There’s nothing quite like a really good, honest, heartfelt argument. Few things get the blood flowing faster than a true stand up row with someone whose opinion you usually admire, someone capable of making good arguments, someone with the experience to back up their standpoint. And it’s even better when there’s quite frankly no empirical way of deciding who is right.
This situation occurred many, many times last night over a tasting of over 60 top Bordeaux from the 2004 vintage. Often considered an ‘off-prime’ vintage, certainly one living in the shadows of the magnificent and monolithic 2005 and the (sometimes) over-scored and ultra-ripe 2003, 2004 caused minimal excitement during its Primeur campaign with some pretty lacklustre scores from the main critics. Over the years the glories of 05, 09 and 10 and the high-profile failures of 07, 11 and 12 have caused 2004 to be somewhat forgotten, falling as it does into the genuinely ‘classical’ category.
So what’s good about 2004?
In the main these are delicious, bright, medium-bodied and digestible clarets. They have an extremely pleasant aromatic profile, with enough ripeness to accurately show their regional and vineyard characteristics; when the fruit was able to sufficiently ripen and the grapes were delicately and sensitively handled, the palates are also extremely satisfying: soft and seamless but with both a firm tannic structure and balanced acidity. The best examples have a solid weight of fruit on the mid-palate which helps along with the acidity to provide medium to long and often multi-layered finishes. The best of the wines yesterday – which weren’t necessarily the biggest names or most highly prized bottles – were genuinely delicious. They also have the benefit of being, in the main, very good value.
And the down-side?
Firstly, the regional style has also been influenced by the regional culture. Too many of the wines on the right bank, particularly St Emilion, feel over-worked and perhaps over-extracted. Some show the greenness we last encountered in our 2002 tasting but it seems more likely that this has come from excessive pressing, over-oaking or even the retention of some unripe stems (by contrast, the Pomerols had some lovely almost Burgundian notes of citrus and Christmas spice). Secondly, some estates were not able to achieve full ripeness and the wines whilst pleasant are a trifle shorter and lighter on fruit than one might hope. Thirdly there is the issue of unresolved tannins; whilst tannin is vital for structure and longevity, the quality of the tannin is all-important and fine, ripe tannin is what we are looking for. Some wines were showing tannins that were slightly rough in texture or overly drying (i.e. they didn’t have the ripeness of fruit to sustain the structural style).
What’s clear is that at 10 years, this vintage is showing better than I suspect many of us expected it would. In fact, despite the pre-tasting hype over the 2003 vintage we experienced last year, I would venture to suggest that at the 2004 tasting the highs were higher and the lows not as low.
Then comes the issue of where these wines are in their life-cycle. Well, as you can imagine, this isn’t really a fair question – rather like trying to decide which 10-year old cars will eventually pop up 40 years later at Coy’s auctions with 7-figure price tags.
The truth is that some were reaching their zenith, some were just entering their most benevolent drinking phase, and some clearly have much further to go – and in the main, this can be surmised by the price (the more expensive, the longer the potential life). That said, there were some examples which were extraordinarily satisfying right now and which we believe have much life left in them – La Mission Haut Brion was just such a wine; glossy, rich, flattering and sumptuous with a stunning fruit profile, layers of viscous complexity and a wonderful polished finish. At under £100 per bottle IB this is a real bargain.
Wine to drink:
Clerc Milon – a real ‘mini-Mouton’ (even more so than the official ‘Petit Mouton’), this was an extremely pleasant surprise indeed: engaging and pure to smell, plenty of blackcurrant and a touch of oyster shell, and whoosh – the palate has a double-hit of fruit which threatens to drop then reignites into a full-length finish. Lovely fine tannins and great balance. A bargain!
Wine to drink or hold:
La Mission Haut Brion – you’ll hear this a lot and not just from me. What a stunning bottle of wine. So glossy, polished and luscious but not an ounce of flab. Sure, it’s a flatterer, without demanding too much from the drinker but what the hell? Can’t an Oscar winner also be entertaining? Into the first vestiges of its drinking window but with all the ingredients to go another 15-20 years. WOW.
Wine to keep:
Latour – again, no surprises here, but Latour 2004 is a straight-out stunner. After some of the snazzy, immediately pleasing wines which come before it, this stops you in its tracks. Boasting an upright, quietly humble but achingly well-disciplined structure wrapped in soft rich velvet, it has the charm and distinction of a medal-heavy Chelsea Pensioner and is just as recognisable. Do these guys ever make a bad wine? Marvellous.
A huge thank you to the dozens of Chateaux who so kindly sent samples for the tasting.