see added value by bottling in-house’.
It was a reminder that even today there are certain conditions when a château will still say to itself, ‘you know what, I’d rather sit this one out’.