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Figure-hugging vintage

Published:  18 January, 2007

The obsession with numbers seems to be taking another regrettable twist with the latest Bordeaux vintage. As well as points and prices, we now have a raft of technical data that is pushing up both of these, in ways that we may not always realise.

And as the 2005 en primeur campaign begins in earnest, the statistics are being used in the same way that Scottish poet and author Andrew Lang's drunken man used lampposts - more for support than illumination.

Apart from the harvest reports at the time, the first news I heard about the 2005 Bordeaux vintage was that one of the best-known wine consultants had run the figures and was predicting, on the basis of the results, that as many as 80 wines could hit 100 points on Robert Parker Jr's influential scale.

Many others, in Bordeaux and beyond, also seemed to get caught up in the figures, citing record levels of this, that and the other, and convincing themselves that it must, therefore, be a great vintage. At many chteaux the wines were being talked up as having 'more of everything'.

Now that the Bordeaux 2005 en primeurs have been tasted (in March and April), the figures are still being paraded. In the second paragraph of Parker's report, in the most recent issue of The Wine Advocate, he says: 'One can safely generalise that many 2005 red Bordeaux possess (1) the highest tannin levels ever measured; (2) the highest dry extracts and concentration ever measured; (3) the highest natural alcohol levels ever measured; and, an anomaly, (4) surprisingly fresh, lively acid levels and reasonably modest pHs.'

On the 18 pages of notes that follow are numerous references to alcohol levels (for 57 wines) and crop levels (31 wines), not to mention techniques such as 'malolactic in barrel and ageing on lees, la top Burgundies'.

Regarding Pavie-Decesse (96-100 points), Parker even says, 'Forgetting its off-the-charts analytical numbers...'. If only.

None of this is to suggest that Parker and others have not tasted thoroughly and well. Still less is it to suggest that analysis of wines, alcohol and crop levels, viticultural and winemaking techniques are not crucially important or indicative in some ways - of course they are. And alcohol in particular is a parameter that many consumers might want to know about per se.

But the assumption or implication that there is a causal connection between high alcohol or low yields and the perceived qualities seems to me unwarranted.

Yes, it may be a great vintage. Yes, there are many magnificent wines across all the appellations and all the way down the scale. But, whatever the figures may say, they don't always add up to great wines.

Of course there is the caveat that the wines are still far from fully formed - more so than ever this year, when the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations were often long and slow.

Of course there is great sample variation - a dramatic illustration of which was provided by Chteau Pichon-Lalande, which showed much less well at the chteau than at Farr Vintners in London a few weeks later.

Even so, some wines still seem austerely dry, hollow and swingeingly tannic, lacking the balance, harmony, nuance and succulence that is often much more evident in the still underrated 2004s.

At a fascinating tasting of 20 separate cuves of Domaine de Chevalier, hosted by Olivier Bernard and Richards Walford last month, the best Cabernets were very fine. But in many of the blends offered on the Left Bank (not Chevalier), the dominance of this variety made the wines seem like exercises or studies simply in Cabernet.

Several tasters, with more experience and expertise than I have, are confident that these wines will come around. But even if one gives them the benefit of the doubt, maturity will be a long way off.

Michael Schuster agrees with most commentators that it is 'a great claret vintage', but adds that 'stylistically it has a split personality, so that a little caution is in order'.

In fairness to Parker (who protested recently in The New York Times that he is far too often the only scapegoat), many others are also placing rather too much reliance on these figures (to say nothing of the scores). Moreover, Parker is not quite as enthusiastic about the vintage as he was alleged to be prior to publication.

The answer the Maryland critic gives to his own headline question - 'Is 2005 the perfect vintage?' - is clearly no. He describes it as a 'great' and 'very special' one following 'nearly ideal weather conditions', and stresses that it 'cannot be compared to any previous vintage'.

He says over and over again that Chteau X, Y or Z is the greatest wine he has ever tasted from the property (to the extent that he admits, twice, 'I know I sound like a broken record').

But he also rightly warns wine lovers: 'There are several sobering issues with some 2005s [...] Do not let anyone suggest that many of the renowned northern Mdoc classified growths will be drinkable in the next decade, unless you are a masochist with an addiction for tannin.

I prefer numerous 2003 northern Mdocs over their 2005 counterparts.' As for the scores, while there are many in the low- to mid-90s, there are only nine that reach all the way to 100.

Among the few figures still missing are prices. The first point to stress is that there will be an abundant supply of very good to excellent wines at reasonable prices - as has been the case for several years, and as Parker readily recognises.

The second is that many of the best-known and best-regarded wines will probably represent questionable value - whether for drinking or investment.

Many drinkers will get more pleasure, more cheaply and more quickly, from the best 2004s (such as the sublime Chteau Margaux, for example). Investors may even get higher, quicker returns from them as well, as some of the most shrewd have already gone back into the market.

The campaign, therefore, represents something of a test for the wine trade - some of whom will admit off the record that the vintage is not all that it's reported to be, but who feel they can't get off or slow down the bandwagon.

There will be those who actively encourage and profit from the hype, selling as much of whatever to whomsoever for as much as they can - such as the American shipper who, having taken 100 cases of a particular second growth last year, asked to have 1,000 cases this year, without knowing the price or tasting the wine.

Here's hoping there will also be those who try to give a more accurate, more complete, more independent picture of this remarkable Bordeaux vintage, in terms of the quality and (equally important) the style and value of the wines.

And here's hoping they will try to say it with words.